Haunting, moving and beautifully written, The Secret Wife effortlessly crosses centuries, as past merges with present in an unforgettable story of love, loss and resilience. Here the book’s author Gill Paul discusses how she visited the historic city of St Petersburg to research her enthralling book about the Romanovs.
Trips to research books with overseas settings are one of the perks of being an author: you get to travel, explore a new country, ask lots of nosy questions – and it’s tax-deductible to boot (“Only certain aspects,” grumbles my accountant). My new novel, The Secret Wife, is about the Romanovs and I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, so I couldn’t wait to book my ticket.
“St Petersburg’s colourful, golden-domed palaces make our British ones look like dowdy office blocks”
I stayed in the Historic District of St Petersburg, halfway between the Winter Palace and St Isaac’s Cathedral, and first sorties from the hotel did not disappoint, with evidence all around of Peter the Great’s bid to rival the grand cities of Europe. Like Venice it has canals; like Versailles, it has fountains, mirrored hallways and ceiling paintings; but frankly, St Petersburg’s colourful, golden-domed palaces make our British ones look like dowdy office blocks.
My novel is about Tatiana, the second-eldest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, and a cavalry officer named Dmitri Malama. Their romance began in 1914 in the Catherine Palace, where she nursed him after he was injured during the first week of the Great War.
I headed out on the bus to Pushkin along with a very pushy guide called Alisa, who shoved her way heroically to the front of every queue. The palace was ransacked and partially destroyed by German troops during World War Two but painstaking reconstruction work is ongoing and most of the main floor has been restored.
“On my research trips I’m looking for atmosphere and the kind of telling detail you won’t find in guidebooks.”
I wandered through room after room of gold cornicing and jewel-encrusted furniture, each more glitzy than the last, and imagined Tatiana sitting on Dmitri’s bed chatting to him about books beneath a vast, multi-tiered chandelier. In the prettily planted gardens outside, I rushed to find the grotto where I’d described them sheltering from the rain – and there it was by a lake, bigger than I’d pictured but still romantic.
On my research trips I’m looking for atmosphere and the kind of telling detail you won’t find in guidebooks. The Alexander Palace, where the family lived and where they were first imprisoned after the Revolution, was closed to the public but I walked around the park getting my bearings. I poked my face through the fences that townspeople gawped through when trying to catch a glimpse of their captive royals. I pictured Tatiana and her sisters strolling in the grounds while coming to terms with their captivity, still hoping against hope that their British relatives would rescue them. Ideally I’d have liked to find Dmitri and Tatiana’s initials carved in a tree but no such luck.
Perhaps the place I felt closest to the family was in the Fabergé Museum, where nine of the priceless imperial eggs the Romanovs gave each other at Easter are on display. Nicholas and Alexandra’s fifteenth wedding anniversary egg, inlaid with vignettes of their children and their lives together, is particularly moving. No doubt they all picked it up and turned it around, commenting to each other on the likenesses, and I wished I could do the same. I had an overwhelming urge to touch an object they had all touched, but sadly there was a heavy glass case on top and the security guards were watching me very, very closely.
Gill Paul is a Scottish-born, London-based writer of historical fiction and non-fiction. Her novels include Women and Children First (2012), which was shortlisted for an RNA award, The Affair (2013), and No Place for a Lady (2015), which was shortlisted for a Love Stories Award. Her non-fiction includes A History of Medicine in 50 Objects (2016), World War I Love Stories (2014) and Royal Love Stories (2015). Gill has written about relationships for a number of newspapers and magazines, and has an occasionally successful sideline in matchmaking. She swims year-round in an outdoor pond.
The Secret Wife is out now on the 25 August.