The Romanov Sisters
By Helen Rappaport
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Helen Rappaport
All rights reserved.
There once were four sisters – Victoria, Ella, Irene and Alix – who lived in an obscure grand duchy in south-western Germany, a place of winding cobbled streets and dark forests made legendary in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. In their day, these four princesses of the house of Hesse and by Rhine were considered by many to be 'the flowers of Queen Victoria's flock of granddaughters', celebrated for their beauty, intelligence and charm. As they grew up they became the object of intense scrutiny on that most fraught of international stages – the royal marriage market of Europe. Despite their lack of large dowries or vast territories, each sister in turn married well. But it was to the youngest and most beautiful of the four that fate dealt the biggest hand.
The four Hesse sisters were daughters of Princess Alice – second daughter of Queen Victoria – and her husband Prince Louis, heir to the Grand Duke of Hesse. In July 1862, aged only eighteen, Alice had left England heavily veiled and in mourning for her recently deceased father Prince Albert, after marrying Louis at Osborne House. By the dynastic standards of the day it was a modest match for a daughter of Queen Victoria, but one that added another strand to the complex web of royal intermarriage between European first and second cousins. During her long reign Victoria had orchestrated the marriages of all her nine children, and remained meddlesome enough into old age to ensure that, after them, their children and even their grandchildren secured partners befitting their royal status. Princess Alice might well have achieved something better had she not fallen in love with the rather dull Prince Louis. As royal domains went, Hesse was relatively small, perpetually financially overstretched and politically powerless. 'There are English noblemen who could endow their daughter with a richer dower than falls to the lot of the Princess Alice', observed one newspaper at the time. Hesse Darmstadt was a 'simple country, of pastoral and agricultural character', with an unostentatious court. It was pretty but its history till now had remained unremarkable.
The capital, Darmstadt, set in the oak-forested hills of the Odenwald, was deemed 'a place of no importance' in the eyes of the pre-eminent Baedeker tourist guide. Indeed, another contemporary traveller found it 'the dullest town in Germany', a place 'on the way to everywhere' – nothing more. It was built on a uniform plan of long, straight streets and formal houses populated by 'well-fed burghers and contented hausfraus', not far from the River Darmbach, and 'the general absence of life' in the capital gave it 'an air of somber inactivity'. The older, medieval quarter had a degree of bustle and character, but aside from the grand-ducal palace, the opera house and a public museum full of fossils there was little to redeem the city from the insipid stiffness that permeated the Darmstadt court.
Princess Alice had been dismayed upon her own arrival there, for although her upbringing had been authoritarian it had been liberal, thanks to her father Prince Albert. For him, Alice was 'the beauty of the family', and she had grown up happy and full of fun. Her wedding day had, however, been totally overshadowed by her father's premature death and her mother's crippling state of grief. The brightness of an all too brief childhood was soon further dimmed by painful separation from her beloved siblings, particularly her brother Bertie, all of which heightened her deeply felt sense of loss. There was an air of sorrow about the princess that nothing would ever quite assuage.
Her new life at Hesse promised to be undistinguished. The old order that persisted there kept clever, forward-thinking women such as herself down. Virtue and quiet domesticity were all that counted, and Alice found the hidebound protocols at the Hessian court burdensome. From the outset, she suffered the frustrations of not being able to exercise her own considerable progressive and intellectual gifts. An admirer of Florence Nightingale, Alice would have liked to take up nursing, having more than demonstrated her skills during her father's final illness in 1861. If this was not to be then there were other ways in which she was determined to make herself of use in her new home.
With this in mind she embraced a range of philanthropic activities, including regular hospital visiting and the promotion of women's health, fostering the establishment of the Heidenreich Home for Pregnant Women in 1864. During the wars of 1866 against Prussia and 1870–1 against France that stirred Darmstadt from obscurity and took her husband off on campaign, Alice refused any suggestion of taking refuge in England and took on the mothering of her children alone. But this was not enough for her crusading social conscience; during both wars she also organized hospital nursing of the wounded and founded the Frauenverein (Ladies' Union) for the training of women nurses. 'Life', Alice resolutely told her mother in 1866, 'is meant for work, and not for pleasure.' The duty that had ruled her father's life had become the watchword of her own.
