A novel of the Russian Empire
This book is one for those who were taken by the BBC’s recent production of War and Peace. It sweeps from the glittering salons of the upper classes in St Petersburg, where French language and culture reign supreme, to the brutal bleakness of the battlefields on which Russian soldiers fight to hold back the steady creep of French imperial ambition. At the heart of this novel – based, I should emphasise, on a fascinating true story – are two characters whose experiences offer complementary perspectives on the situation.
One, Alexander, is the grandson of the formidable Catherine the Great, brought up in the luxury of the Winter Palace and destined to become Tsar. He grows to manhood in a time of anxiety and uncertainty, overshadowed by the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution and by the rise to power of the Corsican general Napoleon. As Russia tries to play a delicate diplomatic game, Alexander must also repel intrigues closer to home. The open preference of Catherine for Alexander over his father (and her son) Paul creates hostility, a rancour which deepens and twists when Paul seizes the throne after Catherine’s death. Working in the shadow of their illustrious predecessor, Paul and (in his time) Alexander face an unprecedented challenge. The fate of their entire country rests on the way they deal with the upstart Napoleon, who seems determined to force all of Europe to submit to his visions of a new Empire.
Our other protagonist is Nadezhda Durova, the daughter of a captain in the Hussars, who has grown up on campaign, caring for horses and indulged by her father’s orderlies. Plain and practical, Nadezhda has little in common with her proud, self-centred mother, who believes that women should concern themselves with embroidery and pretty manners. Faced with the loss of all she holds dear, Nadezhda decides to make her own fate and, disguising herself as a boy, runs away with her splendid horse Alcide to make a new start as a soldier in the Tsar’s army. Young, fierce and yet terribly naive, the cadet ‘Durov’ wins the admiration of his superior officers and the respect of his men, but war turns out to have a much harder, more bitter cast to it than Nadezhda could have had anticipated.
I always enjoy stories about plucky women who challenge the norms of their period, and the idea of a girl dressing as a boy to go to war – often to follow a lover – is one that we come across quite a lot in historical fiction. Where Nadezhda differs from a lot of these heroines is that, first, she goes to war on her own account rather than to trail after a man – and indeed, has no romantic attachment during her campaigns, which was immensely refreshing – and, secondly, in that she was real. This surprised me, as the story seemed slightly too good to be true in parts (the knowing indulgence of certain senior officers, for example), but it turns out that Lafferty stuck very closely to Nadezhda’s own account of her life and that even the most extraordinary events (such as her meeting with Alexander) are true. I’ve been left with a powerful urge to find out more about this remarkable woman and I’d love to read her memoir, which has been translated into English as The Cavalry Maiden.
In retrospect, then, I can’t really criticise Lafferty for one of the book’s less successful parts. This will include a spoiler, so you may wish to skip on to the last paragraph if you want to remain unspoiled. Having followed Nadezhda through her campaigns with no hint of romance (except her occasional erotic dreams, which I presumed were inspired by the dashing Denisov), we suddenly in the epilogue find out that before running away from home she was married and had an infant son. To discover this in the final pages, when there was no hint of this in the section of the book about her flight, was bewildering to say the least. I thought this was rather clumsy, but having read a bit more about The Cavalry Maiden, I discover that Nadezhda herself completely omitted any mention of her marriage. So perhaps we are meant to see the main body of Lafferty’s novel as a fictional version of Nadezhda’s own account, and the prologue and epilogue instead give us a glimpse of the real woman? Still baffling, but perhaps slightly more understandable than before.
There’s the odd stylistic glitch throughout, but that may be due to the formatting of the ARC e-book that I’ve been reading. Generally speaking, this is an enjoyable and revealing novel about an historical figure who should be much better known in the West than she is. Lafferty is a brisk, very readable storyteller and this book comes warmly recommended to those who, like me, relish tales of women who break out of the conventions of their age.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review