Today I’m thrilled to welcome Eva Stachniak, the author of The Winter Palace, to Medieval Bookworm, on the little things that make history come alive for novelists.
Once in a while one comes across a sentence that makes history alive in ways one hasn’t anticipated. As a writer, I find such instances priceless, for they allow me to imagine aspects of my characters’ lives in ways I might have overlooked.
In her Memoirs, which she attempted to write a few times, thus giving the posterity several versions of her early life, Catherine the Great describes a palace fire she witnessed from the safety of her carriage when she was still the Grand Duchess of Russia. The description is quite conventional at first: the burning balustrade, the furniture being hastily carried out, the servants’ desperate attempts to salvage as much as possible, the heat of the burning building becoming more and more impossible to bear. But for me the whole scene becomes truly alive at the moment Catherine writes: “Then I saw a singular thing. It was the astonishing number of rats and mice that descended the staircase in a line, without even really hurrying.”
The image of rodents in single file leaving the burning palace made me think of life in these mice-infested dwellings. What would I see if I were there? Droppings everywhere? Mice scurrying along the walls? Hiding in shoes? Among fire logs? Rats drowning in jugs of cream? I started researching ways people tried to protect themselves from vermin: placing dried rosemary sprigs in their linen drawers, covering food in the pantry with heavy lids, placing bed legs in basins of water.
After a little bit of such digging, I was not surprised to find out that the Winter Palace was a home to over a hundred of palace cats. Catherine’s predecessor, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, I discovered, loved cats and encouraged them to settle in the palace. Some travelers report seeing Elizabeth’s cats dressed in velvet suits, lolling about on her bed. Others complain that the imperial felines were so well-fed that they didn’t even try to catch mice. Soon I collected enough references to the palace cats to begin imagining their traces. There must have been hair on the furniture, smudges left by their whiskers on the window panes. There must have been endearing antics in their favourite spots: by the fireplaces, in the laundry room where fresh linen was kept. They must have claimed their spots on Elizabeth Petrovna’s shoes, or on her bed.
The cats made the Winter Palace vivid in my mind.
A little more about the author: Eva Stachniak was born in Wroclaw, Poland, and came to Canada in 1981. She has been a radio broadcaster and college English and Humanities lecturer. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and her second novel, Garden of Venus, has been translated into seven languages. Her third novel, The Winter Palace, has been published in Canada (Doubleday), US (Bantam) and the UK (Transworld). She lives in Toronto, where she is working on her second historical novel about Catherine the Great, The Empire of the Night.
Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for my review of the book!