Review of 'The Life and Death of Nicholas and Alexandra' by Maria Mouchanow, available on Kindle and free from open Internet sources under its original name of 'My Empress' by Marfa Mouchanow
Well, there you have it: two names, one book. That should tell us something, and that something is often argued to be that Maria / Marfa Mouchanow never existed, that she is a fake, that the book is a fake, and that nothing in it is to be relied on.
Yes and no.
Originally published in 1918, 'My Empress' has often been relied on – but rarely credited – by other authors telling the story of Nicholas and Alexandra, and it didn't write itself. Do you remember when word processors first came out and everyone assumed that books would soon write themselves? Are you old enough to remember that? Sadly, I am, and I can tell you that the theory of the book written by computer has as many wrinkles as I have. And don't think I haven't tried it. As I keep quoting, 'Writing is easy. Just open up a vein and let the blood pour out.' Don't you think I wouldn't rather hit a button on my laptop and go play Candy Crush while my PC churns out yet another blockbuster masterpiece? Yeah, yeah, I know that some Romance novels look like they have been written by a machine, and a bottom-of-the-range one at that, but I can assure you they haven't, and I can assure you also that 'My Empress' didn't write itself either. My guess is that those mechanical typewriters were darned hard to program.
So, first question: are we certain there was no Maria / Marfa Mouchanow?
Those dedicated Romanovophiles over at The Alexander Palace Time Machine have done an amazing job sifting through the various options of who Maria / Marfa might have been. They even sourced St. Petersburg telephone directories from the 1890s to try to track her down. She called herself 'First Maid in Waiting' and there should have been some historical documentary evidence of her existence somewhere, but there isn't, or not that anyone has managed to unearth.
So was she somebody else?
As I say, somebody must have written the darned book, so who are the contenders? The answer is virtually anyone who was in attendance on Empress Alexandra who hasn't published her own book, or someone pulling together scraps of newspaper articles who had possibly never even been to Russia at all, or possibly a team from the British or American secret services putting out some black propaganda to discredit the Russian Imperial Family.
There certainly seem to have been some mistakes later in her book, especially after Nicholas II's abdication and exile. Somebody on the spot should have known who had left as part of his entourage and who had remained behind in Tsarskoe Selo, for instance. How to explain that?
Well, I have an explanation. My guess is that the author of 'My Empress' was Margaret Eager or Margaretta Eagar – these names really get tricky – the Irish woman who was nanny to the imperial children until 1904 when she was dismissed by Nicholas in an anti-British sulk for his navy having accidentally sunk some British trawlers, which upset Britain's King Edward VII who was quite incomprehensibly peeved that the incidents had happened in the first place and that Tsar Nicholas was refusing to apologize for them or to offer compensation to the bereaved families. The fact that Margaret taught the children to speak English with an Irish accent – not as an attractive a lilt then as it might be considered today – may have had something to do with it too.
Margaret Eager wrote a book called 'Six Years at the Russian Court' in 1906, and her writing style has remarkable similarities to that of 'My Empress,' being playful and impish, not traits usually associated with the mummified Russian Princesses and Countesses who surrounded Empress Alexandra and knew no words of English, to Alix's continuing consternation and isolation.
Margaret Eager may have left the Russian court fourteen years before 'My Empress' was published, but she was about the only person close to Alix who spoke English at a time when Alix couldn't speak Russian and wouldn't speak French, so she was a natural confidante for the lonely Empress. She was also extremely close to the children and corresponded regularly with them, especially with Olga, until their exile and eventually death. Given her continued communication with the children and other members of the imperial household, Ms. Eager will have been receiving a steady stream of insider gossip but no first-hand information, which explains the occasional lapses where she made informed but wrong guesses to fill the gaps in what she had been told.
And there is another interesting thing about the book: While it may have contained factual mistakes, the author clearly knew Empress Alexandra better – or was more honest in her observations of her – than anyone else writing about her at the time, except diplomats such as Maurice Paléologue, the French Ambassador to Russia. Given the Empress's prominent position and tragic end, Alix was invariably placed on a pedestal by contemporary commentators, as was the intimate relationship between her and Nicholas which became the greatest love story ever told, until Edvard Radzinsky finally told it how it was in his 1993 'The Last Tsar.'
So the real question is more how Maria / Marfa came to know so much, rather than why she got some details wrong? Either someone was compiling information from confidential diplomatic sources that were damning of the Empress, or Maria / Marfa – whatever the disguise of her pen name – actually knew her, and, tellingly, knew how she behaved with her children and how committed a mother she was. Margaret Eager naturally knew all about this first-hand, and indeed was the one best placed to know up until her dismissal in 1904, no doubt keeping herself informed on the topic from inside sources – not least Grand Duchess Olga – for many years afterward.
Therefore I don't consider Maria / Marfa Mouchanow to be a fake, or even less that the contents of her book should be discounted, however much she paints the Empress as something other than a living saint and Ella as a right bitch. Maria / Marfa was a real person writing a factional account from the information she had gained first-hand and from the second-hand gossip she had continued to collect until it was impossible for her to continue to do so. If she was a fake, then so am I, because that is what I do too. I research real lives (that's the part of writing I really enjoy), then I creatively fill the gaps. Maria / Marfa was a pioneer faction writer, and, because she wrote from behind a mask, Margaret Eager – if she was Margaret Eager – could also be more candid about Alix and Nicholas's actual natures which she formally venerates while stripping away the veil of hypocrisy, sometimes in the next sentence, to hint at what she really thinks. And it is well known that in 1918 Margaret Eager very much needed the money the book would have earned her to fund her ailing B&B.
If you ignore the few factual errors, this book may actually be the most truthful book written about Alix, Nicholas and their relationship until Edvard Radzinsky came along seventy-five years later, and, for the period, she is a lively and surprisingly modern writer too. And if you are interested in Nicholas, Alexandra and their children, you should definitely make an online trip to Bob Atchison's labor of love, The Alexander Palace Time Machine, an extraordinary record of those Russian times.