Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Book Review: Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

Over the Christmas holidays I read Robert Massie's Catherine the Great using my Kindle app. That was a smart choice, since the book is a tome, weighing in at 574 pages!

I first read a biography of Catherine the Great as a young girl from a series called Landmark that offered biographies and histories for young readers.  Needless to say, it offered a sanitized version Catherine's private life and her 12 lovers.  Years later I read another full biography of her life, but can't remember the name or author. But it wasn't aimed at young readers, and neither is Massie's book.

This biography is well-researched and well-written. I think it could have used a more discerning editor because occasionally the narrative became lost in the weeds of the author's intensive research and I found myself skimming the text hoping to get to the point more quickly. Sometimes the point was so minor that it added little to the reader's (or maybe I should say "this reader's") understanding of the subject.

That said, Catherine the Great should appeal to both academic and interested lay readers. Catherine began life as a minor German princess who moved to Russia after her betrothal and marriage to Peter, the heir to the throne of Russia who was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. Because Peter refused his marital duty to her, probably because of impotence,  she suffered for many years as the childless wife until the Empress insisted she choose a lover from two options presented to her and get about the business of producing an heir. Once the heir is produced, the Empress takes him away from her and raises him herself, setting the stage for another generation of dysfunctional relationships.

Massie documents 12 lovers of Catherine over her long life, and produces convincing evidence that she did marry one of them, Gregory Potemkin, who remained the most influential man in her life until his death. The lovers were sequential and it seems that Catherine used most of them to provide some semblance of family that she never was able to achieve in the conventional fashion. Although she had a second child, Anna, who died very young, it's interesting to speculate on how she avoided more pregnancies during her child-bearing years, something Massie does not address.

The story of how Catherine managed to wrest the throne from her feckless and emotionally disturbed husband and then go on to institute many progressive and wise reforms for the Russian people and nation is even more fascinating and important. Massie does an excellent job of describing how the neglected and oppressed young wife sought refuge in books, educated herself, ultimately took her place among the leading intellectuals of the day, and became regarded in western Europe as the model of enlightened despotism.

In summary, Catherine the Great is not light reading but worth the effort. Several of my Facebook friends are reading it now, so I hope they will add their own comments to this review when they are finished.

3 comments:

Robin said...

Oh, I was obsessed with the Landmark bios when I was young! I bet I had 50 of them.

I am reading Here Be Dragons, which I think was one of your recommendations. Fantastic book.

Mac said...

The Landmark series was wonderful. My Mom enrolled me in a book of the month club from Landmark when I was in second grade. The only rule was I had to finish the book before I could start another. That was fine until I got Peter Stuyvesant of Old New York. Ordinarily, the new book was done by bed time. Old Pete delayed my start of The Pony Express by over a week. I just found a Landmark bio of Stonewall Jackson in a used book store. It now graces one of my book shelves.

Quotidian Grace said...

I kept several of the Landmark series bios for my girls, who read them when they were young. I still have them in the upstairs library waiting for Graham!

And yes, Robin, Sharon Kay Penman is the best, isn't she?