From Russia with love
At the turn of the last century, the royal families of Britain and Russia were linked by blood and marriage. Martin Williams enjoys this spirited account of their often uneasy relationship
At a time when Anglorussian relations are under intense scrutiny, Frances Welch’s new book is peculiarly relevant. In The Russian Court at Sea, published in 2011, she chronicled the exodus of the surviving Romanovs from a Russia descending into the abyss of the Red terror. Now, she winds back the clock still further, to an era when matters of state were conducted, not only in the chancelleries of Europe, but across the tea tables and aboard the yachts of intertwined royal dynasties.
to the outwardly affectionate and occasionally antagonistic crowned heads who exchanged visits in the pursuit of national interests often inimical to those of their hosts, diplomacy was very much a family affair.
Matters of state were conducted across the tea tables of royal dynasties
In 1896, in the twilight of her marathon reign, Queen Victoria presided over the largest empire in history. Her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had ruled Germany since 1888; her beautiful but highly strung granddaughter, Alexandra of Hesse, had married the tsar of Russia in 1894. to claim that Victoria had been dubious about the alliance would be less than truthful. When the engagement was announced, she wrote that ‘the state of Russia is so bad, so rotten, that at any moment something dreadful might happen’.
to Alexandra’s elder sister, she fretted over ‘the awful insecurity to which that sweet child will be exposed… my blood runs cold when I think of her so young… her dear life and, above all, her husband’s so constantly threatened’.
Victoria would never know just how prescient her dire misgivings were. For now, she and her sorely tried courtiers were faced with the prospect of welcoming the new tsar and tsarina, as well as their infant daughter and an army of retainers, to the tartan-draped halls of Balmoral Castle, deep in the Scottish Highlands.
It is hard to fathom quite what Nicholas II, who was more accustomed to the giltencrusted splendours of Moscow and St Petersburg, made of the skirling bagpipes, fireside chats and outings to local shops. His diary entries were laconic and mainly limited to the appalling weather and the sport to which he was dragged in pouring rain and fleeting shine by his wife’s uncle, the future Edward VII.
When not on the hillsides, he was either posing for family photographs or being buttonholed by the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, who confessed to finding him more agreeable than the bumptious Kaiser. If it was true, as a historian later maintained, that ‘neither she (Victoria), nor England, nor Lord Salisbury, knew any more about his (Nicholas’s) real sentiment towards England than if he had never been to Balmoral at all’, the whole exercise at least provided an excuse to renew the bonds of blood across the miles and generations.
there were to be two further encounters between the British and Russian royal families before the curtain was rung down in August, 1914: one at Reval (now tallinn) in 1908 and one on the Isle of Wight the following summer. Each was immaculately choreographed; both were deemed successful by their uniform-wearing, parasoltwirling protagonists.
the irony was that those delicate questions of protocol and etiquette, of menus, presentations and decorations, were to prove so many irrelevancies in the face of the brutal realpolitik of war and revolution. In juxtaposing the trivial with the monumental and the intensely personal with the inconceivably remote, this book shines a light into an extraordinary, intermittently hilarious and ultimately tragic corner of 20th-century diplomacy.
For Jonathan Drori, who grew up in Kew and was, for nine years, a trustee of the royal Botanic Gardens, trees are not just trees, but medical repositories, cultural and religious icons and utilitarian civilisation changers. For his new book, he’s picked species from every continent, describing them with a connoisseur’s passion and expanding on the various ways they have affected the course of history. accompanying each text are French illustrator Lucille Clerc’s deft drawings revealing the trees in their natural surroundings and parts of their anatomy.
Mr Drori revels in every idiosyncrasy and the various ways in which trees have changed our lives. Willow bark, for example, produces aspirin, the commonest pill in the medicine cabinet, its painkiller chemistry having first been discovered by the ancient Egyptians.
the Egyptians also valued the frankincense tree for its resin, which releases a balsamic fragrance when heated; they imported it from arabia from about 2,500bc and used it in embalming their dead (it still serves as an antiseptic today). through the ages, incense has been burned in temples of all faiths, its fragrant aroma connecting worshippers with divine thoughts. nobody would guess from the tree’s scrubby, nondescript appearance that its resin could produce such transports of delight and that frankincense was once the world’s most valuable commodity.
We learn how trees and creatures are umbilically linked. For centuries, the acorns of the Californian tanoak formed an essential component of the native american diet. European settlers then fed the acorns to their pigs and used tannin from the bark to treat their leather shoes and saddles. as the production of leather goods became commercialised, the trees were over-exploited and tanoak forests became severely depleted, leading to the decline of the leather industry.
in the 1950s, tanoaks were regrown for their strong, finegrained timber, but they later succumbed to the greater demand for fast-growing conifers and, more recently, to an invasive fungus. ‘in 100 years, tanoaks had made the journey from vital indigenous food source to worthless weed,’ Mr Drori laments.
his excitement at every arboreal peculiarity—from the use of graffiti on bark since Virgil’s day to the intoxicating nectar of the lime, or Linden, tree—means he never says anything dull. this attractively put-together book is simply delightful.
We learn how trees and creatures are umbilically linked
British and Russian royals, including Tsar Nicholas II and Queen Victoria, pictured at Balmoral
One of Lucille Clerc’s deft illustrations: the silver birch