Saturday, May 16, 2015

A few recomendations: Princesses on the Wards and two new Romanov books

Looking for something royal to read?  I am making my way through the pile of books on my cocktail table, and here are a few recommendations to read.
Acclaimed historian Coryne Hall has turned her attention to princesses who worked as nurses during war and revolutions, writing a book, Princesses on the Wards (The History Press: L6.99)about the lives of a diverse group of royal women.  It was calling of Florence Nightingale, who gave a brave and modern face to nursing that inspired two of Queen Victoria's daughters, Princess Alice and Princess Helena, to learn more about nursing.   

Nursing would bring new focus to the role of royal women as they rolled up their sleeves to take care of the sick and dying.  For several royal women, this calling allowed a deeper appreciation for the nursing profession, thus allowing for the creation of programs to educate and train nurses for the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The royal women included Queen Marie of Romania and her daughter, Ileana, who ran her own hospital in Romania until the Romanian royal family was forced into exile.  Other royal nurses include Princess Marie Jose of Belgium, Empress Alexandra of Russia, and my favorite, Princess Arthur of Connaught, a trained nurse, who ran her own nursing home.

Coryne Hall accessed a myriad of sources -- and each chapter is chock-a-block with footnotes, which adds to the book's excellent value.   For most of these royal women, the only real goals in life were marriage and motherhood (and consort), but their embracing of a new profession gave them  -- and the nursing profession - a new gravitas.  For the princesses, there were new, more important duties and an entirely different view of service. 

Kudos all around for an exceptional new, specialized royal book.

The American distributor for Princesses on the Wards is Trafalgar Square Publishing ($29.95)

Helen Azar, an American librarian, is a Romanov historian, focusing on the lives of the daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.  Her first book, The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, was published by Westholme Publishing in 2013. 

[Here is a link to my review:]

Since then, she has written two more books.  The first book, Russia's Last Romanovs In their Own Words, which co-written by Eva and Dan McDonald.  This paperbook offers a glimpse into the lives of the Russian Imperial family as seen through the memoirs of others, including the Captain of the Standart and Tatiana Botnik and correspondence and diaries of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children.

In one of Alexandra's final diary entries, which her final month of life before the entire family was murdered at Ekaterinburg, she wrote about the heat, and how the "honeysuckle foliage is beautiful, but, as usual, not-well groomed."  Ever the Empress.

Some of the material was only available in Russian, and translated into English for the first time, which gives the reader new details and insight into the lives of these young woman.

This is a valuable addition to the Romanov bibliography, another important source of information.  I do wish the authors had used an editor to help them produce a more complete book.

After completing work on Russia's Last Romanovs, Helen Azar began work on Maria and Anastasia The Youngest Romanov Grand Duchesses in  Their Own Words,  the companion to The Diary of Olga Romanov.

The first thing that struck me about this volume is the ordinary and the dullness of the lives of Maria and Anastasia.  They were Grand Duchesses, lived in palaces, and their father was the Emperor of Russia. Their own lives were so far removed from reality, even the reality that was the Imperial family. 

With their two older sisters and one young brother, the heir, Grand Duke Alexis,  Maria and Anastasia were largely isolated from meeting other people, and having a well-rounded education. It is suffice to say that the five imperial children were emotionally immature and insular.  But this does not mean the words of these young ladies are not important or worthy of publication. 

It is important to know (and read) the correspondence between the sisters and their parents and other relatives, including their aunt Grand Duchess Xenia.  They are the witnesses to their own final days before the family was murdered by the Bolsheviks. 

After their father's abdication, their lives changed inexorably.  In the first two years of the first world war, the grand duchesses were able to experience life outside the palace, visiting patients, learning how to nurse, but still seemingly oblivious to the reality of what was happening in Russia.  This was a country, drained by war, on the verge of a bloody revolution, but we see little of these events in the young women's words.

But what we do get is the poignancy of the final year of their life.  Maria, in one letter (September 1917), writes "we live in one room all 4, so it is not lonesome. Our windows  look over the street and we often look at the passers-by."

There are a few hints of what was to come. In March 1918, Anastasia wrote to an unnamed friend: "For the moment, thank God, we are living well.  A detachment of the Red Army men from Omsk, up until now they behaved themselves..." 

In the spring of 1918, the family was briefly separated, as Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexis remained behind at Tobolsk, as Alexis had been to ill too travel, while the rest of the family was taken to Ekaterinburg.

The final letters are to friends,  In one, Maria writes of sending a food package, which was very generous as the Imperial family's own rations were limited.  Life became more difficult when everyone was reunited in Ekaterinburg.

"We miss the quiet and peaceful life in Tobolsk.  Here we have unpleasant surprises almost daily.  Just now the members of the regional committee were here and asked each of us how much money we had with us," Maria wrote less than two months before the family was killed.

The authors have enhanced the book by including excerpts from Nicholas and Alexandra's diaries.  One can feel the poignancy and the uncertainty in one of Nicholas' last entries, where he acknowledges Maria's birthday.  But there were also other things on his mind: "Spent an anxious night and stayed away and dressed ...All this was because the other day we received two letters, one after the other, which informed us to get ready to be kidnapped by some loyal people! But the days passed and nothing happened, and the anticipation and uncertainty were extremely tortuous."

The letters were more likely to be cruel ruses set up by their Bolshevik captors, already aware of what would happen in July 1918.

As with the previous book, Russia's Last Romanovs,  Maria and Anastasia could have used a good editor who might have caught a statement that got my attention right away - the first line of chapter one, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand (no hyphen) was assassinated by a Serbian terrorist.  Gavrilo Prinzip was a Bosnian Serb.  Big difference.

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