Alexandra: The Last Tsarina

Alexandra: The Last Tsarina

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by Carolly Erickson

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Just as Edvard Radzinsky wrote the ultimate account of Nicholas II in THE LAST TSAR, acclaimed biographer Carolly Erickson has written the definitive account of the life of Alexandra, the first major book on her since Massie's NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA.See more details below


Just as Edvard Radzinsky wrote the ultimate account of Nicholas II in THE LAST TSAR, acclaimed biographer Carolly Erickson has written the definitive account of the life of Alexandra, the first major book on her since Massie's NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The wife of Nicholas III, the tsar who was overthrown in 1917 by the Russian Revolution, Alexandra has long been viewed by Russian historians as narrow-minded, reactionary and hysterical. But in this entertaining, if not completely convincing, account, Erickson (Bloody Mary) paints a sympathetic portrait of the German-born empress. Erickson humanizes the granddaughter of Britain's Queen Victoria by detailing the romance between the two young cousins, "Alix" and "Nicky." One of the book's strengths is its emphasis on the private life of the court. Erickson also draws attention to the difficulties the husband and wife faced as they struggled to produce a male heir, first having three daughters before they sired the hemophiliac Alexis. "Unless help came from a divine source," Erickson writes, "he would surely succumb to one of the terrible attacks of bleeding." Though the rest of the story is familiar Alexis's illness led the family to an increasing fascination with the occult and the spiritual healer Rasputin this accomplished historical biographer tells it with style and suspense. At times, Erickson sacrifices historical accuracy for drama, e.g., when she attempts to elicit sympathy by saying that Alexandra looked middle-aged at 33, although that was not rare for a mother of four in pre-revolutionary Russia. But small glitches aside, Erickson's popular biography will satisfy readers seeking the scoop on Russia's last empress. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Erickson is the author of many popular historical biographies, only one of which (Great Catherine) dealt with Russia. When the German princess Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt (1872-1918) married the heir to the Russian throne in 1894, she assumed a role for which she was not suited, by temperament or by upbringing, as well as an obligation to support her clearly weaker husband. The author depicts her subject as rejected from the start by the Russian court and oblivious to the political situation in her adopted country, with a strong desire for a "normal," loving family life. As a result, Alexandra gradually withdrew into the mystic tradition of Russian Orthodoxy, and her illnesses isolated her ever further from the troubles abroad in Russia. The book quotes extensively from Alexandra's letters and from memoirs left by her friends and contemporaries. Though less expansive in its coverage of the era than Robert K. Massie's Nicolas and Alexandra (1967), this work makes a complex time accessible to general readers and is most suitable for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/01.] Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Russia's last empress receives compassionate but by no means uncritical treatment from biographer Erickson (Josephine: A Life of the Empress, 1999, etc.). Alexandra's term for herself-"Pechvogel," or "bird of ill omen"-seems an all-too-apt description for her star-crossed life. A German-born granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain, she lost her mother Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse, when she was only six. After her marriage to Czar Nicholas of Russia, she found herself beset by ill health and viperish tongues. Debilitating migraines, sciatica, and shortness of breath resulted from several exhausting pregnancies. Her depression was deepened by her interfering mother-in-law, the dowager empress; by a sophisticated, French-speaking court that regarded her as an interloper; and by a populace who called her the "German Whore" and scorned her inability to produce a healthy male heir. That last failure so upset Alexandra (or "Alix," as Erickson calls her familiarly) that she came to rely increasingly on Father Gregory, the infamous Rasputin, whose mere presence could stop her hemophiliac son's hemorrhaging. The irony, Erickson shows, is that Alix's shyness and imperiousness masked a romantic and selfless woman. Against the matchmaking conventions of her time, Alix rebuffed all marriage overtures until she could wed her true love, Nicholas, and throughout her marriage she sought to bolster the confidence of this sensitive, weak man. While warm, affectionate, and even amusing at times, she was drawn most easily to situations where self-sacrifice was required-whether on behalf of her children or the soldiers she nursed. Ironically, her protective instincts couldn't save herself or herfamily from execution by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Once again, Erickson demonstrates her skill in limning a forceful royal who tried unsuccessfully to alter history and escape fate. Book-of-the-Month Club/History Book Club main selection; Quality Paperback Book Club/Literary Guild featured selection
From the Publisher
"Carrolly Erickson is one of the most accomplished and successful historical biographers writing in English.'—London Times Literary Supplement

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St. Martin's Press
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Meet the Author

A Ph.D. in medieval history from Columbia University led Carolly Erickson to six years as a college professor, then to a career as a full-time writer. She lives in Florida.

