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Celebrating Women Series: Eva Stachniak on Catherine the Great as a Grandmother

Welcome to the seventh article in the “Celebrating Women” for Women’s History Month! It’s the first time I’ve coordinated an author guest article series to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to Eva Stachniak for offering the seventh article in this series. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.


Catherine the Great:  Doting Grandmother in Her Later Years
by Eva Stachniak, Internationally Best Selling Historical Author

Old-Catherine-the-Great-PortraitCatherine the Great was not a happy mother. Her children were taken away from her as soon as they were born and she was not allowed to spend much time with them or to make any decisions about their upbringing. Her first-born, Paul, eight when Catherine became empress, and by then spoilt by his aunt, Elizabeth Petrovna, was always estranged from his mother. Catherine’s daughter, Anna, died in infancy, and her love child with Orlov, Alexei Bobrinsky, whom Catherine brought to the palace after the 19762 coup, did not live up to his mother’s expectations.

It was with her grandchildren that Catherine discovered the joys of parenthood. Her first grandson, Alexander, was always her most beloved, although she spent as much effort in bringing up his brother, Constantine. Accounts from the Russian court paint touching pictures: the Empress of Russia getting herself down on the floor to play with her grandsons, the empress designing her grandson’s play clothes, and—the most important—supervising their education.

How did she want her grandchildren educated? Children—Catherine believed—should be brought up according to the principles of reason. They should be able to ask questions freely and not to be ridiculed or punished when they made mistakes. Their natural curiosity should be fostered daily, their playtime should be both useful and fun. The education of princes could not neglect Russia’s political plans, either. Alexander had to be taught politics and economics. He had to be trained how to be a leader and an orator, a man able to talk with peoples from all walks of life.  Constantine, meant to rule the future Russian Eastern Empire from Constantinople, had to speak Greek, and thus had a Greek nanny.

Did it work? Not quite. Constantine did learn Greek but his own volatile nature made him unsuitable for leading Russia when an opportunity presented itself. With Alexandre, so carefully groomed to take over the throne of Russia, this liberal and progressive education also had an unforeseen effect. To Catherine’s bemusement, in 1795, the year when she was hoping Alexander would agree to be named her successor instead of his father, her beloved grandson replied that he wished to denounce his rights to the Russian throne altogether. He wished to withdraw to the country and cultivate his garden. Catherine, to her credit, listened to these youthful dreams with patience. She was convinced that her arguments and the reality of Alexander’s obligations will win over youthful idealism.

She was right, though not in the way she had planned it.

Author Eva Stachniak, Biography (in her words)~

EStachniakLQI was born and raised in Wrocław, Poland. English is my second language although, thanks to my wonderful and far-sighted mother, I began learning it in early childhood.

In Poland I was an academic, teaching in the English Department of the University of Wrocław. In the summer of 1981, on the eve of Solidarity crisis I received a scholarship to McGill University where I began working on my PhD dissertation, Positive Philosophy of Exile in Stefan Themerson’s Fiction (defended in 1988.)

In 1984-86 I worked for Radio Canada International, the Polish Section, in Montreal, writing and producing radio programs about Canada. In 1988 I joined the faculty of Sheridan College(Oakville, Ontario) where I taught English and humanities courses until 2007.

It is in Canada that I became a writer. My first short story, “Marble Heroes,” was published by the Antigonish Review in 1994, and my debut novel, Necessary Lies , won the Amazon.com/Books in CanadaFirst Novel Award in 2000.

The Winter Palace, based on the early life of Catherine the Great, has been a bestseller in Canada, Poland and Germany and was included in The Washington Post’s 2011 list of most notable fiction and Oprah Magazine’s “10 Titles to Pick Up Now” in 2102.

I live in Toronto. My second historical novel about Catherine the Great, Empress of the Night, will be published in March 25, 2014 in the United States.

To learn more about Eva,  her books, contact her for your book club meeting (she does Skype!!), then go to:  www.EvaStachniak.com.

Empress of the Night, Synopsis~

HR-Empress-CA-coverThe Winter Palace brilliantly reimagined the rise of Catherine the Great through the watchful eyes of her clever servant, Varvara. Now, in Eva Stachniak’s enthralling new novel, Empress of the Night, Catherine takes center stage as she relives her astonishing ascension to the throne, her rule over an empire, and the sacrifices that made her the most feared and commanding woman of her time.

