“This epic tale is captivating and beautifully told.”—Lisa Wingate, New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours
Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage—as her older sister Alix has done, moving to England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir, Alexander, and once he ascends the throne, becomes empress. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie—now called Maria—must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.
Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has led her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.
From the opulent palaces of St. Petersburg and the intrigue-laced salons of the aristocracy to the World War I battlefields and the bloodied countryside occupied by the Bolsheviks, C. W. Gortner sweeps us into the anarchic fall of an empire and the complex, bold heart of the woman who tried to save it.
Praise for The Romanov Empress
“Timely . . . [Gortner’s] ability to weave what reads as a simple tale from such complex historical and familial storylines is impressive. . . . Maria’s life as a royal reads like a historical soap opera.”—USA Today
“Gortner, an experienced hand at recreating the unique aura of a particular time and place, will deftly sweep historical-fictions fans into this glamorous, turbulent, and ultimately tragic chapter in history.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Mesmerizing . . . This insightful first-person account of the downfall of the Romanov rule . . . is the powerful story of a mother trying to save her family and an aristocrat fighting to maintain rule in a country of rebellion.”—Publishers Weekly
“A twist on the tragic story you’ve heard many times before.”—Bustle
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“We should dress alike,” I said on that afternoon when life changed forever. I didn’t yet understand how profound the change would be, but I could feel it as I sat riffling through the heap of boxes sent by Copenhagen’s and London’s finest emporiums, packed with satin-bowed shoes and beribboned hats, silk undergarments, dresses, corsets, shawls, leather gloves, and cloaks made of fine cashmere or Scottish wool.
“Alike?” Standing on a footstool as Mama and her maid flapped about her, lifting items to her face and slim figure to determine which best suited her, my sister Alix regarded me in bemusement. “As if we were twins?”
“Yes.” I tilted up two of the boxes beside me on the settee. “Look. You have an extra pair of everything now. We could dress alike and see if your fiancé can tell us apart.”
Alix’s thin brows knit together. Her little frown pleased me; it showed my sister was not as immune to the absurdity of the situation as she might feign. Before she could reply, however, our mother issued her tart reprimand, with that faint irritation she employed whenever I did or said something inappropriate, which, for her, was becoming all too frequent.
“Minnie. That is enough. Dress like twins, how absurd.” Mama clucked her tongue. “As if His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales were blind. Why, you and Alix are nothing alike.”
“Are you certain?” Though I meant to sound nonchalant, I heard the challenge in my tone. “We might not be alike, but he’s only met her once. He might not even recognize her when he sees her again.”
Mama went still, a ruffled petticoat in her hands. Looking at that creamy white silk, I had to swallow a surge of anger. Times past, we could never have afforded such a petticoat or indeed any of these other fancy things littering the room. We made our own clothes, and mended them, too. We’d been happy in our little yellow palace in Copenhagen, relishing summer outings to swim in the sea, our gymnastics competitions, and musical evenings after frugal meals, where we’d served ourselves at the table. Luxuries had never mattered, not when we had one another. Our family was our greatest gift. Yet here we were, smothered in visible proof of our impending dissolution.
How could so much have changed in so little time?
“Of course His Highness will love her,” said Mama. “It’s his duty as her husband, as it is hers as his wife. Whatever has come over you, to be so contrary on the very day of Alix’s fitting for her trousseau? Can’t you see she’s nervous enough as it is?”
My sister watched me from the mirror. If she was nervous, she did not show it. She looked tired and pale, the shadows under her cool-gray eyes betraying her fatigue, but she was composed—so much, in fact, that her steady gaze unnerved me. Despite her unflinching stance, she must realize I spoke the truth. It was impossible to predict if her marriage would bring her happiness or heartache. But she’d never admit it aloud, not before our mother, who’d labored so long for this elevation in our fortune, the latest in a sweeping tide of change that had left me feeling stranded, struggling to stay afloat.
