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“Follow your own path.” #WITmonth @OWC_Oxford

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Selected Letters of Catherine the Great
Translated by Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

History as a concept can be problematic linguistically from the start, Just look at the word – an amalgam of his and story – and you can see where the focus is going to be. There is still perhaps a belief that great deeds are done by great men, and women are often marginalised to the sidelines. However, thinking of, for example, the great monarchs of the past just shows how that isn’t necessarily the case. Elizabeth I in this country is unforgettable; and the Russian monarch Catherine the Great is just as legendary.

Oxford World Classics have just brought out a brilliant book of her Selected Letters and I thought it would be fascinating to take a look at this during WIT Month; particularly after having spent some time with another great Russian, Marina Tsvetaeva. The two women couldn’t be further apart, really, but both had equally fascinating lives, and I’m enjoying very much dipping into Catherine’s correspondence.

The introduction is excellent, providing background to Catherine’s reign, her vast achievements and just what an educated woman she was. This was the real Golden Age of letter writing which was an art in itself, and she excelled in using the form for personal and diplomatic purposes. The book is divided into sections that follow her career chronologically, focusing on the main aspects which informed her writings at those points. So we see the young queen finding her way when new in the role; fostering cultural connections with European countries and philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot; dealing with war and conflict; expanding the Russian empire; and also more personal contacts with her various lovers. Catherine’s reign was a long one and she was in many ways a self-made woman. Born a German princess, she embraced Russianness wholeheartedly, becoming synonymous with her country and determined to drag it forward culturally and in terms of conquest. And this was no mean feat, for a country the size of Russia contained so many different elements, people and cultures that to set out a set of laws and regulations that applied to all was nigh on impossible.

In the end, the laws that people are talking so much about have not been made yet, and who can say whether they will be good or not? Truly, it is posterity, and not we, who will be in a position to settle this question. Just think, I beg you: the laws must work for Asia and for Europe. What differences of climate, peoples, habits, even ideas!

The “Selected Letters” is an exemplary book, and demonstrates exactly how you should produce a scholarly yet readable volume. The introduction is detailed enough to give you perfect context, there’s a chronology, notes are indicated in the text by an asterisk, and crucially, each letter has its own short paragraph to introduce it and explain context. So it’s perfect for dipping into, which I think is how I shall carry on with it, because each letter is so beautifully written that it deserves to be savoured and not rushed. I confess the print size of the intro paragraphs is quite small for my ageing eyes, so dipping will help with this too, but I’m intrigued by this woman and shall enjoy making my way through her letters.

Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Attribution], from Wikimedia Commons

I’m finding so much to be fascinated by in this book: for example, the fact that she was responsible for the iconic Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Catherine was determined to create and emphasise a connection between herself and Peter, most crucially because she was of course not actually Russian. The correspondence with the sculptor is so interesting, and her skill at a combination of flattery and insisting on her own way is so clever. I’ve also been struck again by the general interconnectedness (well, inbreeding….) of the European monarchs which continued until 20th century and perhaps reached its zenith with the strangeness around the time of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution; the family tree of Victoria caused a fair amount of havoc at that time…

Catherine the Great c. 1845 by Georg Cristoph Grooth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Selected Letters” is proving to be the perfect book for #WITmonth, and is shaping up to encapsulate brilliantly the breadth of Catherine’s achievements and her reign. As the introduction reminds us, the male bias of history often tries to diminish what she did with gossip about horses and lovers in a judgemental way which would never be applied to a king or Tsar. I’m not a fan of monarchy in general; however, accepting that this was the mode of rule at the time, what Catherine aimed to do with her country was laudable. I hope this volume will help to ensure that we remember Catherine the Great for her intelligence, wit and triumphs rather that trying to relegate her rule to one of novelty.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

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Unearthing the Past

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A Late Phoenix by Catherine Aird

Sometimes book finds can be so serendipitous – you can stumble across something in a second-hand bookstore; a cover can catch your eye; one of your favourite publishers can bring out a new-to-you author. Nowadays, however, many of my fun finds come from recommendations from other bloggers, and this book is no exception. Furrowed Middlebrow, a wonderful blog from Scott in SFO, covers all manner of obscure women writers from the early to mid-20th century and he’s compiled a staggeringly impressive set of lists of authors to along with it. However, it was a recent review of Aird’s “A Late Phoenix” which particularly caught my eye, and I picked up a copy as soon as I could.

