Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses. An interview with Helen Rappaport

I originally reviewed Four Sisters for The Lady:

Much has been written about the Romanovs – fact, fiction and everything in between. The four Grand Duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – have often featured behind the scenes in biographies of their parents, Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra.

Although this is familiar terrain in terms of historical biographies, the author achieves a rare feat in depicting the Grand Duchesses as complex and fascinating individuals in their own right. Meticulously researched and filled with new information, this book presents the untold and gripping stories of their lives for the first time in print.


How long have you been writing for? And can you tell The Mitford Society a bit about your journey to becoming published?

I’ve been writing history since the early 1990s. It began when I was at university – I enjoyed writing history essays as part of my Russian Special Studies course. Later, working as a freelance editor and researcher for various publishers including OUP and Blackwell, I was asked to contribute various short entry items to history books and encyclopaedias and from there, as my editing work morphed into a full time job as an outhouse desk editor for Blackwell, I began thinking more and more about moving into writing history full time. I had spent a lot of time editing – and effectively fact checking and even re-writing – a lot of academic history books and decided to take the plunge and write my own . But it was a huge gamble. I was offered the chance to write three US reference books for the university/college market on Stalin, Queen Victoria and women social reformers – and although the money was poor it served as a wonderful grounding and a springboard into my first trade title in 2006. I count myself incredibly fortunate that since 1999 I have published 11 books, with a 12th underway, at a time when the trade has been shrinking alarmingly and when history and biography in particular have been squeezed very hard. But it has been very hard work – an effective treadmill – not by choice but because my advances were not large enough to allow me the luxury of several years to write a book.

What inspired you to become a historical biographer and what draws you to your area of expertise?

I think it is the detective in me and my love of genealogy and family history that fuel my love of real lives, real stories. There is nothing I enjoy more than chasing down the facts, the clues, the small details of a human life that might have been overlooked or forgotten. It is such a joy to be able to shed new light on a piece of history or someone’s life from the past. I get so much pleasure from the satisfaction of tracking down new sources about my subjects that I have absolutely no desire to make it up – to turn to fiction or historical fiction. Many people urge me to do so but my feeling is that I would not want to write historical fiction unless I could write it better than I write history – and I would miss the thrill of the chase.

How do you go about planning your research and what is the general time frame before you start writing the manuscript? Can you tell us a bit about that process?

Well research can be a very unpredictable, amorphous thing and I never plan it rigidly timewise, though I do write lots of lists of objectives and have a rough schedule. In principle I keep on searching and researching right up to the moment I send my text off for editing. I usually ike to get a good body of research under my belt before I start writing, but it’s impossible to set a hard and fast rule, as quite often what happens is that the book starts writing itself in my head – at night in particular and I start jotting things down – sentences, paragraphs – quite randomly, that I want to come back to. But in the end I always find I reach a natural point at which I have a real need to start writing, to get something down on paper. In the past I have written the closing paragraph of a book long before starting it! I usually research for about 9 months and write for the same amount of time, but it depends on the schedule. I researched and wrote Beautiful For Ever very fast, in five months, between two bigger books. There’s a lot of cross over in terms of gathering material – I am always picking up new nuggets of information from seemingly unrelated sources. Even though I have now moved on to book no 12 I am still effectively researching the Romanovs, as I want to keep up to speed with any new evidence, material, photographs that come to light and new discussions about them. So in fact I juggle all my past books in my head, as it is important to keep in touch with the material – if anything because I might get asked to do a radio or TV talking head about it! I am constantly switching historical hats and having to refresh my memory of previous books because of this. For me it is really important to stay in touch with one’s subjects. Some writers, I know, get bored and detach and move on to the next subject without a backward glance, but in the case of the Romanov sisters in particular, I know I shall stay very close to them.

How did you become interested in the lives of the Grand Duchesses?

It’s ironic really, as I had long resisted all the schmaltz and romanticism of the Romanov story. Despite being a Russianist and loving Russian history I had deliberately avoided the topic of the last Imperial Family because I felt it was too heavily loaded with hagiography and myth. But once I had decided to write Ekaterinburg which is specifically about the last two weeks of the family’s life before their murder, I fell in love with the girls and developed a sense of mission about telling their story. I felt they had been overlooked for far too long, and too easily lumped together as a bland collective. I wanted to give them back their individual identities.

Why did you write a combined biography on the four girls as opposed to, say, a single biography on Anastasia?

I am absolutely totally and stubbornly resistant to Anastasia as a single subject. She has been much mythologized and too often, even now, when I give talks the first question people ask is did she get away. No. They all died!! I wish people would accept this and think more about the real Romanov sisters . Any book about Anastasia would have to take in the false claimants and I absolutely will not waste precious words writing about people who were frauds, rather than the real Anastasia. So no, no individual biography of any sister is viable really. It would be too difficult in terms of sources. They girls lived very protected lives, they did not pour their hearts and souls out on to the pages of their diaries and letters (those of course, that have survived – they destroyed many of them). What we have is always fairly circumspect. They died too young to make it possible to tell a full and rounded life. There have been one or two slim, Russian-language hagiographies about Olga the eldest but they suffer, as a lot of Russian sources on the girls do, from being over-reverential and uncritical. There is also the added problem that there is no scandal or gossip that one can use to ‘sex up’ the story. They were a devoted and loyal unit and I think it’s best they are remembered and written about very much as that – as Four Sisters.

Is there another set of historical sisters who capture your fascination?

HR: Well of course the Romanov girls’ mother Alexandra was one of four sisters (a fifth died young) and I say a little about that in the opening chapter of my book. So yes, the four Hesse sisters are fascinating and they have been written about, singly and collectively. But for me there is something so special – so touching and unique about the four Romanov sisters.

Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?

HR: I’m now working on a book for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. It’s called Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 and it’s going to be an account of the city that year, from a different angle entirely – from the point of view of the British, American, French and other foreign nationals who were in the city and witnessed what happened.

Who is your favourite Mitford girl and why?

HR: well it has to be Nancy. I gobbled up most of her book in my teens and twenties and am now planning a concerted re-read. The Pursuit of Love is top of my bedside pile right now! But I also greatly admire her historical titles.


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