Today I’m pleased to welcome Eva Stachniak
www.EvaStachniak.com as a guest to The love of a Good Book.
As soon as I knew I wanted to write about Catherine the Great, I knew I would write two novels. The Winter Palace would show Catherine through the eyes of her confidante and spy; Empress of the Night, would let the Russian Empress take center stage. The spy’s voice came to me fully-formed, a confession of a disillusioned servant turned courtier. Catherine’s voice took a bit longer to form.
I began by thinking about the older Catherine the Great, an absolute monarch, ruling a vast, multiethnic empire on its way to become another world power. From reading her letters and her memoirs I learned that she knew what she wanted and was fearless in getting it. I also thought about her lovers—the increasingly younger men she chose as her Favourites—the gossip she elicited, the sexual innuendoes that accompanied her name.
I read and re-read the accounts of visitors to Russia, intrigued and scandalized by a spectacle of strapping young men whose families groomed them in hope that they might catch the eye of the empress and thus assure their own and their family’s future. The same spectacle they accepted as natural at the courts of Europe’s kings.
I wondered what she thought when she read about herself in the Parisian pamphlets, called a whore, a slut, a harridan, depicted in humiliating poses, her political decisions reduced to lust and sexual humiliation.
The voice that was first just a whisper was slowly taking shape, becoming stronger.
This is what I would like to share with you. One of these early fragments, when Catherine’s voice was still forming, but when I knew that it was already alive:
She has a body and a heart. Her body needs caresses, her heart needs the appeasement of warmth. What she needs she takes. She is not ashamed of her needs. She is not ashamed of what she takes. She is her own mistress. She knows the boundaries of good and evil. Giving in to the desires of the body is not evil. Making sure the country you rule is strong and victorious is not evil. Those who say otherwise are hypocrites or weaklings.
She reads their petty gossip. The reports come to her all the time. Letters opened, conversations overheard, confessions inscribed. She knows what they think of her when they profess their love and admiration. She knows what their calculations are. So many rubles for their smiles, their applause, their lies. They think that because she pays the price, she believes them. They know nothing about politics. They know nothing of power. Or if they do know, they are just testing her resolve. For those she had some measure of respect. For others, for the sanctimonious fools, the bleeding hearts, the hypocrites she has none. All she wants is to keep them away from doing harm. From weakening all she is building and has built.