Catherine the Great is fascinating, and I’m not surprised Eva Stachniak has written two books about her (this is her second, the first being The Winter Palace), though I am a little surprised that she chose to write novels rather than non-fiction. In a way it makes sense as it provides the freedom to elaborate on the facts of history, and have fun imagining the details of Catherine’s life.
The concept of this novel, if it has one, is that Catherine is now at the end of her life, and Stachniak uses her efforts to remember the past as pathways into extended flashbacks. The ‘present’ of the novel is the 36 hours leading up to the Empress’ death. They start with her continuing her normal routine, but then having what appears to be a stroke. She is paralysed and cannot speak, and as her maids and attendants fuss and nurse her she remembers all the times they have helped her, and all the people who have ever helped her – and those who have not. In this way Stachniak then proceeds to effectively write a fictionalised biography of Catherine, starting with her youthful days in Prussia just before she and her mother travelled to Russia, where she was to wed Grand Duke Peter, nephew of the Empress Elizabeth.
Back then Catherine was called Sophie, and one expects her to be a tough little child, brave and bold, destined to become Russia’s great mother. but instead here she is an ugly small thing with little assertiveness. Even when they move to the court in Russia, Sophie is only intimidated by the glaring Elizabeth, and wonders how on earth she is marry Peter, this boy whose eyes criticise her every move. To me she seemed too meek and timid to grow into the woman we think of as Catherine the Great – though perhaps Stachniak does this intentionally, to bring her down to earth.
Kirkus Reviews tells me that The Winter Palace was written from the point of view of one of Catherine’s most trusted companions, Varvara, who also features in this novel. It demonstrates how Varvara became so close to Catherine, and how she helped and guided her as she rose to power. The novel will have detailed much of Catherine’s life, though not her later years. Now with Empress of the Night Stachniak seems to be trying to fill in the gaps and cover the entirety of Catherine’s life – but to me it seems like this is too great a task.
Comparatively there is not much dialogue in this novel – though we are close to Catherine throughout we do not often hear her inner thoughts or get an insight into her inner life as one might expect. The years flow by at quite a pace, as do the succession of lovers, and at times the style feels a bit more like a stylised summary than a full-on novel. It is not list-like, but the lack of conversations and examination of the smaller moments of life sometimes makes it feel a bit impersonal. Catherine is both close to and distant from the reader, and though she is shown to be independent and determined, and certainly bold and brave, her personality does not quite come though.
Empress of the Night is very likeable and easy to read, with some excellent moments where the conflicts and difficulties of Catherine’s position is exposed. If anything I would have liked it to have delved deeper into Catherine’s psyche and personal experience – but it is still very accomplished and could act as a great introduction to this monumental figure of history.
You can download the Kindle edition at Amazon.co.uk.