King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay

SPOILER ALERT!!!!  If you don’t know that the 20th century begins with World War I, don’t read any more of this post!

This book was a Christmas present for Drew many years ago.  We had both read a novel called The Kitchen Boy, historical fiction based on the end days of the Romanov family.  Drew had been fascinated with this time in history long before The Kitchen Boy even came out, but all it takes is a good book to fascinate you all over again.

Ever since he read it, he’s been asking me to check it out.  But you know how it is…there’s always another book waiting in the wings, and it’s difficult to place someone’s recommendation before your own.  This summer, however, with the heat of Las Vegas closing in on us, a book focusing on Russia, Germany, and England and the royal ties between them seemed like a welcome respite.  There’s also nothing like a tragic, Shakespearean historical tale to make you feel like whatever might be bothering you isn’t that bad.

The book is exceptionally readable for its undertaking — the author really tries her best to focus only on the most important players.  Even as a slight German speaker, I had trouble keeping track of all the members of Kaiser Wilhelm’s court — everyone was von ________ern this or zu _______berg that.  Tricky stuff.  So the extra bureaucratic players blended together into two groups  for each sovereign — those that supported monarchy, and those that supported democratic systems.

My favorite picture from the book -- Tsar Nicholas on the left and King George on the right. Look like twins, huh? Would you guess that their mothers were sisters? I bet you would. And you'd be right.

By the end of the book, I really had a handle on the personalities of all three monarchs.  They’re sort of like the Beatles — there’s the quiet one (Tsar Nicholas), the beloved one (King George), and the crazed, autocratic, militaristic one who can’t possibly lose touch with reality because to lose touch would mean that he was in touch in the first place (Kaiser Wilhelm).  I guess Tiger Beat would call him the bad boy.

It’s so difficult to get into the spirit of the times, though.  Sure, through our post-revolutionary eyes it looks like Nicholas should have seen the demise of his reign coming for years, but through the eyes of an autocratic ruler who believes that God has placed the country under his care, and whose predecessors had, for DECADES, survived assassination attempts and revolutions — well, then it’s a little more difficult to see.

Tsar Nicholas, King George, Kaiser Wilhelm

Monarchy had to fall at some point, and it’s the poor luck of these three cousins to be the last ones.  The Kaiser is the most intriguing man here, because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next, but you know it’s something crazy.  This book posits that World War I is his fault — and it’s hard to see otherwise — because he felt shunned by England and Russia.  England hurt the most, though — Queen Victoria was his grandmother, and he was always torn between being German or being English.  Willy lives with a paranoia that England and Russia are plotting against him, and so he strengthens his army and builds up his navy as if to say, “Now you HAVE to pay attention to me.”  But the author doesn’t let the other two off the hook — they DID ignore Wilhelm to a certain extent, and could have changed the course of history by not creating an alliance with France that blatantly dismissed Germany…in fact, it was really in case of war with Germany.

The Tsar and his children

So, in conclusion…I don’t know.  To quote Monty Python, “Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”  (That’s a deep cut, if you don’t know the quote.)  It does seem pointless to try to find out who was the first monarch at fault.  What is certain is that it was the perfect series of events to bring about the abdication of two monarchs — Wilhelm was forced to abdicate at the end of the war, and he was exiled to the Netherlands;  Nicholas was also forced to abdicate by revolutionaries in Russia, and the rest of his life plays out much more sadly…whereas it’s difficult to feel sympathetic to the Kaiser, it’s easy to feel sympathy and sadness for the Last Tsar and his family.  George is the only one who made it through the war unscathed, thanks in equal parts to the constitutional monarchy of Britain, which made the war not the fault of the king alone, and to his displayed attitude during the war.  The royal family put themselves on war rations while the war was going on, and made sure the British people saw they were doing it.  His upbringing helped him succeed here where his two cousins failed — Willy and Nicky never knew life without luxuries, but George, who was not the eldest son, had been in the Royal Navy for years, and not just in a non-combat role.

Obviously, I have a lot to say about this book and the history in it.  So let’s just wrap it up — I liked the book.  It was clear, interesting, opinionated, and you can’t create more fascinating characters or situations.  History makes the best books.  I feel bad for all the characters in it, just playing out the parts fate has dealt them as best they can.  And I feel like watching Fall of Eagles again, even though it was campy, 1970s BBC.  Since we’re seeing so many remakes anyway, how ’bout it, Hollywood?  You can’t get a better story than this.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Read it.

Should I end the post with that?

No surprise here, since I am a girl — I’ve always loved Cleopatra.  I never knew much about her — Queen of Egypt, lover of Caesar and Mark Antony, asp death — but it never really mattered.  What’s there to know?  It looked about like this in my mind:

Cleopatra asp-ires to become dead.

Apparently it looked that way to the creators of Rome on HBO — which, despite any contradictions this book may have revealed for me in that show’s character development, I still love. I think to most of the world she looks like the picture to the right — a desirous Elizabeth Taylor, haunting the dreams of defenseless Richard Burton, while Rex Harrison presumably is off speaking a song somewhere.

Poor Debbie Reynolds.

But it turns out, according to Stacy Schiff, who rambled through mountains upon mountains for research for this book, that her story was (surprise!) not really like either of these pictures.  It’s a perfect case of history being written by the winners — in this case, Caesar Augustus, a gem of a guy, who took over after Julius Caesar was, shall we say, “removed from office.”  Cleopatra was a ruler of a country, the wealthiest individual of her time, and she was highly educated.  She was probably not a sexual demon hell-bent on ruining the lives of two pure and blameless men.  According to Plutarch and Dio, if you read between the lines — which, in Schiff’s book, it quickly becomes apparent is necessary to actually find out anything about Cleopatra — she wasn’t even that pretty.  Most of her charms came from her ability to judge a person and to use her voice and tone diplomatically, not from sexual acumen.

The book reveals all sorts of untold turns and descriptions of a queen who was royal in her own right, regardless of Caesar or Antony.  She was considered and worshiped as a goddess in Egypt.  She inherited a kingdom that was soon to fall, despite all that she might do to save it.  By the end of the book, I was totally on Schiff’s page.  Cleopatra was amazing — it’s a shame that we let her memory continue to live on built on the shame the Romans created for her.

The end of the book is pretty emotional, too.  I did not expect to feel as much sympathy for Antony as I did by the end, but the poor guy.  He made several mistakes, sure, but towards the end, people kept on deserting him, leaving his camp for Octavian’s, until all he had left were a few servants to help him commit suicide.  And then, after he stabbed himself but missed his heart, they left or killed themselves rather than help him end his life.  The scene Schiff describes of Antony’s death is heartbreaking.  I was reading it during a journal time for one of my English classes, and I will admit that even in the presence of adolescents, I teared up a bit.

All told, the image of Cleopatra that I’m left with looks exactly like the book cover:

Perfect. This looks like the Cleopatra I know now.

Proud, elegant, rich, powerful, and always looking towards the future of her country and her family.  After I would finish reading a chapter, I’d just look at this cover for awhile.  Her diadem, the pearls, the hair…it’s all perfect.  This is a woman who rules a nation and makes no apologies to anyone — even though it meant they would sully her reputation for two-thousand years.

It was also interesting to be reading this book while history continues to be made in Egypt.  I still don’t know much about the current situation, or their recent political scene, but it was fascinating to be reading about the seizure of Alexandria by Octavian and then come across news pieces like this… Looking at the ancient world and the current world together always boggles the mind.  What would Cleopatra think of her country today?  I don’t know.  But I do know what she thought of her country when she ruled — it was worth dying for.

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