Lost Season of Love and Snow: Love, Power, Sex and Death in Imperial Russia
Jennifer Laam is the author of two previous novels, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013) and The Tsarina’s Legacy (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016).
Her new book, The Lost Season of Love and Snow (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018), is set in the early nineteenth century and follows the story of Natalya Pushkina, wife of the famous Russian author. Reviled by history as the woman whose infidelities led to the fatal duel which ended her husband’s life, Natalya is presented in this novel as a more rounded and sympathetic figure. Although written well before the recent crop of sexual harassment allegations, Laam’s book contains themes which remain highly relevant and familiar today, focusing as it does on a woman trapped by society’s expectations and the desires of men she neither wants nor can control.
As Jennifer Laam says of her motivations for writing the story: “I knew Alexander Pushkin died at a young age, in a duel fought over his wife’s honor. According to rumor, she cheated on him, perhaps even with the tsar. The story had always been something I wanted to explore…I had to learn more about Natalya and tell her side of the story.”
This, however, was not straightforward: “Natalya, like many women in history, exists on the margins of her famous husband’s story. Research involved teasing out details of her life from what we know of his. It was fascinating to see how Natalya’s depiction in biographies of her husband has evolved over the years. Once portrayed as frivolous, recent research has demonstrated she was far more complex than Pushkin scholars once thought.”
Not only a more complex figure, Natalya as portrayed by Laam is also one who deserves both sympathy and respect. In the early part of the book, she is very clearly a naïve girl, hoping for a romantic marriage but focused on squabbles with her mother and siblings. When she does marry her poet, she is initially overwhelmed by the glitter and excitement of the Russian imperial court, but rapidly grows up as she realizes the hidden depths beneath. In particular, she realizes that coming to the attention of powerful men can be a double-edged sword. Pushkin’s politics had previously put him into a very precarious position, with a number of his friends executed for treason, and Natalya knows she cannot do anything which would further displease the tsar. As Laam explains: “Natalya’s historical reputation was shaped in part by her interactions with the tsar. She attracted his notice, stoking her husband’s jealousy, or so gossip suggested. Natalya struck me as highly uncomfortable with the situation. I can’t help but think that what others interpreted as careless behavior had more to do with the tsar’s power over her family’s life and particularly her husband’s career. In other words, if the tsar flirts with you, are you really in a position not to flirt back? While I fictionalized Natalya’s inner thoughts, I strongly believe that what we would call sexual harassment impacted her life and it definitely influenced my novel. I want readers to see that connection with our world.”
This link, of course, resonates especially strongly after the revelations of the past few months, and one of the things that Natalya’s character clearly demonstrates is the guilt that women can feel when manipulated by men more powerful than they, even when they are blameless.
However, Jennifer Laam is keen to emphasize the accuracy of the events she relates, even where they are surprising: “Events toward the end of the novel, where relationships between characters grow quite complicated, are historically accurate. I like to learn more about characters fictionalized in historical novels, and I hope The Lost Season of Love and Snow inspires readers to do the same.”
As an historical novel it is certainly inspiring, successfully setting out the beauty and cruelties of a previous time, as well as holding a mirror to our own age.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Charlotte Wightwick writes regularly for HNS and The History Girls. She is currently writing an historical novel about the discovery of the dinosaurs in the nineteenth century.