I stumbled across this book at the Chiswick Literary Festival a couple of months ago. I read a biography of Catherine the Great a few years ago, but was otherwise ignorant of the Romanov dynasty and Russian history. This book, though not history, did a lot to alleviate that ignorance, and is a super read.
Marta is a peasant girl, a serf, who is sold at a tender age. What follows is brutal (and will make difficult reading for many), but Marta escapes her bondage. She finds refuge for a few years, but the invasion of the Russian army sees her fortunes turn for the worse again. On the verge of being killed, she is rescued and finds herself in the court of Peter the Great.
What follows is a brilliant character portrait of someone who, though uneducated, is clever, ruthless, and knows how to use what she has to her best advantage. She catches Peter’s eye, becomes his consort and, later, his wife. Peter is a tyrant, cruel and not always predictable. Marta navigates the intrigues of court life. fends off rivals, and prevents some of his worst excesses.
If that were it, the book – for all the great writing and scene-setting – would be banal. But Marta is much more than wily. Here, after suffering a blistering defeat at the hands of the Ottomans, is Marta, now Catherine (not Catherine the Great, who is her granddaughter) at her fieriest:
“‘What are you doing?’ Peter cried. ‘Now we will never find our way back to Russia.’
I locked eyes with him. ‘Nobody shall ever know that the Tsar of All Russias wanted to run away like a common thief. You would become the laughing stock of Europe and destroy everything you’ve ever built.’
After a moment of silence he asked: ‘What do you suggest instead, Catherine Alexeyevna?'”
Marta was the woman who put the Great in Peter the Great, and that is what makes this novel so unputdownable.
Scrupulously researched, this book was both a super novel and what seems to me a very detailed account of the times in which it is set. These were cruel times and violence, especially that against Marta, made for some scenes which were very difficult to read. There were also times when the orgies, drinking binges and sex were borderline unbelievable – I have the author’s personal assurance that this was indeed the way the court of Peter lived; there was no tomorrow.
The only thing which robs the novel of its fifth star, are a lingering number of loose ends and, ironically, ends that are too trite. At one point she undertakes to get a bishop off the hook but we are never told how she did it, while earlier, people turn up from Marta’s earlier life only to be dismissed in a paragraph and never heard from again. And the ending – well, it didn’t quite work for me. Those minor points aside, I would read this again, and look forward to reading the sequel, of Marta’s daughter.