The White Night of St Petersburg

Written by Prince Michael of Greece
Review by Sarah Johnson

One expects certain things in novels about the Romanovs: a glittering backdrop of immense wealth and privilege, impossibly beautiful protagonists, and, of course, a story of passionate romance that leads ultimately to tragedy. The latest historical effort by Prince Michael of Greece, whose grandmother was a Romanov, has all this and more. However, despite having the right ingredients, the end result falls flat.

In 1998, at the ceremony for the reburial of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, Prince Michael meets a distant cousin, Natalya, for the first time. She tells him the story of her grandfather, Grand Duke Nicholas, whose existence was erased from family records. Possessing more arrogance than intelligence, Nicholas follows the pattern of all male Romanovs by taking a mistress. His choice of Hattie Blackford, an American courtesan who calls herself Fanny Lear, scandalizes his family. They flit from place to place throughout 19th century Europe, scattering money as they go, until his liberal politics and penchant for women catch him in a trap. Accused of helping finance a revolution with stolen family jewelry, Nicholas is banished to the far reaches of the empire, yet his story doesn’t end there.

Poor Nicholas indeed. It is hard to feel sympathy for a character with so little common sense, and whose amorous declarations sound more embarrassing than romantic. The narrative uses exclamation points in odd places, and some parts read more like travelogue than novel. One senses this isn’t the translator’s fault. Though it’s earnestly written from an insider’s viewpoint, perhaps nonfiction would have been a better choice.