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On Research To Write A Historical Novel: Memoirs, by Eva Stachniak

For a writer of historical fiction, period memoirs promise to be a treasure trove of inspiration for a novel’s scenes and the language in which those scenes are couched. However, memoirs are not always entirely reliable and need to be read with caution. It may be that what they do not mention is far more important than what they do. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great provide an illuminating example.

Catherine the Great started writing her memoirs a few times in her life but none of these attempts were ever finished. The longest attempt and her final one – abandoned in 1794, two years before her death – begins with the following sentence: “Fortune is not as blind as people imagine. It is often the result of a long series of precise and well-chosen steps that precede events and are not perceived by the common herd…” To a careful reader, it quickly becomes quite clear that the memoirs themselves constitute one of these well-chosen steps. For what Catherine gave us is not an act of confession – so popular in the 18th  century – but a carefully woven story produced by a savvy politician who knew what she wanted.

I’ve read and re-read these memoirs many times in the course of doing research for my own novel, The Winter Palace, and every time I reach for them I’m awed by the perfect pitch of Catherine’s reasoning and her guiding objectives. Her writing is lucid, straightforward, and logical. She assumed that the reader is familiar with the major facts of her reign, so what she provides are the intimate details behind the facts and her thoughts, all carefully chosen to justify why she had the right, moral if not legal, to claim the Russian throne. Before we learn of her orderly habits, her work ethic and her readings she made sure we learn that her late husband was inept, slovenly and fond of drink; that instead of accepting the Orthodox religion as she did he “took it into his head to dispute every point”; and that he was childish and “resistant to all instruction.”

In contrast to Peter III, we read, Catherine II did everything to be a good wife to her inept husband and a loyal subject to empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Bit by bit she produces further evidence of his unstable character. Peter III, we are told, once executed a rat and his fiddle playing tortured Catherine. Incidentally – in a telling admission – Catherine also confessed to being tone deaf and finding all music to be an infernal noise.

Catherine presented further evidence of her credentials. She didn’t spare the details of how she was mistreated – her aunt-in-law left her unattended after childbirth and refused to allow her to see her newborn son – but she also made sure the reader knows she is not vindictive and does not indulge in self pity. She raised herself up and worked with whatever life brought her way. She made sure we learn of her fortitude and her cheerful disposition, but most of all of her good sense and judgment. For this captivating account was Catherine’s way not just to elicit our sympathy but to sway us to her way of thinking. For this to work effectively, readers must be convinced that Catherine deserved to become Empress and rule justly because she was wise and enlightened.

Yet, as we read these memoirs we can see how Catherine wrote herself into a corner. It soon becomes clear that no matter how enlightened, just and reasonable she is, she cannot justify the murder of her husband. Yes, he was immature, silly and inept but was he a threat? Was he the monster she wanted us to see in him?

Catherine gave up in the end. The memoirs end in 1759 when she was still Grand Duchess and Empress Elizabeth Petrovna is very much alive and in charge of the Russian court. The last few pages are notes for the subsequent chapter, ending with the following words: “…things took such a turn that it was necessary to perish with him, by him, or else to try to save oneself from the wreckage and to save my children, and the state.” This was a tall order.

I can imagine Catherine staring at her notes wondering how on earth she was going to convince the reader that this was the case and, at the end, abandoning the project altogether.


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The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Necessary LiesGarden of Venus     Memoirs of Catherine the Great (Modern Library)Sektion 20VictorySend Me Safely Back Again

Writing Historical Novels


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