“I was only saying . . .” My voice trailed off as Mama gave me a glare.
“We know what you were saying, Minnie. And I tell you, it is enough.”
Exasperated, I crunched the tissue in the hat box beside me. “Perhaps I should go out for a walk,” I muttered. “Seeing as I’m not needed here.”
“If you cannot make yourself useful, yes, you should.” Mama turned back to my sister. “Fresh air will no doubt improve your mood and take that unpleasant sting out of your tail. I’ll not have you distracting your sister with nonsense when we’ve so much to do.”
Fresh air and a minimum of nonsense were Mama’s solution to everything. She was nothing if not sensible, no matter that in the last year we’d experienced enough upheaval to turn any other sensible woman’s head. But Louise of Hesse-Cassel never indulged such weakness. She’d first showed this obdurate trust in her own judgment by defying her family to marry my father, her second cousin, Christian of Glücksburg, an impoverished princeling of no particular account, with whom she’d settled into a penurious but pleasant existence, raising us with a sensible disregard for pretension. She might now be poised to become Queen of Denmark, with Papa’s surprising inheritance of our childless king’s throne, while preparing to send her eldest daughter off to marry Great Britain’s heir, yet she approached these monumental tasks as she might the daily cleaning of the parlor. And that sting in my tail, as she called it, confounded her, for it was something no child of hers should display, especially in light of our newly exalted circumstances.
Tugging at my voluminous skirts, I marched to the door, pausing there. I hoped my sister would call me back. I wanted Alix to say something, to show she still needed me. But when she remained silent and I glanced defiantly over my shoulder, I found her smothered in the silk petticoat, Mama ordering the maid to fasten her stays, as if Alix were a doll.
Or a lamb for the sacrifice.
To me, my sister’s upcoming marriage was much the same.
We were not born to grandeur. Mama had often reminded us of this in our childhood, so we wouldn’t expect more than we had. Those born into riches are not so fortunate, she would say as she sat with Alix and me, instructing us in our embellishment of homemade bonnets or darning of underclothes. Those who begin their lives with everything cannot appreciate the rewards of aspiration. Wise advice, for no one had reaped more reward in aspiration than Mama, but scarce comfort to me now as I traversed the Bernstorff Palace, passing statuary and mirror-paneled walls without a glance, my heels echoing on the parquet floors and my wide-hooped skirt soughing in my wake.
We’d moved to the palace a month ago, once it was determined that Papa would become Denmark’s new crown prince. Nestled on spacious grounds outside Copenhagen, the palace was suitably elegant, much larger than our yellow home within the city. The beautiful gardens were one of the few changes I’d welcomed, with their magnificent lime trees and walking paths. My younger brother, Valdemar, and little sister, Thyra, loved it here, let loose to dirty their feet and scramble under the hedgerows. But I was nearly fifteen now, too old for childish games, though as I escaped into the garden I wished I were not. I longed to be a child again, free to run and hide.
Raising a hand to my brow, I realized I’d forgotten to fetch a parasol or hat. I risked getting too much color. Imagining my mother’s reaction to this, I strode forth, thinking I should also undo the scratchy net confining my thick curls at my nape and incite a scandal. Only there was no one here to be scandalized. The gardens stretched before me in verdant emptiness, until I neared the Swedish-style villa that served as a teahouse and saw a familiar figure in a dark suit pacing outside it, cigar smoke drifting in a cloud about him.
Grasping up fistfuls of my skirts and not caring that my ankles showed, I raced across the lawn to him. He turned, startled, smoke curling from his mouth under his impressive new mustachios. He had grown them to appear more distinguished. I found them funny, for his wispy brown hair was thin on top, a sparse fleece offsetting that thicket on his face. And future king or not, he still had to smoke outside, because Mama deplored the smell and had begged him to cease indulging “that disgusting vice.”
