Reviewed by Victoria Best
Laurie Graham is one of those authors who never seem to get the attention and acknowledgement they deserve. Her novels are engrossing and clever and so, so funny. Her latest follows a pattern that she’s used before – plucking out one fascinating moment of history, usually involving a large, grand family, and following the crisis through the eyes of a protagonist slightly left of centre. In this case, it’s the Bolshevik revolution and the demise of those imperial Tsars, the Romanovs.
We begin the story in Britain, however, with Queen Victoria still on the throne and exerting her mighty matriarch’s will over her extended family. The heroine of our tale is Ducky – in reality Victoria Melita, but royalty has a penchant for silly nicknames – who is Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. ‘We are a vast tribe,’ Ducky writes. ‘One winter afternoon I tried to count my first cousins, living and dead. I got up to forty-seven and then someone brought in tea, so I gave up.’ This is because her father is one of Grandma Queen’s sons, and her mother is the daughter of Alexander II of Russia, two families whose network of relations stretch across Europe like a spider’s web. Even more than most families, there’s a lot of one-upmanship going on, and Ducky is right in the middle of it:
‘Some ladies like to press flowers or do crewelwork. Mother’s favourite pastime was infuriating Grandma Queen. Whenever we were obliged to go to Windsor or to Osbourne House she brought extra supplies of her black cigarettes, so as always to be seen smoking, and she’d pile on the jewels, far too many and too brilliant for a simple English house party, but she loved to remind Grandma of her rank and her superior jewellery. Mother, you see, is the daughter of a Russian Emperor. Grandma Queen was merely the daughter of a Duke of Kent. The more I think of it, the more certain I am the only reason Grandma had herself declared Empress of India was to try and overhaul Mother.’
Ducky’s formidable mother in is the process of arranging matches for her daughters, a task that falls somewhere between catalogue shopping from Harrods and fierce haggling in a Turkish bazaar. Ducky has her eye on one of her first cousins in Russia, Cyril Vladimirovich, but her Mother has other plans, notably handsome but feckless Ernie, who will in time become Grand Duke of Hesse in Germany. Ducky isn’t sure about this at all – ‘If I’d thought of him at all, it was as a mad cousin who refused to grow up.’ Which turns out to be a pretty astute assessment of him. Ernie is notably disinclined to propose, and in order to get the deal done (and perhaps to trump Ducky’s mother) Grandma Queen steps in and makes her wishes known. That’s all it takes for people’s lives to be arranged for them.
Laurie Graham is brilliant at conveying the strange bubble that royalty lives in. Money is no object, but the future is tightly circumscribed by duty. It’s an odd life of organised frivolity with few glimpses of the wider world. Before her marriage, Ducky’s Aunt Louise takes her aside and tries to give her some sage advice:
‘Some people know at once what they want to do,’ she said. ‘Others take longer. And some, of course, never want to do anything. The main thing is not to tie yourself to a husband before you know. Imagine discovering you have a passion to explore the Amazon rainforests but you can’t because you’ve previously agreed to be Queen of Romania.’
This is dangerously subversive thinking, however, and Ducky has been warned in advance. ‘The charge against Aunt Louise was that she was over-endowed with an artistic temperament that marriage had done nothing to tame. It can happen in the best of families.’ So Ducky gets married and finds that she has landed herself in more hot water than she realised, and that the fun parlour game of husband roulette can result in unguessable trouble. When she seeks a divorce from Queen Victoria, the answer is unequivocal: ‘Marriage is sacred. Happiness is irrelevant’ her grandmother tells her. And here’s the rub: bad things aren’t supposed to happen to royalty even though they do. The result is tangibly absurd. When Ducky’s brother shoots himself: ‘We were required to say that he had lost a long and valiant fight against consumption though it was generally known that the instrument of his death was a Gasser-Rast service revolver. He was twenty-four years old. It was all too stupid.’ What this means, is that royal families are entirely unprepared for social and historical upheaval, even though they are in the front row when it happens.
Laurie Graham has a very Jane Austen-ish ability to create characters who are really rather awful but who provide immense entertainment. Royalty gives her a splendid arena in which to show people at their complacent and self-satisfied worst, and yet somehow we are compelled to know what happens to them. Ducky finally gets her way and marries cousin Cyril, but little does she know what moving to Russia at the start of the 20th century holds in store for her. Her account is written from a point in the future that the reader cannot yet see, but we know her family is in exile. A great deal happens in this novel, as Ducky’s fortunes rise and fall in both personal and public ways. I was completely consumed by the story and rooting for the endearing character of Ducky all the way through. I have to say I also learned a great deal of history, all of it fascinating. The parts of the narrative that deal with the encroaching revolution are extremely tense. All in all, I loved it and didn’t want it to end, and then I had Laurie Graham withdrawal afterwards. If you’ve never read her, you have a treat in store.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
Laurie Graham, The Grand Duchess of Nowhere (Quercus, October 2014) 978-1782069706, 400 pages, hardback.