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Inspiration For My Historical Novels, by Eva Stachniak

When I’m asked why this or that particular historical character became an inspiration for one of my novels, I answer that something in their lives ignited my imagination, and forced me to reimagine and retell their lives. I’ve noticed these characters have a few traits in common. They are women and they are immigrants, refashioning themselves and leading lives which I consider relevant to our own times.

One of the women who inspired me in this way is a Polish Countess Sophie Potocka (1760-1822), a.k.a. Sophie de Witt or Sophie Glavani Celice or the “beautiful Greek”, for she was Greek by birth – a woman who transformed herself from a courtesan to countess, and who inspired her last husband to create Sophievka, a magnificent 18th century park/garden which is still the of pride of Ukraine.

Sophie’s story, the story of her more than humble beginnings, has never been much of a secret in Poland, Ukraine or Russia. Many men tried to tell it during her lifetime. The first was Charles Boscamp, her Istanbul lover, a diplomat in the service of Poland’s last king and a rather shady character who was hanged for treason in 1795, on the eve of the last partition of Poland. The last was General Langeron, a Frenchman in the service of the Russian Tsar, who rewrote Boscamp’s original racy revelations for the amusement of Tsar Alexander, citing liberally from the original. It is to him that Sophie Potocka is reported to have said: “You know who I am and whence I came. Eh bien, I cannot live with just 60,000 ducats of revenue.”

How did men of the world see Sophie? In Mes Amours Ephemeres avec une jeune Bythinienne, Boscamp freely described Sophie’s body in titillating anatomical details. He called her a seducer, an adventuress, a liar and a schemer who would twist any truth to suit her. Then, having expressed his ardent hope that his account might bring him a substantial monetary reward, he denounced her as a cold, calculating woman who tried to better herself at the expense of rich men. Langeron’s account was no different. Whilst both men mention the fact that Sophie was a tender and caring mother, it is only to marvel at such an unexplainable contradiction.

Sophie was not the only woman whose full nature has been lost or diminished, but for me she soon assumed particular importance. She arrived in Poland at the time when the Polish Commonwealth was losing its battle for existence. Soon after her arrival, in three successive partitions, Poland was deprived of its nationhood and its independence, and a few years later she lost her hopes of resurrection when Napoleon met his defeat on the frozen fields of Russia. This was not only a time of shifting loyalties and allegiances, but also the time when Europe grappled with the ideals of liberty and equality and with the many conflicting visions of a just future that came into being after the French Revolution. Sophie was not a philosopher – she did not reflect on these changes – but she knew how to spot them and how to profit from them. Like the new men around her, she switched loyalties, she conquered and made herself into who she wished to be rather than who she was born as.

This is why Sophie inspired me. In the preserved accounts of her life, I saw her unabashed vitality, the vitality of those who manage to find cracks in the crust of habit and tradition and prosper in spite of all that conspires against them.


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Writing Historical Novels


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