Empress of the Night tells the story of Catherine the Great, from her arrival in Russia as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst to her death while Empress of Russia.
Sophie has been brought to Russia as a potential match for Peter, heir to the Russian throne. When they marry, she becomes Catherine Alekseyevna. This goes against Russian custom which would have used her father’s name, Christian, to create a second name of Christyanevna, but the Empress declares this foreign sounding and her father ‘a man of no substance. A parasite who feeds off his wife’s connections’. Regardless of Sophie’s marriage, this sets her up as an outsider with an identity which has been imposed on her.
The one thing Catherine has been ordered to do is provide an heir to the throne; this proves to be difficult:
There are many faces Peter may put on. Of boredom. Of indifference. Of petulance. Of rapt concentration, but this happens only when he manages to fool his minders and smuggle his toy soldiers into the bedroom.
However, this provides Catherine with an education she might otherwise have lacked:
Then she, his bride, can watch him place them in formations, recreate battles long ago lost or won, battles over which he has total control.
She can ask him questions, then, and Peter will answer. Explain a tricky manoeuvre, a clever evasion that once assured a Prussian victory.
After six years of waiting for her husband to do his duty – her fault that he doesn’t of course – she takes the first of many lovers and provides an (illegitimate) heir.
These early years clearly establish the life that Catherine will be forced to live – she will have to defend herself in order to survive; life at the palace will be a battle, one simultaneously played out in private conversations overheard by servants and whispered to those to whom they are loyal, and on land owned by those the Empress wishes to relieve of their power.
Catherine is a fascinating figure, a formidable woman, prepared to take power for herself and do whatever’s necessary to defend it. Unafraid to take lovers and lose herself to them, expecting their loyalty long after the affair is over but not so sentimental that she won’t deal with them if the need arises.
Stachniak structures the novel so each section begins with Catherine’s final days, dying after a stroke. This frames the novel, giving the sense that she’s looking back on her life, contemplating her decisions. It’s a detailed reconstruction of a fascinating life.
I was lucky enough to be able to ask Eva Stachniak a few questions about the writing of the novel and her favourite female writers.
What attracted you to Catherine the Great’s story?
I’ve always been aware of Catherine the Great. I grew up in Poland, and the Poles cannot forgive her for wiping our country off the map of Europe for over 100 years. But that Catherine, the ruthless Russian Empress, did not attract me. I was captivated by the other Catherine—the one I got to know much later when I moved to Canada—an immigrant to Russia who reinvented herself, a powerful woman whose quest for power was not as easy as I imagined.
How did you go about turning the historical facts into a work of fiction?
After I’ve done my research, I step back and let myself dream, become my character. The process is similar to what actors do when they prepare for a role. It is best done in silence and solitude, in the spot where imagination and knowledge meet.
The novel’s structured around Catherine’s final two days, looking back on her life. Was this always your intended structure or did it evolve during the writing process?
In Empress of the Night I wanted to show Catherine towards the end of her life, because I wanted to explore how absolute power changed the woman I first described in The Winter Palace as a newcomer to Russia, fighting for her survival. The structure did not come at once; it evolved slowly, as I tried to probe Catherine’s mind in the last period of her life. In the end the stroke provided the beat of passing time, which—for me at least—heightened the pressing question of Catherine’s legacy.
One of the things that stood out for me in the novel was the physicality of the main characters, particularly the detail you go into about medical treatments. Can you tell us a bit about the role this plays in the book?
Many vicious stories have been repeated about Catherine’s death, mostly—as historians have pointed out many times—concocted by her political enemies in Paris. Political pamphleteers wanted to humiliate her and they used her sexuality as their target. There is no need to repeat these stories, but it is worth remembering the truth about her last days of life, and medical truth is part of the story. In the last six years of her life Catherine suffered from serious diabetes. Her stroke was the result of her illness which had other consequences as well, of which the Catherine in my novel speaks freely with her Scottish doctor. This not only allows the reader to know her better, but also to see the life of the 18th century in a much more realistic way.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?
Hilary Mantel is my personal favourite. I love the way she writes about history. She takes me into her world with great authority, and lets me experience the life in the past from unexpected angles. A marvellous writer! I also greatly admire Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice McDermott, and Kate Grenville to name just a few.
Thanks to Eva for such interesting responses.
Empress of the Night will be published shortly in the UK. It’s listed on Goodreads, if you want to take a further look. The book will be published in the USA and Canada next week.
Thanks to Doubleday, Canada for the review copy and to Traverse Press in the UK for arranging the interview.