Distinguished historian Carolly Erickson is the author of Rival to the Queen, The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots, The First Elizabeth, The Hidden Life of Josephine, The Last Wife of Henry VIII, and many other prize-winning works of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Tsarina's Daughter won the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. She lives in Hawaii.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

IN THE DARKENED BEDROOM OF THE NEW PALACE IN DARMSTADT, ALICE,Grand Duchess of Hesse, lay dying. She was only thirty-five, but lookedfifty, her white face with its sharp features gaunt, her eyes deeplysunken in their sockets, her heaving chest narrow and bony.

    For the past month Alice had exhausted herself nursing her familythrough an epidemic of diphtheria, sitting beside their beds throughthe long nights, holding their hands, coming when they called out toher. The weakest and youngest of the children, her four-year-old daughterMay, had been the most severely ill, and when she died, the painAlice felt, she wrote her mother Queen Victoria, was "beyond words."

    Her other stricken children—fifteen-year-old Victoria, twelve-year-oldIrene, ten-year-old Ernie and six-year-old Alicky—had all survived,though Ernie had for a time been given up for dead; her husband Louis,robust and thickset, had lain in bed for several weeks in a semiconsciousstate, unable to eat and barely able to speak, until gradually,under her unceasing care, he began to recover his strength.

    Though most of her family and many of her servants succumbed,Alice herself had at first seemed immune to the terrible disease, as ifwilling her body to resist it so that she could spend herself in nursingthe others. But after several weeks of overwork, lost sleep and anxietyshe too experienced the painful sore throat, fever and throat-tighteningconstriction that were the hallmarks of diphtheria, and she took to herbed, unable to do any more for her ravaged family.

    Theystood by her bedside now as she struggled for breath, clutchingthe bedclothes and straining to fill her congested lungs. She had hada severe attack, and Louis had felt it necessary to notify the stateofficials and to request prayers in all the churches of the small Germanprincipality of Hesse. A telegram had been sent to Queen Victoria atWindsor telling her that Alice's condition was worsening. And thechildren had been summoned to stand by their mother's bed, and tosay their prayers for her.

    The youngest of the children, sweet-faced, golden-haired Alicky,stood next to her brother Ernie, her mainstay and closest companion,watching the events in the silent room. Her expressive gray-blue eyeswere troubled, for all was loss and confusion in her world—her littlesister dead and in her small coffin, her mother near death and beyondher reach, her governess Orchie, always so self-possessed and calm,upset and in tears. Even the nursery itself, spare and homely, was particularlysad and bare, for all the toys had been taken away to preventtheir carrying infection.

    Several crosses hung from the walls in the sickroom, together withverses from the Bible. There were pictures of Balmoral and of WindsorCastle and its grounds and portraits of Alice's sisters and brothers, andseveral tapestries in the fashionable William Morris style. Dominatingthe room was a stained glass window, dedicated to the memory ofAlicky's brother Frederick, or "Frittie," who at the age of three hadfallen from that very window to his death on the terrace below. Alickywas too young to remember Frittie, she had been an infant when hefell, but she knew that her mother grieved for him and she and theother children went every year to visit his grave. On Frittie's memorialwindow were the comforting words from the Bible, "Suffer the littlechildren to come unto me." Alicky, lonely and fearful, had much needof comfort, for as the hours passed her mother grew weaker, her everybreath an effort.

    Throughout Hesse prayers were being offered up for Alice, the Landesmütter(Mother of the Country), who had earned the respect of herhusband's subjects by nursing the sick, visiting the poor and foundinghospitals and schools. Since her marriage to Grand Duke Louis, Alicehad thrown herself into the cause of social betterment, never satisfiedwith what she had done and always striving to do, as she said, "thelittle good that is in my power."

    Alice had created a stir in quiet Darmstadt, introducing the ArtNouveau style in the grand ducal palace, playing duets with JohannesBrahms (Darmstadters preferred Mozart), substituting informality forformal etiquette at court, even holding daring religious views thataimed, as she said, to separate the historical Jesus from such "laterembellishments" as the resurrection. Though her outraged mother-in-lawcalled Alice "a complete atheist," and the quiet Darmstadtersclucked their tongues over her outspokenness ("Providence, there isno Providence, no nothing!" Alice burst out when her favorite brotherBertie was gravely ill, "and I can't think how anyone can talk suchrubbish"), Alice maintained her opinions truculently, and dared othersto refute them.

    A new and more liberal spirit had come to Hesse with Alice, but inher efforts to make changes and to air her advanced views she hadbrought disruption and controversy, and even as she lay on her deathbedthere were whispers—respectful, quiet whispers—that her demisewould restore a welcome peace to the community.