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Aird is one of those solid, reliable crime writers of the late 20th century, not perhaps that well-known (well, I confess I hadn’t heard of her) but nevertheless steadily producing quality mysteries over the years. Wikipedia says: Catherine Aird (born 20 June 1930) is the pseudonym of novelist Kinn Hamilton McIntosh. She is the author of more than twenty crime fiction novels and several collections of short stories. Her witty, literate, and deftly plotted novels straddle the “cozy” and “police procedural” genres.  “A Late Phoenix” is the fourth in her Calleshire series, published in 1970, and it features her regular detectives, Sloan and Crosby.

The book opens in the town of Berebury whether the new local doctor, Latimer, is taking over a practice after his predecessor of long-standing has passed away. However, he is soon being called to the building site across the road, lately the site of some failed excavations. The archaeologists failed to find any remains, but the builders have succeeded – however, the skeleton they uncover turns out to be only 25 years or so old, and therefore recent enough for Inspector Sloan to be called in to investigate.

It soon becomes clear that the death is linked back to wartime – still a relatively recent memory – and the victim was a pregnant young woman, shot with a rifle. This area of Berebury suffered a dramatic air raid, and it seems as if the death may well have occurred around that time. Sloan begins to investigate, tracking down the owners of the land, the owners of the houses lost in the bombing and tapping into local memories of the drama. He’s hindered rather than helped by young Constable Crosby, who seems to have little idea about anything, and his boss Superintendent Leeyes who seems to go off on several different tangents in each conversation. Leeyes is actually really funny, totally obsessed with the horror of the youth of today, men with long hair and the coffee bar over the road from his window known as “Dick’s Dive”! And then there is a second murder, and the past starts to affect the present…

“Otherwise what he saw at the site was still the same save for the swarming police. The timbers still shored up the adjacent house. The narrow, neglected gardens still ran away from the ruins. Desolation was still the order of the day. What difference there was between then and now lay in the minds of the policemen who were there. Before, their view of the site had merely been the beginning of a new job. Now, they were investigating an old death and a new one. With undertones of war. And overtones of murder.”

The mystery itself is an excellent one: well plot, well paced, absorbing and enjoyable. I confess to guessing the victim quite early on, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book one bit – and much of this has to do with what Scott picked up when he read the book (and I’d refer you to his excellent piece here). “A Late Phoenix” has a wonderful sense of place and time because of when it was written. The Second World War *was* still a recent event, clear in people’s memories, and there were plenty of folk around who’d witnessed it.

I’m old enough to have grown up in a small town in Hampshire during the late 1960s/1970s and this book gives the flavour of the time with immense accuracy. Our house was on a newish estate, built in the early 1960s, but we played in what was known as The Woods nearby. This was a piece of wasteland on the site of demolished houses (whether by bombs or not, I’m not sure, but there were plenty of ruins in the area). Part of the woods still had bomb shelters built during the War which we used to dare each other to go down (which was pretty scary as they were dark and damp), and there was very much the sense that the War was not long ago. Some areas damaged by bombing obviously sat for decades before being redeveloped (I think it was the 1980s before The Woods were finally built on) and the past and the present were still intertwined.

caird1
This kind of murder mystery, where the past informs and affects the present, is one of my favourite type (Christie’s “Postern of Fate” is a book I can read again and again) and Aird does it brilliantly. Berebury is a town on the cusp of change, as were so many at the time – dragging themselves forward from a past of outside toilets and Victorian slums into the brave new world of concrete and glass. Brutalist architecture does get bad press nowadays, but I confess quite a fondness for it; possibly because it was being built as I grew up! But that’s by the by. “A Late Phoenix” is an excellent, well-written and enjoyable murder mystery and on this evidence, I’d very much like to read more Catherine Aird. Thanks for pointing me in her direction, Scott!

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