I have researched the family of the last Russian tsar since I was a teenager. There are many reasons why, but mainly something in the eyes of the three eldest daughters speaks to me. They seem to have a gentleness and depth of soul that calls out for friendship and recognition even so long after their deaths (one hundred years ago on July 17th). For years, I read everything I could about them. This was in the days before the internet, and even before interloans, so I took many trips to small, obscure libraries in order to find Romanov biographies and watched old film footage on microfiche in basements. I studied Russian history and literature at university. When the internet revealed hundreds of private photographs, letters, diaries, films, and information, I absorbed it all. I tell you this (and some of you may remember I've written about it before) so you understand my opinion of I Was Anastasia, is an informed one.
The book is beautifully written. The structure is clever, alternating between Anastasia Romanov impersonator Anna Anderson's plotline, which moves back in time, and Anastasia's own plotline covering the imperial family's last months of life. Lawhorn has skipped many significant events, but I understand the constraints that drove her to this. She admits to taking liberties and that's fine, it's a big story. Personally I disagree with her view of Anna Anderson, but that's okay, we know a lot about the woman but not really anything certain about her interior life, considering she wove such a vast lie about herself. I really was inclined to love this book. However, so much is wrong with the characterisations that I felt compelled to respond.
I could tell you how she unfairly makes Kerensky into a cruel man. How she simplifies the guards, thus eradicating some very interesting dynamics from the story. And more. But in the interests of keeping this post relatively short, I'll focus only on Grand Duchess Maria Romanov.
Maria was the family sweetheart, a girl so good her father said he was "afraid of the wings growing." She was humble, kind, gentle-natured, and rather squelched beneath the forceful character of her younger sister Anastasia. As with all her family, she was highly religious, and although she had a teenaged girl's inclination to flirt innocently, ultimately hers was an impeccable character. Even the guards imprisoning the family liked her. When she was caught in an indelicate position with one of those guards who had smuggled in a cake on her birthday, it almost certainly involved no more than secret kissing, if even that.
Lawhorn however cheapens Maria's character, presenting her as vain (infact her family laughed at her for being "fat" and clumsy, so I doubt she had a lot of self-confidence, and besides, at the time of the story she was actually deathly ill with measles and pnuemonia, following which she had her hair shaved off, facts Lawhorn omitted), also that she was grumpy about having to do manual labour in the gardens when infact she loved it, that she was reluctant to accompany her parents on a dangerous journey although nothing could be further from the truth, and finally Lawhorn makes her far more libidinous than she ever would have been - or could have been, considering she was living in a small house jam-packed with people, including armed guards.
As one of the villains says to Maria, "Your honour is tarnished. You will forever be known as the Romanov who spread her legs for a common soldier." This is absolutely awful because hundreds of people will read this and, trusting the author's research, believe it. Lawhorn herself has tarnished Maria's honour.
Why is this important? It's only a novel, after all. And again I reiterate, Lawhorn has written it beautifully. I wish so much I could give her only praise. But to me the mischaracterisation is important because Maria does not deserve to be maligned. Infact, a miracle of healing has been ascribed to her - a fact I mention not due to any religiosity on my part, but only because such a miracle would be characteristic of her. It makes me deeply sad to think anyone will read Lawhorn's book and think she was less than she really was, especially after all she went through in her life and how she maintained her generosity and goodness to the very end, even in the face of hardship, terror, and cruelty.
But there's a deeper question here that I'm struggling with. Historic fiction must be hard to write. Weaving the truth in with narrative strength and clarity ... deciding what is most important ... making the characters speak effectively on the page ... forming educated guesses when there are gaps. I doubt I could do it well. But where should we draw the line between literary licence and slander? So many of the changes to Maria's character seemed purposeless other than to make her a foil for Anastasia. Lawhorn even changes how Maria died - giving her an instant death, when infact Maria suffered horribly, finally perishing long after the rest of her family. Why take even that from her?
I know I sound like a Romanov fangirl (a nicer word is scholar), but really, beyond my concern for Maria's reputation, I wonder as a writer and a reader where we draw the line. Is it fair to change the essential character of historic figures in order to serve an author's personal ideas about storytelling? What do you think? If you've made it to the end of this epic post, I'd love to hear your opinions on this question.
the colourisation in the second picture was done by klimbim.
people almost always get her hair colour wrong; in real life it was honey brown.
and yes this shows I know too much on the subject!
in my defence (if scholarly interests need to be defended),
I don't know as much as some people.