Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Winter Palace

The Oscar nominations came out this week and, for some reason, I feel like I've been reading a lot about the debate about the award for Best Costumes. Generally speaking, it comes to the idea that costuming a contemporary movie is much more difficult than a period piece because it's so much more obvious when a detail is wrong; however, the Academy is always seduced by the rich fabrics and perfect detailing of historical pictures, and thus those costumers typically pick up the award. Costumes can make or break a movie, but they can also have that effect on a novel. If, for example, a writer chooses to bring the issue of clothing into a story (and many don't, besides a brief mention here or there), they need to find a balance between doing so with all the confidence and pitch-perfect styling required of a film, and keeping the mentions from overwhelming everything else. My big complaint with Émile Zola, to that end, is the pages and pages he devotes to describing his characters' clothes (it was a stylistic choice, but still). Perhaps the best author-come-clothier I've read in a long time is Eva Stachniak, as presented in her novel The Winter Palace.

Don't misunderstand me: There is a great deal – a great deal – going on in The Winter Palace that has absolutely nothing to do with the clothing. But, set as it is in 18th centure Russia during the reign of Elizabeth the Great, clothing is a recurring motif, and the luscious, vivid descriptions of the gowns and uniforms brings the court to life and offers nuances for the reader to pick up for themselves. The story, though, is not about a wardrobe. The novel opens in 1743, two years after Elizabeth seized the throne of Russia to become Empress of all Russians. At the outset, though, the novel takes place outside the palace, in the home of a Polish bookbinder who has come to Russia to seek his fortune. His daughter, Varvara (the Russian version of Barbara, her Polish name) is in her early teens and being schooled in languages, dance, art, and all the requisite talents of a woman who could become an asset to the court. That happens sooner than planned, however, when her mother dies of cholera and after barely a few months her father dies as well. Varvara, in whose voice the novel is written, is taken to the palace to be a maid in the Imperial Wardrobe.

After barely a few weeks, though, Councillor Bestuzhev finds her wandering a corridor at night and asks her what she is doing. When she starts telling him servants' gossip he takes her under his wing and trains her to be a palace spy. She remains a seamstress for a short while longer and is then brought to the Empress who assigns her as a maid for the Grand Duke Peter. Varvara, well educated, reads Peter's lessons to him and keeps her eyes and ears open for plots, gossip and news she can relay to the Empress at night. Right around this time, Sophie, a princess from Zerbst, arrives as a possible bride for Peter. He is uninterested in marriage – or anything besides recreating battles with wooden figures – and she is barely 14 and far from home. Nonetheless, Varvara takes an interest in Sophie and, in rather reckless fashion, helps her beat the odds and remain in the Empress's favour, resulting in an Imperial marriage and her conversion to the Orthodox faith under the name Catherine.

The subtitles, or label, for The Winter Palace is "A novel of Catherine the Great," but it would be more accurate perhaps to call this a novel before Catherine the Great, because she doesn't mount her coup until final pages. Rather, this is a novel about the making of Russia's most famous ruler. Through Varvara's eyes we see the abuse Catherine suffers when she cannot conceive, how her children are summarily taken from her as soon as their umbilical cord is cut, how her husband humiliates her. Varvara, never able to get over her soft spot for the poor neglected Grand Duchess, carries her messages, helps her get out of the palace to meet with her lovers, and comforts her when her children are taken away. Going back over the book after I had finished, I reread the epigram and I, like Varvara, felt the cold foolishness of having overlooked a key piece of information. To say betrayal is a necessity of a coup is obvious, to feel it, though, is something entirely different.

The Winter Palace is, like my favourite historical fiction, sumptuous in its description and meticulous in its research, without sacrificing one for the other. The clothing, food and decor are vivid without being distracting, and the political and emotional intrigues of the Russian court are tenuous and urgent enough to pull you into the story with Varvara, allowing you to get so caught up in what is happening that you, too, will wonder if everything will work out the way you know it must. 

The Winter Palace
by Eva Stachniak
First published in 2012 (cover image from Doubleday Canada edition)

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