“Finished so soon?” A smile lightened his careworn face. It hurt me to see that he too had begun to change. Ever since it was decided he would succeed our ailing king, Papa had shed his lighthearted air, as if the burden of the crown already weighed upon him.
“Not for hours, I should think.” I wrinkled my nose at the pungent odor of tobacco enveloping him. “They still have mounds of things to sort through. There mustn’t be a single dress left in all of Copenhagen. Mama said I was being contrary, so I left.”
“I see.” A smile creased the corners of his mild light-brown eyes. “And were you being contrary, my Dagmar?”
It was his chosen name for me, one of the several with which I’d been christened, and my favorite, for everyone in the family but him called me Minnie. Dagmar was a unique name that set me apart, once belonging to a legendary queen consort of our country.
I shrugged. “I don’t see why there must be such a fuss.”
He laughed. “Your sister is about to wed Queen Victoria’s son and heir. One day, God willing, she’ll be queen consort of Great Britain. Most consider it a grand fuss, indeed.”
“Perhaps for Mama and Queen Victoria. As for Alix, how grand it is remains to be seen.” As I saw his expression dim, I added, “I’m only worried for her, Papa. Alix has been acting so strange. She just seems to accept all of it without question.”
He exhaled, leaned down to stamp out his cigar on the path, and then tucked the butt into his jacket pocket. “She doesn’t need to question. It’s a very prestigious match, which your mother encouraged and Queen Victoria approved. Alix knows she must fulfill her duty.”
His statement took me aback. I believed I knew Alix better than anyone, yet I hadn’t paused to think that, indeed, my sister had always shown an exemplary sense of duty.
She was almost three years older, and we had grown up together, sharing a bedroom and our lessons. Our eldest brother, Frederick, was sent abroad to study, and our second brother, Willie, was enrolled in the Danish Military Academy, while our youngest sister, Thyra, and our third brother, Valdemar, were still children. Alix and I had therefore cleaved to each other in a home always lacking for funds and dominated by our mother, who, when our family reunited for the holidays, lavished her attention on our brothers.
I’d always resented how much due she gave Freddie and Willie, even if Alix told me it was natural, as a mother always valued her sons more. I didn’t see why, seeing as we, the daughters, helped manage the household while the sons were away. Yet unlike me—I hated the endless chores—my sister never protested. At night, we whispered together over our work-chafed hands, our narrow beds pushed side by side. We promised each other that one day we’d buy a house of our own by the Sound, with floors we’d never scrub. We’d own a hundred dogs and paint the hours away, for we were both skilled with watercolors. All that changed once she’d accepted Prince Albert Edward’s proposal. She became someone else, no longer my devoted sister; suddenly she was Mama’s favorite, inundated with etiquette practice, dance lessons, or dress fittings, preparing for a new life in another country, in which I’d play no part.
“I barely see her anymore,” I said, avoiding my father’s eyes. “Mama always has important letters Alix must write, people they must visit, or something she must try on. I feel as though she’s left us already.”
“Have you told her as much?” he asked gently. “Perhaps this contrariness of yours has made her think you’re angry with her.”
Again I paused. Was I angry? I supposed I must be. I certainly did not like how willingly she’d acquiesced to this marriage and forsaken our confidences.
“Do I seem angry to you?” I said.
“Always.” He pinched my cheek. “You’re our rebellious one.”
“Rebellious!” I exclaimed. “Just because I don’t want everything to change? Our life has been turned upside down, Papa. I never expected any of this.”
He sighed. “I see how trying it is for you. I am sorry for it. But marriage is an essential passage in life, Dagmar. We must leave those we love behind to start a family of our own.” He paused. “You’re almost fifteen. Have you never considered it?”
