Having read up on Ella, I am surprised at how her life parallels with that of her relation Princess Alice of Battenberg. What sparked your interest in Ella and what was the initial reaction of publishing houses when you presented your idea to them?
I had long been interested in the history of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra and their family, but was particularly interested in the last Empress’s sister, who I thought had a remarkable life. In fact, I think she is actually far more interesting than a great many of the Romanovs, including the last Tsar and Tsarina. So, I prepared a proposal for a biography – at that point there had been next to nothing worth talking about – which my agent submitted and two publishing houses immediately made offers. Ella Princess Saint & Martyr, as the book is called, was really my first historical biography and I have to admit it’s one of the books I’m most proud of. It took me 3 years to research and write and tells the genuinely fascinating story of the life – and brutal death – of Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, who was a favourite granddaughter of Queen Victoria, the sister of Russia’s last Tsarina Alexandra, the aunt of Earl Mountbatten of Burma and the great-aunt of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Born into one of Germany’s less well off royal families, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, as she was formally known, within the family she was called Ella, was the daughter of Princess Alice of Great Britain and Grand Duke Ludwig IV.
As it unfolded, Ella’s life really did transcend every frontier, geographical, national and social, taking her from relatively modest beginnings to the opulence of Russia’s Imperial House of Romanov, into which she married at the age of 19. Described as ‘the most beautiful princess in Europe’ and according to the French ambassador, ‘capable of arousing profane passions’, Ella’s life took a profound and radically different direction after her husband, Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, the ruthless, authoritarian Governor of Moscow, had been blown up in February 1905. Hearing the explosion, by the way, Ella flew out of the house without putting a coat on, and in the blood-soaked snow, clawed the pieces of Serge’s body together with her bare hands. Raised a Lutheran, Ella had ultimately decided to convert to Russian Orthodoxy 7 years after her marriage and with Serge’s death recognized what was a very genuine vocation. Against very considerable opposition, she founded a nursing order of which she became the ordained abbess. It was known as the Order of Saints Martha and Mary and Ella, having sold her jewels and everything of value, established the convent, which also consisted of a hospital, a clinic, an orphanage, not far from the Kremlin in Moscow. As a nursing order, and Ella was very hands on, it not only addressed welfare issues, but took her personally into dangerous, mist-shrouded slums, such as the infamous Khitrovka Market, to help Moscow’s untouchables. Come the Revolution, Ella refused offers of escape and although there must have been times when she was very afraid, she was determined to carry on with her work at the convent as best she could. In the end, the Bolsheviks finally came for her. Taken first on a seemingly never ending rail journey to the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg, where her sister, her brother in law, Tsar Nicholas II, and their 5 children, were barbarically slaughtered, Ella and other Romanov relations were then removed to the town of Alapaevsk. It was from there, as their conditions in the school house where they were held captive, grew increasingly worse, that the Bolsheviks took Ella in the dead of night to the gaping mouth of a disused mine shaft. Savagely clubbed with rifle butts, she was thrown alive down into the mineshaft, which was about 18.5 metres deep, and there left to die an agonizing death. Three months later, however, when the bodies of Ella and those who shared the same fate, were retrieved from the mine shaft, it was discovered that her body, although discoloured and extensively bruised, showed little or no sign of decomposition which, for the Russian Orthodox Church was the first step on the path of her canonization. Today, she is revered as Saint Elisabeth Romanova.
Many years later, in 1949, her niece, Princess Alice of Battenberg, otherwise Princess Andrew of Greece, the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, attempted to follow Ella’s example and set up an order, which she also called by the same name as Ella’s. Alice wore a nun’s habit, though as Prince Philip would say, it meant she didn’t have to worry about what to wear or have her hair done. Though I don’t doubt she was sincere, Alice was not a real nun (unlike Ella who was ordained) and her work was occupational not vocational. So, as Hugo Vickers put it in his excellent biography Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, ‘Ultimately, a lack of religious commitment and devotion undermined Alice’s aspirations’. I also love the now famous comment made by Alice’s mother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, when she said, ‘What can you say about a nun who smokes and plays canasta?’.
How does it feel when you are writing about a subject you admire and then you get to know your subject in person (i.e. Princess Margaret). Does that influence the way in which you write the book?
There are as many disadvantages as advantages in writing about somebody you get to know. For example, as her authorized biographer, I wrote two separate biographies of Princess Margaret. It was never my intention to write two, but that’s how it worked out, even though almost 20 years separated one from the other, and I have no doubt the second book was the better of the two. Certainly working on the first, I felt I was writing with one hand tied behind my back. With the second, I felt a lot freer, but as a biographer of a living person, one inevitably gets to know things that it simply would not be appropriate or wise to include. Writing about Sir Peter Ustinov, was a very different experience. In his co-operation, he was terrifically helpful, but right from the start he said there was no obligation for him to see in advance what I had written. There came a point, however, when I said to him that I was concerned that there appeared to be no skeletons in his cupboard. His reply was typically Ustinovian: ‘It’s not the skeletons I’m worried about Chris. I can’t remember where I left the cupboard.’
But the truth of the matter is that, as a biographer, no matter how hard you work or how much research you undertake, you can only work with the material you have amassed.
What is the natural progression of your research when you are writing about a subject?
A timeline is essential; start to finish. The skeleton laid out in front of you, to which the flesh is added. I love research. It’s a bit like being a detective. And there is nothing better, dare I even mention it, than working from primary sources.
Who would be your dream subject to write about?
Good question. Not one I can answer especially well, because in the same way that most writers say their best book is their always next, so I tend to think that whatever I’m currently working on is the ‘dream’ subject. It might not be, but you have to think that way … ermm, don’t you?
I know you mentioned your wish to write about Deborah Kerr, on that note, has your idea ever been rejected by your agent or mainstream publisher but you’ve gone on to write the book anyway?
I would have loved to have written a biography of Deborah Kerr, but for one or two very important reasons, it wasn’t going to happen – and I am not into writing books that are just scissors and paste jobs. As a writer who has to live on what he earns, I have never written a book as a labour of love, which is what you’d have to do – foolishly perhaps – if a proposal is rejected by an agent or publisher.
What are your thoughts on the trend for digital publishing? Do you feel the industry is suffering because of this quick turnover for writing and producing E novels?
Digital publishing is here to stay and it has its place. Book publishing has never been tougher than it is now and it’s obviously due in large measure to the comparative ease of digital publishing, of self-publishing, online publishing and the myriad options open today.
What inspired you to become a biographer rather than a fictional writer?
I seem to belong more naturally to non fiction/biography. Would I like to write fiction? Yes, I would. Maybe I’ll write a novel one day. I once worked as PA to a distinguished author and biographer who, at the age of 70, rang me and said, ‘Chris, I’m going to write my first novel.’ It was the first of 8, most of which were adapted as television series. So, I guess there’s time for me yet.
Can you list some of your favourite writers?
Yes, some are with us and some are not. Let’s start with three of the latter … Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, followed by Colum McCann, Alan Bennett, Edna O’Brien, Salley Vickers, Toni Morrison and … the aspiring literary star … Lyndsy Spence.
Are you currently working on a project?
There always seem to be a lot of possibles, don’t there? So, one or two possible book ideas in mind, together with a couple of other projects. As I’ve also been doing a lot of broadcast stuff lately, which I love, I’m keen to do even more. I’m a bit of a performer 🙂
And last but not least, who is your favourite Mitford girl?
Without a moment’s hesitation, Deborah Devonshire. I also love her as a writer – even though she claims never to have read a book in her life! Can it be true?