I started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful. But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:
The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state. Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.
The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing. I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.
With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed. I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal. But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs. Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:
In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.
It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight. A perfect balance.