“Of course I have,” I replied, though I hadn’t. Marriage might be inevitable, but until now it had also been easily ignored. “But how can Alix marry someone she barely knows? Bertie of Wales saw a photograph of her and asked for a meeting; it was only at Easter that they were introduced, remember, when we all went to Rumpenheim together. The tsarina was there with her eldest son; I thought Alix liked the tsarevich. Nixa certainly seemed to like her, while she and Bertie barely said three words to each other. Yet now she loves him enough to marry him?” When my father didn’t answer, I pressed on. “You must have loved Mama when you married her.”
“I did.” His face softened. “Your mother was so vibrant and determined. I fell in love with her at once. She wasn’t unlike you in her youth. She knew exactly what she wanted.”
I refused to be placated. At this particular moment, I wasn’t pleased to be compared with my mother, who had connived to upend our existence.
“But before I met your mother, I tried to woo Victoria,” Papa added, with a grin.
I was astounded. “You did?”
“Not only me. Dozens of princes tried. She was the most eligible bride in Europe. And I was rather bold, despite my lack of means. I wrote her letters and offered to visit, hoping I might win her hand. Alas, she disdained me, and several others, to marry Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha instead.”
“Who died,” I groused. “Leaving her a widow to meddle in our affairs.”
“Now, now. You mustn’t blame the queen. It is true the tsar’s son expressed interest in your sister, but Alix didn’t want to live in Russia, where she doesn’t speak the language.”
“They speak French at the Russian court. See? Alix doesn’t know anything! She hates rain, too, and I hear it rains all the time in England. Whatever will she do when she cannot step outside without getting wet?”
“We’ll have to make sure she brings plenty of umbrellas.” Papa gave me another smile. “I know this isn’t easy for you, but casting doubts now will not reassure her.”
I winced. Being too engrossed in my own feelings, I hadn’t given Alix’s feelings any thought. I moved closer to my father, seeking comfort as he slipped his arm about my waist and kissed my brow. “Again without a hat,” he said. “Your mother will be furious.”
“Add it to her list of grievances,” I replied, and his laughter rumbled in his chest as he guided me along the path, his arm about me, enclosing me in a sense of safety that made me realize I feared losing him, too. I knew our king was ill and that hasty preparations to confirm Papa as crown prince were under way. What would our life be like, with him on the throne and Mama as queen, with hordes of retainers and officials surrounding us day and night?
I shivered at the thought. He tightened his hold on me. “What else troubles you?”
I felt foolish. Any other girl would welcome this rise in her station, the chance to call herself a princess and be the senior daughter, now that her sister was leaving. “Must we move to the Amalienborg Palace after we return from Alix’s wedding?” I asked.
“I’m afraid so. King Frederick has granted me the immense honor of becoming his heir, but it was no simple task. It took months for everyone to reach agreement. His Majesty now insists we must live according to our rank.” He looked down at me, for I was short in stature, like my mother, while Alix was tall and willowy, like him. “Our yellow house isn’t suitable for a future king and his family. We’ll keep this palace for the summer and then you’ll have your own suite in the Amalienborg. Won’t that be nice? Apartments of your own, to do with as you like, after sharing a bedroom all these years?”
“With Thyra there?” I referred to my nine-year-old sister, who followed me around in adoration whenever she wasn’t romping with our little brother. “She’ll move in with me the moment she can. I don’t mind,” I said. “I wouldn’t know what to do with an entire suite.”
“More unwelcome change, eh? We’ll have to muddle through it as best we can.”
I nodded glumly as he released me, searching his jacket. He was about to extract his cigar butt when he suddenly peered toward the palace. Following his gaze, I saw my mother waving at us from an upstairs window.
“It seems they finished sooner than we thought,” said Papa. “Well. Let’s go behold your sister’s trousseau. Do be kind to her. Remember what I said; Alix isn’t like you. She doesn’t express herself easily, so find a time to speak with her alone. She needs your support more than ever. I don’t want you at odds when we depart for England.”
“Yes, Papa,” I said.
But I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what my sister might say. What if I discovered she wouldn’t miss me as much as I wanted her to?