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An uneven but often intriguing fictional portrait of Elizabeth, Princess of Hesse and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who married the cruel and unstable Grand Duke Serge, brother of Tsar Alexander III. Elizabeth's sister Alexandra became the wife of Alexander's son Nicholas, Russia's last tsar. What might have caused Elizabeth--apparently even-tempered and kind, child of a not-too-happy but gentle household--to accept the proposal of surly Serge (first seen by Elizabeth as a boy being tormented by huge and violent brothers)? In Lambton's version, Elizabeth--at a peak, rather mystic, moment--had transferred the heat of an unattainable love (for a humble physician) to Serge. But Russia for Elizabeth is a startling parade of arcane customs and contrasts, particularly the terrible difference she sees between rich and poor. Her wedding, in 1884, in which she is rendered immobile by furs and jewels, is an amusement to brother Ernie, who, as she totters to kneel for a blessing, intones in a tipsy whisper: ""For she's going to marry yum, yum, yum yum."" Then, after the interminable wedding and in the days that follow, Serge's careful avoidance of the marriage bed and cold detachment are a puzzle--until one episode of shocking, perverted violence tells Elizabeth the truth about her husband, who after a bedside confession seemed to turn to ""a sad, dim clown, powder white, crinkled and despairing."" Serge obeys her and does not touch her again--and Elizabeth, with a spiritual discipline that has always attracted her, vows to be a dutiful helpmeet. But the luxurious life is hollow. Serge's excesses of sadism and persecutions (particularly of Jews) increase, and eventually he's assassinated (in 1905). Elizabeth had learned the worst but why did she not criticize? ""Not bad but weak"" is her own self-estimate. Elizabeth will found a convent and hospital, while sister Alix, obsessed to the point of dementia with a dream of glory for her weak husband, and with the health of her ill son, contributes to the disintegration of the Tsar's power. Lambton then offers an intriguing speculation as to what really happened to the two doomed sisters and Alix's daughters. (Could there be Romanov great-grandchildren leading surly peasant lives in central Siberia?) Although some imagined conversations and musings are not always convincing, Lord Lambton's usually stylish account of the sad, strenuous, increasingly courageous life of Elizabeth is often affecting and impressively researched.

Pub Date: April 16th, 1986
Publisher: Dutton