Thursday, October 6, 2011

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

The blurb:
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.

Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.

Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”

Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites”—the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.

The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.

History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.

Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Massie adds Catherine the Great to his earlier biographies of Russian leaders (Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Romanovs).  This meticulously researched narrative biography is tells us the story of Sophia Augusta Federicka, daughter of minor German nobility, her fortuitous marriage to the grandson of Peter the Great, and her climb to become Catherine II, Queen of the Russias.

Sophia's mother, Johanna, was from one of the great Ducal families in Germany, the Holstein-Gottorp family while her father was one tier below her socially, considerably older, and dull.  Johanna  was socially ambitious and bitterly disappointed in her marriage.  Johanna saw a son as the way to improve her social standing, she had little time or affection for her rather plain looking daughter.  Sophia learned to be self-sufficient and to "draw around herself a cloak of meekness, deference, and temporary submission" which served her well throughout her life.  Through luck and Johanna's family's connections to the Empress Elizabeth, Sophia was presented as a possible bride for the grandson of Peter the Great also named Peter.  Her prospective husband was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth and son of Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein.  Peter's mother died soon after he was born and he was largely raised by governesses and tutors.  He was seen as heir to his father's dukedom of Holstein and in line to the throne of Sweden. His claim to the Russian throne was less certain and he grew up with great respect for Prussia and its military.  It was unfortunate that he was raised to have little affinity for Russia, its religions or customs.  He was orphaned at the relatively young age of eleven, he was left under the care of a controlling and abusive tutor.  Peter's childhood left him "fearful, deceitful, antagonistic, boastful, cowardly, duplicitous and cruel" - traits that would taint his adult relationships, his reign, and his marriage to young Sophia (Catherine).

Politics and fate raise Peter's prospects from Duke of the small principality of Holstein to  the future Tsar of all the Russias as Empress Elizabeth's heir.   Empress Elizabeth invites Sophia and her mother to Russia to meet and marry her nephew and heir Peter.  Sophia is determined to succeed in this venture and she understands that she must adapt to her new land.  Sophia converts to the Orthodox religion, diligently learns the Russian language, customs and learns to love and appreciate her new home country.  Elizabeth gives her the new Russian name of Catherine. 

Marriage between Peter and Catherine would have been difficult because of their differences in intelligence, interests, lack of physical chemistry and their unequal status.  The intrigues of the Russian court,  Peter's cruelty towards Catherine, their differing allegiances meant that the marriages was painful for both parties. 

Massie shows us how Catherine won the respect of those who got to know her from Empress Elizabeth and Russian nobility to foreign diplomats and the Russian military.   Massie meticulously covers what she went through from her move to Russia at fourteen to the years under Empress Elizabeth to her husband's short reign and her successful coup to her long and fruitful reign as Catherine the Second, Empress of all the Russias.  From her diaries and correspondence, we get a sense of Catherine as a young woman, a lover, and as an enlightened monarch attempting to bring change and reform to the largest and wealthiest nation of her time.  

Catherine the Second forced Russians to evaluate the system of surfdom and attempted to reform the legal system. Catherine "brought European moral, political, and judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine and education to Russia.  She assembled the greatest art gallery in Europe, hospitals, schools and orphanages." She was one of the first to be inoculated for smallpox, and through encouraging her people to do so, prevented the spread of an epidemic. 
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a meticulously researched and fascinating account of one of the most important and influential women in history. 

ISBN-10: 0679456724 - Hardcover $35.00
Publisher: Random House (November 8, 2011), 656 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Robert K. Massie was born in Lexington, Kentucky, studied American History at Yale University and European History at Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes scholar.  He was president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991.  His previous books include Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great: His Life and World (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for biography), The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, and Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)

The blurb:
Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.  Elisa is the chosen one.
But she is also the younger of two princesses. The one who has never done anything remarkable, and can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs her to be the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies, seething with dark magic, are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior, and he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.  Most of the chosen do. 

The Girl of Fire and Thorns is just the sort of YA book that got me hooked on the genre. Debut author Rae Carson combines fantasy, magic and adventure with the coming of age of the second princess Elisa. Elisa, the younger princess, does not compare well against her older sister. She's fat, not interested in power or ruling her country, and she's shy. Eliza is willing to cede most things to her sister and has known that her life is dedicated to serving their God as a Bearer.

The Bearers come every hundred years and are chosen by their God on their naming day. They hold in their navel a jewel but what sets them apart is that they are chosen to change history, to serve a higher purpose or goal. The specific purpose is not known and Elisa spends much of her time praying, studying, trying to discern what she's supposed to do. She acknowledges that she does not intend to lead or rule. But when Elisa is married to the ruler of the largest and richest country in their world, she finds many of her earlier beliefs and assumptions are overturned. She learns to trust her judgment and herself. She grows into her true self, learns to lead, and changes the world around her.

Elisa is one of the most likable heroines that I've come across in a long time. I couldn't put down The Girl of Fire and Thorns. It's a fun, engrossing read. Am very much looking forward to the next book by Rae Carson.

Young Adult: Ages 12 and up
ISBN-10: 0062026488 - Hardcover $17.99
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (September 20, 2011), 432 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Rae Carson writes books about teens who must do brave things. She's originally from California, but  moved to Ohio to be with her husband. They  live in Columbus with her teenaged stepsons.  Her books tend to contain lots of adventure, a little magic and romance, and smart girls who make (mostly) smart choices.