Friday, January 11, 2013

From Splendor to Exile by Julia Gelardi

Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna.  Grand Duchess Olga Constantinova. Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.  Princess Dagmar of Denmark.

Four different fascinating women.   Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna was the much loved (and spoiled) daughter of Alexander II who married Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. Grand Duchess Olga was only sixteen-years-old when she married King George I of the Hellenes, who was the younger brother of Princess Dagmar, who was engaged to not one but two heirs apparent.  Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg  - Miechen - was the wife of Grand Duke Vladimir, younger brother of Alexander III, who was the husband of Princess Dagmar.

From Splendor to Revolution The Romanov Women 1847 -1928 by Julia P. Gelardi is the story of these four women. 

And what a story. Or stories.   This book is a breakthrough for Gelardi, whose previous books, Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria and In Triumph's Wake, Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory, both of which also dealt with strong and compassionate women.

The book flows largely seamlessly as Gelardi tells the stories of these four women.  She delves deeply and intensely into English and Russian language sources, and gives readers insight into the lives of the the four grand duchesses.  It may have seemed that these women lived four separate lives, as one one was an Empress, another was the Queen Consort of Greece, one was the consort of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and one was the wife of the brother of the Russian Emperor.

Thus, in many ways, in many episodes, the lives of these women were intrinsically linked to Russia. 

Yes, Marie Alexandrovna, Olga Constantinova, Marie Pavlova and Marie Feodorovna (Dagmar) all believed in their imperial entitlement, but were also women of great faith.  Marie Pavlovna remained Lutheran for many years, until she chose to convert to the Orthodox faith.  Many believe she did this because of the possibility that the succession would eventually pass to her eldest son, Kirill, but she accepted the faith after she prayed to the Blessed Mother after Kirill was injured during Russo-Japanese War.  She also owned an icon of the Virgin Mary even before she converted.

But it can be said that Marie Pavlovna and her husband, Grand Duke Vladimir, were openly ambitious in the desire to have the throne.  Alexander III did not trust them.  Miechen and Empress Marie Feodorovna were the leaders of the society, each championing their own causes.  Marie Feodorovna was at the apex because she was the Empress.   Miechen could only aspire to what was Marie Feodorovna had by the privilege of her position, first as the wife of the Heir to the Throne, and then as wife of the Emperor.

As Queen of the Hellenes, Olga was actively involved in charity work.  She butted heads with the Orthodox church when she supported a project to translate the Bible into Greek.  She and her husband had a happy marriage, in spite of George's infidelities.  Olga was devastated when George was assassinated in 1913.

The real revelation is Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna.  She has always been described as a bitter and insecure woman who never felt welcome at the British court.  She was pushy to the extreme, conscious of her position as the daughter of Alexander II.  Marie Alexandrovna had better jewels than her English sisters-in-laws.

She was also pro-German, and happy to leave England when her husband succeeded as the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. But she was also a woman who cared about her family, but was sorely tested by her only son, Alfred. 

Minnie had the exalted position, as Empress, but after the premature death of her husband in 1894,  she could only watch with sadness -- and eventually horror -- as her eldest son, Nicholas II, dominated by his social misfit consort, Alexandra -- gambled away Imperial Russia.

All four women suffered through tragedy, privations, and exile.  Minnie never accepted that her sons, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren were murdered by the Bolsheviks.  Queen Olga was in Russia when the Revolution broke out, but eventually was able to make her way to Greece, only to watch the Greek monarchy collapse, and the Greek royal family sent into exile.

All four women survived the revolution.  Marie Alexandrovna was living in Germany, as the widow of a German duke.  Her support of Germany was a disappointment to her eldest daughter, Queen Marie of Romania.

With the support of others, including the British government, Minnie, Miechen and Olga were able to leave Russia.  Deprivation and stress led to   Miechen's health suffering  greatly in the final months of her life in Russia. 

The revolution meant the end of the splendor, the magnificent jewels, the palaces, the flunkies meeting all their needs.  It also meant the end of the appanages, leaving the women largely dependent on relatives.  Not only did Marie Alexandrovna lose her Russian sinecure, she was living in Germany, where the monarchies fell like dominoes during the final days of World War I.  The only real income that Marie Alexandrovna could depend on was the £3000 annual payment from Great Britain.  This payment was included in the treaty between Britain and Russia at the time of her marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh,  The payments began in 1900 following her husband's death, and continued until her death in 1920.

Splendor to Revolution is a terrific book, footnoted to the gills, which is wonderful.  A definite keeper!

I think the book would make a great mini-series as it reminds me of the wonderful Fall of Eagles, an excellent book, and an even better dramatic series.

From Splendor to Revolution is available in paperback from St. Martin's Griffin. ($19.99/$22.99 Cdn)

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