The reason that I haven’t posted a literary blog post in months is this novel. It was over 500 pages of non-fiction. Quite the undertaking, but oh was it rewarding! It is excessively true that I am obsessed with learning about famous, powerful women in history and this book provides a vivid glimpse into four women’s lives in the early 20th century. These four women were the last Empresses of their Empires: Augusta Victoria (Germany), Mary (United Kingdom), Zita (Austria-Hungary), and Alexandra (Russia). This biography of these four women and how their lives intermingled at the same time (even though some were older than others) was an impressive and powerful read. It was NOT a quick read, but nothing in history is ever quick, right?
Steven Vovk has done an excellent job in describing the young adulthood of each Empress and how they came to meet their spouses. He then details each wedding and subsequent marriage and children. Some married for love, Alexandra, and some for the empire, Mary; some came from nothing, Mary, and some came from previously established monarchies, Alexandra (grand-daughter of Queen Victoria). Yet, regardless of their marriages, heredity, or empire they ruled, they all fell as Empresses.
I will be very honest and say that I knew a lot about Alexandra, so much of Vovk’s sections on her and her family I didn’t read as thoroughly as the others. What I did read thoroughly, however, was what happened to each Empress after the fall of her Empire. That was exceptionally interesting to me. Obviously, we all know Alexandra was murdered along with her five children and husband. Zita was cast out of Hungary and was not allowed to be a resident of any European country for years. She even went to the US until she was 80+ years old when she was able to return to Hungary and be buried with her family members. Augusta Victoria, the eldest of the women of the book, died as Empress and a broken heart, I think. Mary, was the only one who made it through the loss of her Empire and stayed Queen of the UK. She was loved by the people until her death.
The amount of turmoil, heartache, and setbacks of these four women astounds me as I reflect back on their lives and this novel. If I were to face a quarter of what they have faced (losing children, being cast out of their countries, taken prisoner just to name a few) I would crawl into a ball and cry for the rest of my days. Somehow they stayed strong and persevered even in the face of danger to themselves and their families. Knowing this is powerful, and is a testament to being grateful for everything that we have in this life and country (which is an appropriate theme for Memorial Day Weekend 2015).
I would hands down recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It is tedious at times, especially some of the letters that characters or family members write to one another. Vovk really uses sources like no other (50 pages of the end of the book are citations). But, obviously, you either have to be interested in the material or writing a paper on one or all the women to delve into it. If you are intrigued about learning more about these women, the last of their kind if you will, I would suggest picking it up. Be careful though, it will definitely take you some serious time as well as emotional investment.