“We quarrel about power, not about love,” Catherine would write to the great love of her life, Grigory Potemkin, but her days were balanced on the razor’s edge of choosing her head over her heart. Power, she will learn, is about resolve, strategy, and direction; love must sometimes be secondary as she marshals all her strengths to steer her volatile country into a new century and beyond—to grow the Romanov Empire, to amass a vast fortune, and to control a scheming court in order to become one of history’s greatest rulers.

Gorgeously written with vivid detail and lyrical prose, Empress of the Night is an intensely intimate novel of a woman in charge of her fortunes, who must navigate the sorrows, triumphs, and hopes of both her soul and a nation.

Praise for Empress of the Night~

…ambitious…structurally complex and psychologically intense Empress of the Night aims for Hilary Mantel. Stachniak’s writing is distinct, however, especially in vivid description of sensory details: perfume, sweat and the click of heels on polished floorboards.

Quill & Quire (Canada)

Empress of the Night … casts light on Catherine’s life with unflinching honesty and intimacy. This fun novel of lovers, intrigue and malicious and manipulative nobility keeps readers enthralled with every page…

Virtuoso Life Magazine (US)

Stachniak’s absorbing novel opens readers’ hearts to an extraordinary and misunderstood woman …wonderfully written, Stachniak’s story vibrates with passion, drama, and intrigue. This is a feast for fans.

Romantic Times Magazine (US)

…historical fiction fans will appreciate this personal account of a formidable and, indeed, infamous ruler.

Library Journal (US)

Empress of the Night will be published by Doubleday in Canada and Bantam in the U.S. on March 25th 2015. In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand Empress of the Night will be available as an e-book, published by Traverse Press.

And if you are interested in the first book……

The Winter Palace, Synopsis~

US_winterpalaceBehind every great ruler lies a betrayal. Eva Stachniak’s novel sweeps readers into the passionate, intimate, and treacherous world of Catherine the Great, revealing Russia’s greatest monarch from her earliest days in court, where the most valuable currency was the secrets of nobility and the most dangerous weapon to wield was ambition.

Two young women, caught in the landscape of shifting allegiances, navigate the treacherous waters of palace intrigue. Barbara, the narrator, is a servant who will become one of Russia’s most cunning royal spies. Sophie is a naive German duchess who will become Catherine the Great. For readers of superb historical fiction, Eva Stachniak captures in glorious detail the opulence of royalty and the perilous loyalties of the Russian court.

The Winter Palace came out Fall of 2012 (Bantam US) and is available everywhere.

To read previous articles in this series and to follow-along, click here:



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Celebrating Women Series: Kim Rendfeld on Bertrada, Queen Mother and Diplomat

Welcome to the second article in the “Celebrating Women” for Women’s History Month! It’s my first author guest article series to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to Kim Rendfeld for offering the second article in this series. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.

Bertrada: Queen Mother and Diplomat

by historical author Kim Rendfeld



In the early months of 772, Bertrada was the queen mother of Francia, one of the most influential political positions, yet I doubt anyone would envy her situation. Her younger son, King Carloman, had died on December 4 at age 20, and her elder son, King Charles, quickly seized his late brother’s realm, denying her grandsons their inheritance.

On top of that, Charles divorced a Lombard princess, the wife that Bertrada had picked out for him, and married Hildegard, the daughter of an important count in his brother’s kingdom.

In medieval Francia, there was more a stake than a mom embarrassed by her son’s bad behavior. In royal circles, marriages were a means of building alliances. Charles’s marriage to Hildegard solidified his hold on Carloman’s lands, but his divorce endangered Francia’s relationship with Lombard.

For a little context, let’s rewind four years. On his deathbed in 768, King Pepin divided his lands between sons Charles and Carloman, following Frankish custom. Charles’s kingdom formed a crescent around Carloman’s. Charles was 20 and Carloman, 17, and both likely were already married to brides their father had chosen.

The brothers did not get along, and tensions increased when Carloman refused to help his brother quash a 769 rebellion in Aquitaine. Enter Queen Mother Bertrada, who had taken the widow’s veil. Bertrada might have wanted to prevent a civil war and preserve the kingdom she and her husband had built.

