Book Review: “An Unbroken Unity: A Memoir of Grand-Duchess Serge of Russia – 1864-1918” by E.M. Almedingen

Every now and then, it’s possible to find a book that inspires and moves you and this book did that for me. While reading a biography of Princess Alice, mother of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the author mentions her aunt, Grand-Duchess Elizabeth as having a profound influence on Alice with her foundation of a convent and nursing and feeding the poor. The author highly recommended Ms. Almedingen’s biography of Elizabeth and I was lucky enough to find a used copy of this book, published in 1964.

There are few books published on the Grand-Duchess. This author, of Russian, English and German heritage, spent some time in Russia before the first World War and had relatives and friends who knew the Grand-Duchess personally. This book is a biography but it’s in the style of a memoir and includes many first hand stories. The life of the Grand-Duchess is filled with happiness, hope and tragedy and these personal stories deepen the narrative.

Elizabeth was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her parents were Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. Her sister was Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia, wife of Tsar Nicholas II. Indeed, Elizabeth was instrumental in her sister marrying the Tsar, something she may have later regretted. Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, an uncle of the last Tsar. It was a love match and a successful, though childless marriage, which ended when Serge was tragically assassinated.

Widowhood opened up an opportunity for Elizabeth to create a life of piety and charity. She grew up Lutheran in her home country but once in Russia, she came to love the Russian Orthodox church and converted. After careful consideration, she began wearing a habit and built a convent and community to nurse, feed and teach the poor in Moscow. This was a thriving community and did significant charitable work. It was most unfortunate that the Romanov dynasty’s fall and the rise of communism had a deleterious effect on the community and on the life of Elizabeth.

I’m very impressed with Ms. Almedingen’s writing. She has keen insight into Russian society at the turn of the century as well as in the mind and motives of the Grand-Duchess. Her personal stories are fascinating. This is a mindful, conscientious, and considerate recounting of the Grand-Duchess’ life. Almedingen obviously cares deeply about her subject. She has a couple of other books about the Russian Imperial family that I might need to look into.

Book Review: “A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain” by Michael Paterson

After reading countless books about the murder and mayhem of the Wars of the Roses, I was ready for something completely different. This book happened to catch my eye on my bookshelf. The subtitle of the book is “A Social History of Queen Victoria’s Reign”. It is a part of a “brief history” series by the publisher Running Press.

After medieval history, the Victorian era is one of my favorites and social history is always of interest. Not only is the life of the Queen and her family appealing but all of the changes in society as well as the advances in industry, transportation, communication, fashion, literature and the history of the empire are interesting. The first chapter of this book covers the life of the Queen, Prince Albert and their children. The author calls her the “symbol of an age” and indeed, she gave her name to an entire era.

There is lots of good information in this book. Chapters cover things like what Victorians ate, their taste in art, architecture, how they furnished their homes and what the houses were like, household management, arts and crafts, and landscaping. The Victorians crossed over from using candles for interior lighting to gas. The subject of cholera is discussed, along with child labor, crime, the life of servants in the Victorian home and also the role of workhouses in society.

The chapter on transportation explains how Victorians went from walking and riding horse and carriage to the building of railroads and how this transformed society in countless ways. The introduction of the bicycle changed not only how people got around but how they dressed and how it liberated women. Ships went from being wind propelled to steam. Even the Underground got started during the Victorian era.

Other chapters cover religion, etiquette and fashion, office work, how Victorians spent their leisure time, the press and literature, arms and the world. The description of the work of clerks is fascinating and brings to mind Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. He briefly covers the Indian Empire and how it related to trade and the Boer Wars. The book has some photos of regular Victorians demonstrating how they dressed, a lengthy introduction and recommendations for further reading. If you are looking for an introduction into the era, this is the book.