“Don’t do it!” The Romanov Brides by Clare McHugh

BY KATE BRAITHWAITE

Queen Victoria, until recently Britain’s longest serving monarch, was mother to nine children, grandmother to forty-two, and great-grandmother to eighty-seven. Of those forty-two grandchildren, twenty-two were girls. Clare McHugh’s latest novel, The Romanov Brides (William Morrow, March 2024), features two of them, Alix and Elizabeth of Hesse, daughters of Victoria’s third child, Princess Alice.

When I hear the name Romanov my mind jumps to Anastasia and her three sisters, but in The Romanov Brides, we learn the story of their mother, Alix, wife of Nicholas II, and her older sister Elizabeth, (Ella in the novel) who married Nicholas’ uncle, Sergei. Instead of the perhaps expected story of revolution and violent endings, McHugh offers her readers ‘the beginning of things’, asking ‘how did Alix of Hesse… born in an obscure corner of Germany, end up tsarina of Russia and then, tragically, in that basement in Ekaterinburg? The more I looked into it,” she explains, “the more I saw how Alix’s fate turned on private family events occurring when she was still a child”.

The novel opens with a prologue in 1878, with one of these key events – the death of the girls’ mother when Ella was fourteen and Alix only six years old. This sets the tone for an intimate, personal look at Ella and Alix’s lives unfolding, innocent of the knowledge of future tragedy.

“One of the challenges—and the thrills—of writing historical novels,” says McHugh, “is imagining how it felt to live through certain consequential moments without benefit of “future knowledge.” This is, after all, the way we all must live, unable to foresee or accurately predict what lies ahead. Even events as cataclysmic as the Russian revolution, the overthrow to the imperial regime, and the murder of the Romanov family were impossible to anticipate. I believe readers will enjoy, as I did, getting to know these tragic characters before they were that—when they were simply young people caught up with the question of who to love and where to live. I was touched, as I think others will be, that out of such seemingly innocent decisions so much of historical import flowed.

“Yes, sometimes while writing I wanted to shake Ella and Alix and shout, “Don’t do it!” But I sympathized with their desire to live life as much as possible on their own terms. What they didn’t know played a large role in their baleful fates. Experts could have told Alix at the time of her marriage that she was running a grave risk of passing on hemophilia to any sons she might have. But none of the royals in Germany, England or Russia, with the possible exception of Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, ever consulted medical authorities on this matter. Thus, Alix walked blind into a situation that caused her and her family so much distress and was one factor that brought about the downfall of the Romanovs.”

Only one voice of reason stands out as the sisters grow into young women and contemplate marrying into the Romanov royal household. Queen Victoria, a vibrant character in the novel, but dismissed by Ella and Alix as ‘old granny’, is not in favor of either marriage.

Here’s how McHugh explains her characterization of the famous monarch: “In ancient Greek drama, the oracle communicates the wisdom of the gods. In my novel, Queen Victoria plays the role of the oracle. And a funny sort of oracle she was! Often highly emotional, always opinionated and bossy, the queen nonetheless spoke the truth. The young Hesse princesses, while loving her deeply, failed to appreciate how the queen’s wisdom about the world—and about human relationships—was far keener than their own.

“From a distance we might feel this should have been obvious: Queen Victoria was the head of state of a global empire, while they were young girls growing up in provincial Darmstadt with a feckless father and no mother. But young people have always resisted taking advice from their elders. I think readers will be reminded of this, and be struck by the contrast between the Queen’s sentimental old lady presentation and the simple truth of what she told her beloved granddaughters. Alix and Ella would have done well to listen to her more closely!”

author Clare McHugh

The Romanov Brides, then, is a novel full of dramatic irony and poignant moments for the reader. But future events remain just that – in the future – as McHugh limits the span of her story to Alix and Ella’s courtships and marriages. This is a deep dive into the sisters’ early lives, benefiting hugely from the author’s commitment to her research. I was particularly taken with the detail that Russian railways ran on a different gauge from the rest of Europe and asked McHugh about her research process.

“Sometimes I find it hard to stop researching and start writing!” she said. “I love to delve into old letters, diaries, and memoirs, eager to discover the intimate details historical figures shared about their lives and feelings. And, for this story, I had a wealth of such documents to explore as all the protagonists, with the exception of Grand Duke Serge, left behind a lot of private writings. I was helped tremendously by these primary sources in forming my notion of each character, and portraying their actions and speech. But for scene-building, the other crucial task in writing a novel, different types of information are also needed—the nuts and bolts of time and place. I knew I wanted and needed a scene of Alix’s first glimpse of Russia. When I learned from family records that the Hesse family travelled by train from Darmstadt to Peterhof for Ella’s wedding in 1884, and changed trains at the border town of Verzbolova, I set out to find out why, and what they would have experienced there. In researching the history of the town, I discovered this fact about the railway gauges. I believe a rich mixture of primary and secondary sources underlines a good historical novel. And I still have the instincts of the college history major I once was: I like to show my work.”

To learn more about her sources and methods and read an early chapter that didn’t make the final cut of The Romanov Brides, please visit the author’s website.

 

About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is a novelist and editor for the Historical Novel Society. Her next book, The Scandalous Life of Nancy Randolph, will be published by Lume Books in 2024.


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