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Using Memoirs And Letters When Researching For A Historical Novel, by Eva Stachniak

Memoirs and letters are a historical writer’s cherished source. They provide the authentic voices of the past, not only facts and gossip, but rare insight into the thoughts of people long gone.

Writers of memoirs and letters differ vastly, and the work of some is much more precious than others.

I began accumulating eighteenth century memoirs as soon as I decided to write about the reign of Catherine the Great. Anyone researching the eighteenth century discovers very quickly that its inhabitants were enamoured of journals and letters. Gentlemen on their grand tours wrote them. So did their tutors. Doctors recorded their medical cases, ladies-in-waiting wrote of their sojourns at court, diplomats made sure their years spent at foreign posts were well documented and published. Soon I was swamped under a surfeit of accounts – now so easily downloadable from libraries all over the world in their scanned versions – with titles like Secret memoirs from the court of St. Petersburg. Or Memoirs of Countess Golovina – the lady-in-waiting to Catherine the Great. Or Doctor Dimsdale’s account of his trip to St Petersburg to inoculate the Russian tsarina and her son against small-pox.

Among the plethora of these memoirs and letters, one source stands out: The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot.

The Wilmot sisters were Irish. Their mother made friends with Princess Dashkova, who knew Catherine from the time when she was still Grand Duchess and who liked to claim credit for the successful coup d’état of 1762. Having annoyed Catherine with her often tactless bragging, Dashkova was sent abroad for an extended period of time – Catherine’s frequently employed means of allowing former friends or lovers to cool down. Having been a cherished  guest at the Wilmot household, the princess invited the two Wilmot daughters to her Russian estate. So, in 1803, Martha and Catherine Wilmot arrived in Russia. Catherine returned home after a few months, but Martha stayed with her hostess for two years and – in addition to keeping a journal – wrote long letters home.

The Russian Journals have become my favourite source of Russian domestic details, invaluable  for The Winter Palace and its sequel, Empress of the Night. For Martha Wilmot spent enough time in Russia to distinguish between first impressions and deeper understanding of Russia. She was writing to her family, eager to provide them with detailed pictures of her days, recording everything that struck her as different, noting facts Russian diarists might have considered too ordinary to merit attention. In Dashkova she also had a superior guide, ready to explain anything that seemed puzzling and to provide her with valuable introductions. Being Dashkova’s guest meant that Martha Wilmot was received in many grand Russsian houses, that she travelled extensively and – liking her hostess and respecting her greatly – that she tried to understand what she saw without prejudice.

It was from Martha Wilmot that I learned how a Russian lady would rub her face with ice chunks every morning to assure a bright complexion. That a guest might be offered a gift of a serf-child to amuse her. That a Russian estate was a formidably  self-sufficient unit, where serf-labourers produced almost everything an estate needed, a place where her hostess, Princess Dashkova, proudly worked as a mason and a brick-layer, as well as a gardener or a hostess.

I have been grateful to the Wilmot sisters ever since.


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Writing Historical Novels


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