Since the publication of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, the Tudors have dominated English language popular historical fiction. In addition to novels about Henry VIII and his wives, children and parents, obscure figures from the Tudor court have captured the imagination of novelists. Even Henry VIII’s confectioner is a main character in a historical novel, Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen Of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. The publication of Eva Stachniak’s first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, reminded historical fiction readers that the Tudors do not have a monopoly on court intrigue and spectacle. In the The Winter Palace, Stachniak told the story of German Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst’s unlikely path to the Russian throne as Catherine the Great through the eyes of her watchful servant, Varvara. Empress of the Night imagines Catherine as a mature ruler.
Readers expecting a conventional sequel to The Winter Palace will be disappointed by Empress of the Night. Stachniak does not resume Catherine’s story in the aftermath of the military coup that made her Empress but in her dying hours. Following a stroke, Catherine looks back on her life and reign. The last third of the novel covers the drama of the last year of Catherine’s life, including her desire to disinherit her unstable son, Paul, her attempts to secure a prestigious royal marriage for her eldest granddaughter, Alexandrine, and her relationship with her final lover, the young Platon Zubov. Stachniak’s evocative writing shows the tensions within Catherine’s family and court.
While Catherine’s last months and hours unfold in rich detail, earlier periods of her life and reign pass by too quickly in the novel. While swift progress through Catherine’s life before becoming Empress makes sense because this material is covered in The Winter Palace, Catherine’s early reign does not receive enough attention. The creation of her law code takes place over a few pages and the aquisition of her famous art collection is alluded to in short scenes. Stachniak’s talents as a writer ensure that each of Catherine’s favourites emerges as a distinct personality but they seem to come and go at a dizzying pace before her last year.
Stachniak’s Catherine is steeped in Russian folk proverbs from her time learning the language and constantly struggles with conflicts between passion and power. This interpretation of Catherine’s character evokes the complexities of eighteenth century Russia but does not do the historical Empress justice. In the novel, Catherine refers to her love of reading but does not mention, much less quote, her favourite French Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu. There is little sense of Catherine’s place among eighteenth century Europe’s Enlightened despots beyond Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s visit to Russia.
Empress of the Night provides an engaging portrait of Catherine’s Russia and her last year. Stachniak’s first novel, The Winter Palace, however, provided a stronger imagining of Catherine’s character. Her early reign passes by too fast in Empress of the Night to reveal her evolution from enlightened despot to determined reactionary in her final years. Both Stachniak’s novels reveal that Catherine’s Russia is an ideal setting for historical fiction. Hopefully, there will be many more Imperial Russian historical novels to come.