    For Alice's rigorous commitment to modernity was rooted in amental and spiritual restlessness that made others uneasy. There wassomething hard and flinty at her core, an icy toughness of mind, thatwas seemingly at odds with her overall charitableness. She was unforgiving.Demanding a great deal of herself, she demanded as much ofthose around her, and constantly found them wanting—especiallyher warm-hearted, stolid husband Louis, who disappointed her atevery turn.

    Alicky, young as she was, understood something of her mother'suniqueness. Alice was not like other mothers; she did not adorn herselfor curl her hair or wear colorful gowns. Her gowns were always black,and her only ornaments were a large gold cross on a chain and amourning brooch with locks of her father's hair and Frittie's inside. Herpale face bore a perpetual expression of preoccupation and sorrow, ahaunted look. She was often very tired. Even when she took the childrenon a vacation to the seaside, as she had only a few months beforethey had all come down with diphtheria, she did not rest or play withthem, but went to visit hospitals and schools, taking Alicky with herto give away nosegays of flowers.

    She was always helping people, and she was always full of sorrow.This much Alicky knew of her suffering mother.

    The following morning Louis sent another telegram to Queen Victoriaat Windsor. "I see no hope," Louis wrote his mother-in-law. "Myprayers are exhausted." The queen's own physician Jenner, whom shehad sent from England to treat Alice, added his terse assessment. "Diseasein windpipe extended, difficulty of breathing at times considerable;gravity of condition increased."

    The date on the telegrams, December 13, carried an ominous implication.Seventeen years earlier Alice's adored father Prince Alberthad died of typhoid on December 14, and ever since the anniversaryof his death had been marked with prayers and solemnities by his ever-grievingwidow and their children. December 14 was feared as a fatefulday, and though Alice herself was unaware of the date, or of muchelse, she did rave in her delirium that she saw her dead father, alongwith May and Frittie, standing together in heaven welcoming her in.

    A little after midnight, early on the morning of the fourteenth, thepatient began to cough and choke. The swollen membrane in hermouth was so thick she could no longer swallow, and could barely talk.Her face, even though bathed in warm candlelight, was chalk-white,her lips bloodless. Her attendants heard her whisper "May ... dearPapa" before becoming unconscious. By sunrise she was dead.

    To the beat of muffled drums the Grand Duchess of Hesse's funeralprocession made its slow way along the narrow, cobblestoned streets ofDarmstadt to the chapel in the Old Palace. There were many mourners,each carrying a lighted torch. Alicky, her brother and sisters did notfollow the coffin but were allowed to watch from a window as themourners assembled in the courtyard below. Later, the children weretold how hundreds of people came to see their mother in the chapel,taking off their hats as a sign of respect and leaving flowers and wreaths.The tributes were eloquent, the tears heartfelt.

    A letter arrived from Windsor Castle.

    "Poor Dear Children," Queen Victoria wrote, "you have had themost terrible blow which can befall children—you have lost your precious,dear, devoted Mother who loved you—and devoted her life toyou and your dear Papa. That horrid disease which carried off sweetlittle May and from which you and the others recovered has taken heraway from you and poor old Grandmama, who with your other kindGrandmama will try to be a mother to you."

    The queen sent particular wishes to "poor dear Ernie," who wasbound to suffer acutely since he was so close to Alice. "God's will bedone," she concluded. "May He support and help you all. From yourdevoted and most unhappy Grandmama, VRI [Victoria Regina Imperatrix,Victoria Queen Empress]."

    Alicky and her sisters were measured for mourning clothes, and woreidentical black dresses, black stockings and shoes. Their fourteen-year-oldsister Elizabeth, or Ella, who had been spared sickness and whohad spent the last month away from the palace, now rejoined thefamily, and together the five children and their father spent a mournfulChristmas.

    Snow drifted down over the narrow streets of Darmstadt, settling onthe gabled roofs and piling in deep drifts in the palace park. Orchielet the children play in the snow, bundled warmly against the cold,their ears covered with fur hats and their hands encased in mittens.As the days passed, though they continued to grieve, there were hoursin which their sorrow lifted, and they remembered how to skate andbuild snow forts and ride their sleds down the gentle slopes of the hills.

    One day in January Alicky, Irene and Ernie were playing in thegarden, and Alicky began to chase the two older children, who ranacross an area where seedlings were growing under glass. Ernie andIrene knew how to avoid the glass, but Alicky, too young to be cautious,crashed through it. Blood began to pour from her lacerated legs,and she screamed in pain and fear.

    Later, bandaged and soothed by Orchie, Alicky ceased to sob, buther injured legs healed slowly, and she could not run without limping.Over the following weeks she continued to cry every night for hermother, and to say her prayers for her. All in all it was a season ofscars, emotional and physical, and it would be a long time before thedeepest of them would begin to heal.

Excerpted from Alexandra by Carolly Erickson. Copyright © 2001 by Carolly Erickson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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