Alice produced seven children in rapid succession with the same kind of stoicism with which her mother had given birth to her own nine. But there the similarities ended; unlike Queen Victoria, Princess Alice was a practical, hands-on mother who took an interest in every aspect of her children's daily lives, down to managing the nursery accounts herself. And, like her elder sister Vicky – and much to Queen Victoria's 'insurmountable disgust for the process' – Alice insisted on breastfeeding several of her babies, causing the queen to name one of her prize cows at Windsor after her. Alice also studied human anatomy and childcare, in preparation for the inevitability of nursing her own brood through childhood illnesses. There seemed to be no limits to her devotion as a mother, but she did not spoil her children; she allowed them only a shilling a week pocket money until their confirmation, after which it was doubled. She was an advocate of frugality, much like Queen Victoria, though in Alice's case economizing was often out of brutal necessity. The house of Hesse was far from wealthy and Alice often knew the 'pinch of poverty'. But at the Neues Palais, built during 1864–6 with money from her dowry, she created a warm home-from-home, furnished with chintz fabrics and unremarkable pieces sent from England and cluttered with family portraits and photographs.
Born on 6 June 1872, Princess Alix – the sixth child of the family and future Empress of Russia – was a pretty, smiling, dimpled girl who loved to play. They called her Sunny and from the start her grandmother looked upon her as a golden child. Alicky was 'too beautiful ... the handsomest child I ever saw', thought Queen Victoria, and she made no attempt to disguise her favouritism. Although Princess Alice was much more closely involved in her children's upbringing than many royal mothers, her various welfare and charity projects consumed a lot of her time, and her children's day-to-day life was organized by their English head nurse Mrs Orchard.
Victorian values reigned in the plainly furnished Darmstadt nursery: duty, goodness, modesty, hygiene and sobriety, accompanied by generous amounts of plain food, fresh air (whatever the weather), long walks and pony rides. When she had time Alice walked with her children, talked with them, taught them to paint, dressed their dolls and sang and played the piano with them – even when little fingers, as she laughingly complained, 'thrust themselves under hers on the keyboard to make music like big people'. She taught her daughters to be self-sufficient and did not believe in spoiling them; their toys were unostentatious and brought from Osborne and Windsor. Moments of idleness for the Hesse girls were always filled by something their mother deemed useful – cake-making, knitting, or some kind of handicraft or needlework. They made their own beds and tidied their rooms and there was of course always regular, obligatory letter-writing to Liebe Grossmama and annual visits to her at Balmoral, Windsor or Osborne. Other, more frugal family seaside holidays – of donkey rides, paddling, shrimping and sandcastles – were spent at Blankenberge on the treeless, wind-swept North Sea coast of Belgium; or at Schloss Kranichstein, a seventeenth-century hunting lodge on the edge of the Odenwald.
When it came to her children's religious and moral development Princess Alice took a very personal hand and inspired high ideals in them, her greatest wish being that they 'should take nothing but recollections of love and happiness from their home into the battle of life'. Life's battle included being taught to appreciate the sufferings of the sick and poor, visiting hospitals with armfuls of flowers every Saturday and at Christmas. But Alice's own life was increasingly one of chronic pain – from headaches, rheumatism and neuralgia, as well as overwhelming exhaustion brought on by her commitment to so many worthy causes. The last child of the family, May, was born two years after Alix in 1874, but by then the happy childhood idyll at Darmstadt was over.
Gloom had irrevocably settled over the family, when at the age of two Alice's second son Frittie had, in 1872, shown the first unmistakable signs of haemophilia; his godfather, Queen Victoria's fourth son Leopold, also was blighted by the disease. Barely a year later, in May 1873, the bright and engaging little boy, on whom Alice had absolutely doted, died of internal bleeding after falling 20 feet (6 m) from a window. Alice's consuming morbidity thereafter – a species of douleur so clearly in tune with that of her widowed mother – meant that a mournful dwelling on the dead, and on the trials and tribulations rather than the pleasures of life, became part of the fabric of the young lives of the surviving siblings. 'May we all follow in a way as peaceful, and with so little struggle and pain, and leave an image of as much love and brightness behind', Alice told her mother after Frittie died.