It’s unclear whether Lombard King Desiderius or Bertrada thought up a union or two between their children, but she agreed to a marriage between Charles and one of Desiderius’s daughters, even if that meant setting aside Charles’s then wife, Himiltrude, and offending a noble Frankish family. A marriage between Charles and a Lombard meant Charles would have access to Italy without passing through his brother’s realm and therefore less reason to attack his brother.

The spring and summer of 770 was a mix of slow, dangerous travel and diplomacy for Bertrada. She spoke first to Carloman then traveled through Bavaria, the duchy held by the kings’ first cousin (also Desiderius’s son-in-law), and crossed the Alps, traversing steep slopes on horseback. In Rome, she reassured the pope, who had written a strongly worded letter against the idea, that this arrangement would be beneficial, then went to Lombardy and returned to Francia with the princess.

After Charles second marriage, Bertrada’s importance at court is evident. In his letters, the pope addresses her first.

The arrangement strengthened Charles’s relationship with Lombardy and Rome, but apparently, one of Carloman’s legates, Dodo, didn’t think it was good for his lord. Whether Carloman agreed with Dodo is unclear – the pope gives the king the benefits of the doubt. Nevertheless, in the spring of 771, the pope’s minister turned on him, with warriors led by Dodo. Desiderius came to the pope’s rescue and used that opportunity to take a brutal revenge on the minister.

Sometime that year, Carloman became ill and died several months later. That’s when Bertrada saw all her handiwork fall apart.

In writing The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (forthcoming, Fireship Press), I had to grapple with what it would have been like for Bertrada in the aftermath of Carloman’s death. One element that affects my portrayal of her comes from Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne, in which he says the monarch treated his mother with respect and had her in his household. Their only disagreement was the Lombard princess, whom he had married to please her.

I decided she would support her son, but she would be angry, especially as the Franks go to war with Desiderius in the fall of 773. Bertrada’s widowed daughter-in-law was not about to let her toddling sons lose their kingdom without a fight, and she crossed the Alps, seeking an alliance with a Lombard king furious over Charles’s insult to his daughter.

Article Sources

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walters Scholz with Barbara Rogers

“Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy in the Eighth Century,” Jan T. Hallenbeck, published in 1982 by Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Life of Charlemagne, Einhard, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

Author Kim Rendfeld, Biography~

Kim Rendfeld’s debut novel The Cross and the Dragon, a tale of love amid wars and blood feuds, opens as Charlemagne’s Franks prepare for war with Lombardy. Bertrada also appears in Kim’s second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, a tale of the lengths a Saxon mother will go to protect her children.

For more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes from a Historical Novelist, kimrendfeld.wordpress.com.

E-mail: krendfeld@gmail.com
Website: kimrendfeld.com
Blog: kimrendfeld.wordpress.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld
Twitter: @kimrendfeld

9781611792270-CrossandDragon-small2The Cross and the Dragon, Synopsis~

A tale of love in an era of war and blood feuds.

Francia, 778: Alda has never forgotten Ganelon’s vow of vengeance when she married his rival, Hruodland. Yet the jilted suitor’s malice is nothing compared to Alda’s premonition of disaster for her beloved, battle-scarred husband.

Although the army invading Hispania is the largest ever and King Charles has never lost a war, Alda cannot shake her anxiety. Determined to keep Hruodland from harm, even if it exposes her to danger, Alda gives him a charmed dragon amulet.

Is its magic enough to keep Alda’s worst fears from coming true–and protect her from Ganelon?

Inspired by legend and painstakingly researched, The Cross and the Dragon is a story of tenderness, sacrifice, lies, and revenge in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign, told by a fresh, new voice in historical fiction.

“Kim Rendfeld has an addictive style of writing. The strong characterization… held my interest, and I took particular pleasure in the originality of the setting. The Cross and the Dragon is a book I truly enjoyed reading.”
Roberta Gellis, author of the Roselynde Chronicles

“This sweeping epic… [is told] in an elegant, convincing manner. The author gives us… realistic and likeable characters, making it a pleasure to dive in to a multi-layered tale.”
Publishers Weekly (manuscript review, 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition)

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