Andrea here, The new year is bringing—huff, puff—not one but TWO new books from me! I’m excited to announce that A Swirl of Shadows, the latest Lady Arianna adventure is finally finished and will release on March 22! (You can pre-order here.) The story was particularly fun for me to write as a good deal of the action takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia.
I took a number of Russian history courses in college and have always found the country and its history fascinating. And I was lucky enough to visit during grad school and spend some time in St Petersburg—in the dead of winter, I might add, which seemed only fitting, as snow and cold weather seem a part of the Russian soul!
That Russian history intertwines so closely with Britain during the Regency era gave me the perfect opportunity to weave a plotline that would take Lady Arianna and Saybrook to the Imperial Court of Alexander I, which was a hotbed of international intrigue and scheming right after Napoleon’s exile as the rulers of Europe jockeyed for power and influence.
St. Petersburg, which became the capitol city of Imperial Russia in 1712, has a very interesting history, and one which exemplifies the age-old conflict between East and West that is such an integral part of Russia's cultural heritage.
Peter the Great, the legendary Tsar who believed that his country should look West rather than East, founded the city in 1703 after winning the swampy swath of land during a war with Sweden. Despite its less than ideal setting, the location offered both the Neva River for domestic travel and commerce and access to the Baltic Sea—which the Tsar saw as giving Russia a strategic window to the West.
Peter had traveled throughout Europe as a young man and was enamored with the architecture of Holland, Italy and France. He wanted his new city to be “modern” and originally planned on basing its layout on the city of Amsterdam, as St. Petersburg’s waterways and islands suited the use of canals. However, one of the first architects to begin work in the city was Domenico Trazzini, a Swiss who designed the famous St. Peter and Paul Fortress and cathedral. The Tsar was pleased Trazzini was given more commisions. The style that developed became known as Petrine Baroque.
While Peter favored the Dutch styles, he also brought in Italian architects, and St. Petersburg soon earned the nickname of The Venice of the North. The pastel colors of the buildings and their classical Palladian style were in stark contrast to traditional Russian architecture—which horrified conservative Russians. That East-West tension was to continue into Alexander I’s reign.
The grandson of Catherine the Great, Alexander I came to the throne in 1801 after the assassination of his father. His education was thoroughly Western, based on the ideals of the French Philosophes, and for a time he was the darling of European liberals as he began making some social reforms. But he proved to be a very complex man. He was charming but mercurial—as shown by his changing sides several times during the Napoleonic Wars. After Napoleon was defeated, he turned more conservative and became attracted to mysticism—in many ways personifying the conflict many Russians felt between East and West.
In my story, Lady Arianna and Saybrook arrive in the city to help their old friend Tsar Alexander I with an intrigue that threatens his rule. (The Tsar has appeared in cameo roles in earlier books, where Lady A has saved him from his own worst instincts.) This time the threat is even greater.
Though the storyline is fictional, I’ve based it on real bits of Russian history. The plot revolves around a special medallion that has gone missing—and if Tsar Alexander doesn’t wear it at a special ceremony, legend has it that he will fall from the throne. Legend and traditions do have a strong hold on the Russian psyche—when a historic medal fell off Tsar Nicholas II’s uniform at a special ceremony, an old legend said it an omen that he would fall from grace . . . and sure enough, he and his entire family were executed several years later by the Bolsheviks.
Religious icons also play a powerful role in Russian culture, as do savants and mystics. I’ve woven these elements into my story, basing my fictional female mystic on the real-life Madame de Krüdener, a Baltic German lady who held Tsar Alexander under her spell for a time and became his most trusted advisor. I’ve also used a famous icon by Andrei Rublev as a plot device, though my twist is purely fictional.
Having walked through the city and the Winter Palace interiors, I had some strong memories of the experience. And a fabulous research book, Mrs. Adams in Winter, (based on the diaries of John Quincy Adams’s wife during her time as a diplomat's wife there) had a number of chapters on the colorful workings of the Imperial Court which proved invaluable. It was fascinating to learn that most aristocratic Russians had never learned to speak their native tongue. The "civilized" upper classes spoke French, while only peasants spoke Russian. Dress, manners and food were very French-influenced as well—yet more examples of a country wrestling with a split personality. With all the different factions plotting within the Imperial Court, it was a perfect place in which to set a mystery!
I really loved immersing myself into the history of the city, and tried to create a story that accurately captured the ambiance of the time and place. Do you enjoy learning about the history of a setting and place while you are reading a historical novel. Or are the characters and plot more important in capturing your imagination?