Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie

Johanna, who loves socialising and gossip is married at 15 to an austere military man more than twice her age. He needs a male heir; she wants a path to the highest society. They have a daughter, Sophia, who is immediately rejected by her mother.  From her governess Sophia gets the affection and attention she so desperately craves. She also learns to cloak herself in meekness and submission. Temporarily.

Though Johanna could not have known what was to happen, the daughter she rejects as a disappointment goes on in time to become Catherine the Great.

If all this sounds like the premise for a novel, it’s because it could well be.  As the subtitle indicates, this is a portrait as much as a ‘life’ or a ‘biography’.  No dry history lesson, the prose moves fluidly and is studded with colourful detail. Yes, the intermingling of the various German, Prussian, Russian and Scandinavian royal houses of the time is occasionally tricky to keep track of unless you’re versed in the period, but that doesn’t matter here where the subject of the book is always the primary focus, and the extracts from her own memoirs dotted throughout bring the portrait psychologically to life.

If you’re on the lookout for something to curl up with on an autumn evening, or are impatiently waiting for Hilary Mantel to finish her trilogy, this might do quite nicely.

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