I recently reviewed Eva Stachniak’s Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great, in which Catherine reaches the end of her life and looks back on the key events of her life. It was the first time I’d ever read a whole book about Catherine, and I had to take the opportunity to ask Eva a few questions.
1. Given that you grew up in Poland, which Catherine the Great divided, what were your feelings towards her prior to writing about her? Did researching both this novel and your previous one, The Winter Palace, affect your view of Catherine in any way?
In the Poland of my childhood Catherine was feared and hated; I had an image of her as ruthless and hypocritical. I’m not disputing the historical accuracy of this image—Poles, Ottoman Turks, Ukrainian Cossacks all had good reasons to be less than enthusiastic about Russian imperial policy. But the truth is that I knew very little about her then.
When I was writing my novel, “Dancing With Kings”, I had to include Catherine the Great in a few scenes. This is when I started researching her, and slowly a more complex and nuanced picture of her had emerged. In the end, I have become fascinated by this extraordinary monarch even if I still do not accept or condone all of Catherine’s political decisions.
2. Was it difficult to write about Catherine’s last 36 hours? It must have been tricky to get into her frame of mind and describe her experience.
I read a lot about the mechanics of a stroke and the effects it has on the sufferer’s perceptions. Luckily, our modern medicine can do a lot for stroke victims, making recovery possible. Survivors often write compelling accounts of their experience. One of them is Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight”. Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist, gives a thorough, informative, and moving account of what was happening to her as her brain was drowning in blood. I found her book extremely useful in imagining what Catherine must have felt.
3. A lot of time passes in the narrative; when you were writing the novel how did you organise the timeline and not get muddled?
I always keep a pretty tight schedule of all events and characters, year by year, month by month, and often day by day. Otherwise it would be impossible to navigate through the complex material that historical research provides. In this schedule, I include the most important historical events alongside the events from the lives of principal characters. When—as it was in “The Winter Place”—I introduce a fictional character into the mix, I make sure everything that happens to him or her matches the historical context.
4. Catherine has very interesting relationships with both her children and her grandchildren, and had a difficult relationship with her mother – did you think a lot about mother/child relationships and how they affect us? I felt that aside from politics and lovers, motherhood was a very important theme in Empress of the Night.
It was important. Catherine was not a good mother to her children. Some of it can be explained by the fact that she was separated from them at the moment of their birth. Before she became empress herself, Catherine had no say in the matter of their upbringing. All of that made for a very troubled relationship with her first-born son, Paul. What began as awkwardness, eventually turned into resentment and mutual hatred.
With her grandchildren Catherine had much better and healthier relationships. She loved them very much, especially her grandsons, and was very actively participating in their lives. She played with them, designed their education, wrote books for them. In one of her letters to her German friend Baron Grimm she confessed that she has just designed her grandson’s play clothes. The existing, traditional ones, she found too restrictive.
You’ve mentioned Catherine’s mother. Princess Johanna of Anhalt-Zerbst was not a nurturing woman. From what I read about Catherine’s childhood, it looked like her mother was jealous of her. This must have had a very strong impact on Catherine’s psychological makeup. You are right that I find these relationships intricate and illuminating.
5. What made you choose the title Empress of the Night? Obviously Catherine was Empress of Russia, and for me ‘the Night’ makes me think both of her love affairs and of the darker side to her life and reign, some of which is explored in the novel. Was this intentional?
Your reading of the title is perfect. I wanted to evoke the darkness of the night before her death and the darker side of Catherine’s quest for absolute power. Her contemporaries assumed that—during her stroke—she was not aware of what was happening around her. The most recent studies of the brain suggest that she might’ve realized and understood quite a lot. This was my assumption, and the final inspiration for the novel’s structure.
Many thanks for agreeing to answer my questions, and congratulations on the book.
You are very welcome.