“Nobody survives alone. Not here. Not at this court.” This is one of many lessons Catherine the Great learns during her years at court. In the sequel to The Winter Palace, Eva Stachniak returns to the extravagant life of the grand lady of Russia’s Golden Age. Where The Winter Palace focussed on the young Grand Duchess’ way to the throne – told from the perspective of her friend-and-spy Varvara – Empress of the Night gives a more intimate view of Catherine’s life. We look through her eyes during the last months of her reign, combined with many flashbacks, and live through the stroke that finally hits her. In emotional depth, it feels like reading her personal diary, penetrating her mind, being proud, exposed and lonely at the top.
Empress of the Night is a highly personal tale of the extravagant but also complicated, tedious and isolated life at one of the most splendid courts of its time. The novel, which is divided into three parts, starts off with the Empress suffering a stroke. In minute detail, we experience her inner thoughts and the strange sensations of her body becoming heavy and cumbersome. The description of her physical vulnerability is ruthless and confronting, and her helplessness in these last hours is a huge contrast to her dominion in life. During the stroke, she reflects on her life in dream-like fragments. She always returns to the same question; who have been her true friends – during her life and now that the end is near?
Unsurprisingly, her intimate relationships with men form a large theme. Unhappy in her marriage, Catherine feels she is allowed to find relaxation and pure pleasure in the arms of other men. As she is a woman, her conduct is very much frowned upon. Catherine the Great is often portrait as a man hunter; and pleasure seeking was not a virtue that was appreciated in women. Here, we see that Catherine searches for true love and friendship, finding consolation and comfort in the arms of her favourites. As she grows older, she becomes increasingly emotionally depended on them, because her workload is high and friendships are always unreliable.
The second part of the novel takes the reader back to the last few months before her death. Catherine realises that “she and her body have parted ways a few good years before, now they merely suffer each other’s presence.” In these months, the reader gets to know her as both a loving and calculating grandmother, who wants to arrange her accession and find a suitable husband for her eldest granddaughter. At the same time she mourns the loss of her own youth. The loss of lust, her sore leg and eventually the wheelchair each feel as a defeat. While first young men gave her many hours of pleasure and distraction, now work becomes her only remedy to these depressing circumstances.
She feels tired of all the machinations at court, but still can’t break free from them. It’s backbreaking work to hide what you feel and be careful to trust anyone in order to hold on to power. It’s at these times that the loss of those that are no more stings most painfully. She fondly remembers her favourite Grigory Potemkin and her first friend, Varvara. Why did Varvara leave her with so little explanation? “A throne is a lonely place. Friendship flees from Sovereigns. […] Or do Sovereigns flee from friendship?”
Empress of the Night is a beautiful novel that shines in its fragile and poetic descriptions. Catherine is a memorable heroine whose reign is arguably one of the most intriguing periods in history. Stachniak succeeds brilliantly in maintaining an absorbing storyline which captivates until the very end.
Click here to read our interview with Eva Stachniak