Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
In Mara Kay’s first book, Masha, we followed the adventures of Masha Fredericks as she travelled to St Petersburg from her home in the country to attend the Smolni Institute for Noble Girls. Her family were impoverished but she qualified for her place by her noble birth. Girls were expected to study at the Institute for the full course of nine years and spend all their holidays at school. This means a parting from her widowed mother and the possibility that she may not see her again. Masha is quiet and shy and has a hard time of it at first as she inadvertently reveals a breaking of the rules by other boarders when she is being interviewed. This is innocently done but she is ignored and treated coldly on her arrival. However, friendships are forged and confidence grows and we now meet her in The Youngest Lady in Waiting, in which she is serving the Grand Duchess Alexandra in Petersburg.
I confess to a weakness for books in this time and setting. As a teenager the life in Petersburg seemed to me impossibly glamorous and fascinating and lush. Later, of course, I realised that life was hard for anybody outside the gilded and rich society portrayed and Mara Kay makes no secret of this.
Mara’s closest friend Sophie Brozina falls in love with dashing young nobleman, Mark, and they marry, but unknown to her at the time, he is involved in a revolutionary group, determined to rebel against oppression. Tsar Alexander I had died on 1 December 1825, and the royal guards swore allegiance to the presumed heir, Alexander’s brother Constatine. When Constantine made his renunciation of the throne public, and Nicholas stepped forward to assume the throne, the rebels acted. With the capital in temporary confusion, and one oath to Constantine having already been sworn, the society scrambled into secret meetings to convince regimental leaders not to swear allegiance to Nicholas. These efforts would culminate in the Decembrist Revolt.
On the morning of 26 December a group of officers commanding about 3,000 men assembled in Senate Square, where they refused to swear allegiance to the new Tsar, Nicholas I, proclaiming instead their loyalty to Constantine and the Constitution. They expected to be joined by the rest of the troops stationed in Saint Petersburg, but they were disappointed. The revolt was further hampered when it was deserted by its supposed leader Prince Trubetskoy, who had a last minute change of heart, and failed to turn up at the Square. It was a shambles and the leaders were rounded up, arrested and tried.
One of the reasons I have loved historical fiction all my life is that we can feel more involved and understand political movements which we can all check up in reference books and view from a distance. Many of the Decembrists are exiled to Siberia, their rights and privileges taken from them and, isolated, their lives are sad and tedious. Masha visits:
The wives never let their husbands realise what a sacrifice they made in following them. Underneath the shield of courage Masha could sense the desperate longing for the old brilliant life, the loved ones, the ancestral homes, the freedom…….Sophie’s eyes followed the flight of a flock of birds….’they are free, free’
They are left to rot and have given up hope of a return ‘to think of their high ideals, noble dreams, youth, intelligence, all rendered useless, trodden into the ground’.
But this is a book to lighten the heart as well, and earlier in the story Masha and Sophie get ready for a ball.
The pale lavender of the dress made her skin look very white and there was a becoming pink on her cheeks. ‘Sergei has asked me to dance with him tonight,’ she whispered to herself.
The Youngest Lady in Waiting was marketed as a Junior book, as it was called years ago, but can be read by adults as well because of its excellent writing and narrative. It does not talk down to its intended audience and I am simply delighted that this author has been reprinted and is available again. Her books will certainly be read by people like myself who loved them in their youth and are delighted to re-read them and remember how we were then. I hope that they will also be enjoyed by young readers of today and won’t be regarded as old fashioned.
I am simply delighted that Margin Notes Books have made these Mara Kay titles available once more and that they have allowed me to spend a few happy hours with Masha and Sophie again.
Elaine blogs at www.randomjottings.typepad.com
Mara Kay. The Youngest Lady in Waiting (Margin Notes Books: London, 2015). 978-0956462657, 262pp., paperback.
Out of print.