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Notes on a Tragedy

Tue, 04/30/2024 - 11:55
Clare McHugh

“The Romanov Brides”
Clare McHugh
William Morrow, $18.99

We all know the end of the tragic story of Nicholas and Alexandra. In “The Romanov Brides,” Clare McHugh has created a novel, grounded in solid research — a romance, really — of how their relationship began and evolved. She ends with their wedding day.

They were second cousins, as were a number of the royal couples of Europe: English, German, and Russian blood commingled. On Nicholas’s side Russian and German (Hesse); on her side, English and German (also Hesse). They met and fell in love as children, as Nicky and Alicky, in St. Petersburg, when her older sister Ella married the czar’s brother, the Grand Duke Sergei, known as Serge, in 1884. Ella never had children (it is suggested Serge was gay and the marriage was never consummated), but many of the males descended from Queen Victoria suffered from hemophilia, including, famously, Nicholas and Alexandra’s son.

The mother of our heroine Alix, the future Czarina Alexandra, was Alice, as we know her throughout the novel, daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (he was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha). One result of all this mixing was, it was said, that King George V of England and Czar Nicholas II (born three years apart) looked enough alike to be identical twins. They were related through Danish royalty: George and Nicholas’s mothers were sisters. Keeping track of who is who in this novel is a challenge, happily helped by the provision of family trees.

Despite all this shared inheritance, these royal houses were separated by religion. The German world had been divided by the wars of religion following the Christian Reformation (1517-1648), which split Protestants from Catholics, leaving zealous loyalties on both sides. In this story, all the Germans are Protestants and eligible to marry into the English royal family, but not the Russian Orthodox family unless they convert, a difficult moral issue for the Protestants and one that provides one of the central dramas of the tale.

Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of Great Britain, who were cousins, photographed in 1913.  Bain News Service Collection, Library of Congress


Throughout the novel, Alix thinks of herself as a Pechvogel — a bird that brings bad fortune. This idea resonates through the story like foreshadowing. Nicholas too has forebodings: When they first meet as children, Nicky tells her, “I was born on May 6, the feast of Job the sufferer, which means I will be unlucky in life.”

Nicholas and Alexandra finally marry in 1894. The clouds that lead to World War I — 20 years later — are already gathering. Germany had been unified by Bismarck in 1871 and cousin Willy had become German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1888. He is a grandson of Queen Victoria through his mother, whose sister was Alix’s mother. Both the British and the Russians hate Wilhelm and think him a fool. Russia formed a treaty with the French Republic in 1893, encircling Germany. Ten years later, the British and French will become militarily linked by the Entente Cordiale.

A final tragic note. When the Bolsheviks deposed Nicholas and Alexandra in 1917 (during World War I), a British offer to rescue them was retracted, partly because the Allies (Britain, France, and Russia, but a Russia no longer ruled by the czar) were at war with Germany, so it seemed inconvenient to save them because Alexandra was German.

All this is to say that “The Romanov Brides” tells a moving and plausible tale, rich in detail of places, costumes, and interesting characters. For those readers who have visited St. Petersburg, descriptions of the interiors and exteriors of the palaces, which were restored to the last door handle by the Soviets after World War II, will be recognizably enjoyable. It’s a good read.

Ana Daniel taught modern European history at Southampton College. She lives in Bridgehampton.

Clare McHugh is the author of “A Most English Princess.” She lives in London and Amagansett.


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