Saturday, March 09, 2024

Review of The Romanov Brides: A Novel of the Last Tsarina and Her Sisters by Clare McHugh

Decades before the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanov dynasty’s terrible end, the future Tsarina Alexandra and her older sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, were princesses of the small German state of Hesse and by Rhine. Leading us very capably through these young women’s lives, McHugh shows how their marriages into Russia’s imperial family were by no means predestined.

Ella and Alix, as they’re called, tragically lose their mother to diphtheria but grow up alongside their siblings and an extended family that includes the rulers of Britain, Prussia, and Russia. (McHugh travels through this potentially confusing mass of royal relationships with aplomb.) As a teenager, Ella, an elegant beauty, captivates Tsar Alexander’s brother, the Grand Duke Serge, and wonders if hidden emotional depths lie behind his seriousness.

Her protectively imperious grandmother, Queen Victoria, begs her not to marry into a “country where no one of rank is safe” – and she’s right, as we know – but Ella comes to believe she’ll fulfill a higher purpose as Serge’s wife. As Ella navigates her marriage’s unexpected confines, Alix, painfully shy, remembers the bond she formed with Serge’s nephew, the tsarevich Nicky, when she visited Russia for Ella’s wedding. However, multiple barriers keep them apart.

The story remains within the characters’ inner circles, with an occasional nod to outside politics (“They believe they are owed everything and their people are owed nothing,” says Ella’s uncle Leo about the Romanovs’ autocratic rule). The intimate focus ensures a sympathetic view while emphasizing how sheltered the women are.

In this beautifully spun chronicle of love, family, and faith, McHugh carefully illustrates her protagonists’ religious views. One might wonder if a novel about both couples’ early histories (it ends in 1894) would offer enough plot to keep the pages turning, but it definitely does. The Romanov Brides will be enlightening for royalty buffs.

The Romanov Brides will be published by William Morrow on March 12th. I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review, from an Edelweiss e-copy. This is one I grabbed to read myself as soon as I heard it was available!  I've read many nonfiction accounts about Romanov family members, but Alexandra and Ella don't appear in much fiction as principal characters. Their later lives are especially tragic, which may be a reason. There is an older biographical novel about the pair, Antony Lambton's Elizabeth and Alexandra, but it devolves into such bizarre scenarios at the end that it's better called alternate history. So this new novel about their earlier lives is definitely welcome.

McHugh has also written fiction about Queen Victoria's oldest daughter, Vicky, who became Empress of Germany and the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm, in A Most English Princess (2020). I look forward to seeing who she'll write about next.


  1. I find it interesting that there seems to be a bit of Romanov fiction around. I remember loving novels like The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander years ago but it then seemed that Russian history went out of fashion

    Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

    1. I'm glad to see that Romanov fiction has been coming back!