The loss of one of her 'pretty pair' of boys opened up a four-year gap between the only other son, Ernie – who also was forever haunted by Frittie's death – and his next sibling Alix. With her three older sisters growing up and inevitably distancing themselves from her, Alix instinctively gravitated to her younger sister May and they became devoted playmates. With time, Princess Alice took solace in her 'two little girlies'. They were 'so sweet, so dear, merry, and nice. I don't know which is dearest,' she told Queen Victoria, 'they are both so captivating.' Alix and May were indeed a consolation, but the light had gone from Alice's eyes with Frittie's death and her health was collapsing. At a time when she and her husband were also becoming sadly estranged, Alice retreated into a state of settled melancholy and physical exhaustion. 'I am good for next to nothing,' she told her mother, 'I live on my sofa and see no one.' The accession of Prince Louis to the throne of Hesse in 1877 and her own promotion to grand duchess brought only despair at the additional duties that would be placed upon her: 'Too much is demanded of me,' she told her mother, 'and I have to do with so many things. It is more than my strength can stand in the long run.' Only Alice's faith and her devotion to her precious children was keeping her going but her air of fatalistic resignation cast a shadow over her impressionable daughter Alix.
In November 1878 an epidemic of diphtheria descended upon the Hesse children; first Victoria, then Alix fell sick, followed by all the others bar Ella, and then their father too. Alice nursed each of them in turn with absolute devotion; but even her best nursing skills could not save little May, who died on 16 November. By the time she saw May's little coffin taken off for burial Alice was in a state of collapse. For the next two weeks she struggled to keep the news of May's death from the other children, but a kiss of consolation for Ernie on telling him the news may well have been enough for the disease to be transmitted to Alice herself. Just as her children were recovering Alice succumbed and she died on 14 December, at the age of thirty-five, achieving the longed-for Wiedersehen with her precious Frittie.
The trauma for the six-year-old Alix of seeing both her mother and her beloved little playmate May taken from her within days of each other was profound. Her treasured childhood tokens were taken from her too – her toys, books and games all destroyed for fear of lingering infection. Ernie was the closest to her in age but now under the separate control of tutors as heir to the throne, and she felt her isolation acutely. Her eldest sister Victoria recalled happier times to their grandmother: 'It sometimes seems as if it were only yesterday that we were all romping about with May in Mama's room after tea – & now we are big girls & even Alix is serious & sensible & the house is often very quiet.'
It would be Grandmama, the solid and reassuring Mrs Orchard – known to Alix as Orchie – and her governess Madgie (Miss Jackson) who would fill the terrible void of her mother's death, but the little girl's sense of abandonment ran very deep. Her sunny disposition began to fade into an increasing moroseness and introspection, laying the foundations of a mistrust of strangers that became ever more deeply ingrained as the years went by. Queen Victoria was anxious to act as a surrogate mother, for Alix had always been one of her favourite granddaughters. Annual visits to England by Alix and her siblings, especially to Balmoral in the autumn, had consoled Victoria in her own lonely widowhood, and such regular proximity allowed her to supervise Alix's education, her tutors in Hesse sending her monthly reports on her progress. Alix herself seemed content to play the role of the 'very loving, dutiful and grateful Child', as she so often signed her letters to the queen, and she never forgot a birthday or an anniversary, sending numerous gifts of her own exquisite embroidery and handiwork. After her mother's death England became a second home to her.
* * *
During her lifetime, Princess Alice had had strong feelings about the future for her daughters; she wanted to do more than educate them to be wives. 'Life is also meaningful without being married', she had once told her mother, and marrying merely for the sake of it was, in her view, 'one of the greatest mistakes a woman can make'. As she grew into a teenager, the best that the beautiful but poor Princess Alix of Hesse could have hoped for to relieve her from the unchallenging tedium of Darmstadt provincialism was marriage to a minor European princeling. But everything changed when on her first visit to Russia in 1884 (for the marriage of her sister Ella to Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich), Alix's third cousin, Nicholas Alexandrovich, heir to the Russian throne, had taken a shine to her. He was sixteen and she was only twelve, but thereafter Nicky, as she would always call him, remained besotted. Five years later, when Grand Duke Louis took Alix back to Russia on a six-week visit, Nicky was still stubbornly determined to win her as his wife. The shy schoolgirl had become a slender, ethereally beautiful young woman and Nicky was deeply in love. But by now – 1889 – Alix had been confirmed in the Lutheran faith prior to coming out, and she made clear to Nicky that despite her deep feelings for him, marriage was out of the question. Virtue prevailed. She could not and would not change her religion, but she did agree to write to him in secret, their letters being sent via Ella as intermediary. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport. Copyright © 2014 Helen Rappaport. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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