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What did the Tsarina read?

A study of the books owned by someone can open a window into their interests, and a royal personage no less so.

In so doing, the reading material of the last Empress of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) charts important events in her life and tells us a lot about what she saw as significant to keep, or take with her to Russia; her books crucially incorporated her old life into the new, imperial one which she now expected to lead. The choice of books reflected not only the scope of her tastes but also the extreme importance of Alexandra’s family feeling because some of the books that she took to Russia bore personal dedications to her as private gifts.

Books represented an important feature in the life of the Russian imperial family; this is testified to also by what is known about surviving books that belonged to other members of the Tsar’s family, aside from Alexandra. A. A. Mosolov, the Head of Chancellery of the Imperial Court Ministry confirmed this: “Reading was the main pleasure of the imperial couple”. (Nicholas II and the Imperial Residence of Tsarskoe Selo, ed. Satu Eiskonen, Pg 215, 2004).

The historical collections of the Alexander Palace contained ex-libris books of Tsar Nicholas II from the Tsar’s Winter Palace library, which was also the case for the libraries at the residence of Livadia in the Crimea and of course, at Tsarskoe Selo. These books were stamped with marks made by Baron A. Ye. Felkersam. (Ibid, Pg 215).

One book which the Tsar received as a gift was a French book bound in leather and silk, on Marie-Caroline, Duchesse de Berry, given to the Tsar by his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Sergei. The Tsar’s masculine, ‘gothic’ style Library at the Winter Palace was photographed in 1917, designed around the time of his marriage; the volumes of the books he owned in this room alone, can be clearly seen in one photograph which survives.

The Tsar sometimes read aloud to Alexandra in the evenings; in the period of their engagement, he had read aloud to her from Loti’s Matelot, in the house at Walton-on-Thames, which was rented by Alix’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg. The Alexander Palace contained some 18,000 books alone in the main library rooms, with another 6,000 in the family’s own apartments. (Ibid, Pg 214). When Alexandra’s Russian became fluent, the Tsar read aloud in Russian, reading aloud largely in French to Alexandra in the early years of their marriage.

Naturally, some of Alexandra’s books were in German, which she brought with her from Darmstadt along with countless others, most of which bore her signature or autographic monogram on the flyleaves. Several examples of these from the Alexander Palace included a book, ‘Haussegen’ [House Blessing] which was bound in silk and published in Leipzig in 1892; others included a German book on the life of Christ, Collected Works, autographed ‘Alix, June 1901. Peterhof’ (the year of the birth of her fourth daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolevna) and ‘Mainz und Umgebung’ [Mainz and the surrounding area], the latter autographed as early as 1881, which she must have received at the age of nine.

Poignantly, one of these books from Alexandra’s library was a German 1883 edition from Darmstadt of her mother’s life in letters, which the then twelve-year-old Alexandra autographed: ‘Alix von Hessen, 1884, Darmstadt’. The mention of her mother is important, because among the books which Alexandra took with her to Russia were many that had once belonged to her mother, Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, such as a book of ‘Gleanings from Pious Authors’, published in London in 1850, which was autographed by the then Princess Alice at Windsor Castle. Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse died when her little daughter Princess Alix was aged only six, in 1878.

Alexandra’s refusal initially to convert to Russian Orthodoxy was the main impediment to her betrothal to the Tsarevich Nicholas, which finally took place in 1894. Not surprisingly though, her conversion unleashed a growing zeal which resonated with her emotional intensity in character. Her choice of books reflected an increasing interest in mysticism, which in many ways would prove how the Orthodox faith, with its rich legacy of holy men and faith healers, would strike a deep chord of resonance with her own nature, and its mix of sensuality and melancholy. In 1903, she wrote that she was reading works written by the German and Dutch theosophists of the 15th and 16th centuries. (H.D.A Major, The Life and Letters of William Boyd Carpenter, Pg 262, 1925).

Other examples of the books that were read by Alexandra are demonstrative of her tastes, which were classically Victorian in some ways, with an equal blending of the sentimental as well as the divine. Her library contained books given to her as Christmas presents from the Tsar, including French books, Russian Orthodox teachings and even the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from the Tsar: ‘For my darling Alix. Xmas 1912 fr. Nicky’. (Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, Nicholas and Alexandra, At Home with the Last Tsar and His Family, Pg 116, 2004).

Books seem to have been popular choices for presents, especially at Christmas time. The author I. Zaitseva writes that books lay ‘everywhere – in bookcases, on desks, in rotating book stands’, with a magazine being placed in the Corner Drawing Room, from which new titles were ordered. (Ibid, Pg 214). Some of the furnishings of the Alexander Palace had been ordered from a mail catalogue from London, such as the English chintzes.

The books which belonged to Alexandra were also proof of the talent of the imperial family for languages, as well as a testament to the languages of her youth, English – the mother tongue of her mother, Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, Queen Victoria’s second daughter – and German, the language of her father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse. Alexandra knew French of course and learned Russian fluently – she took for example, her Russian textbooks with her as Princess on her trip to Yorkshire in 1894, some of the manuals of which survive. Tsar Nicholas II also knew English – the language in which the Tsar and Tsarina corresponded – French, Danish and German. The books also represent amongst the sentimental, also a strong interest in cultural and literary history.

Alexandra’s maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria admired the novelist Marie Corelli, a view with which Alexandra apparently concurred, as her favourite author. (Greg King, The Last Empress, Pg 40, 1994). Queen Victoria had found Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre ‘intensely interesting, really a wonderful book, so powerfully and admirably written’ (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 478, 2000). Alexandra read it the year prior to her marriage to Tsar Nicholas II, in 1893.

Among the many books acquired from the historical collection of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo was a volume that testified to Alexandra’s deep bond with the Queen, who had regarded her as one of her favourite grandchildren. The book was a selection of ‘Her Majesty’s diaries between the years 1832 and 1830’, bound in leather and silk and published in London in 1912, eleven years after the Queen’s death, when Alexandra was aged forty. Alexandra’s monogram appears on first page and it bears a touching inscription from her youngest aunt, Princess Beatrice, the Queen’s fifth daughter: “To dear Alicky from her loving aunt Beatrice, Christmas 1912”. (Nicholas II and the Imperial Residence of Tsarskoe Selo, ed. Satu Eiskonen, Pg 216-17, 2004). Alexandra had been one of Princess Beatrice’s bridesmaids on her wedding to Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885; Alexandra remained in correspondence with some of her aunts until the years of the World War One, notably her aunt, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll.

Alexandra’s library similarly contained a volume of ‘English Sacred Poetry’, published in London in 1877, bearing a label for Alexandra’s art nouveau Maple Room at the Alexander Palace where she sometimes read, bearing an inscription ‘Alise [sic] fr. Grandmama, X-mas’. Another book was a collection of lectures for Sunday evenings, which bore a dedication of her great-grandmother, Queen Charlotte, which had once been owned by the English doctor Henry Davies. (Swezey, Pg 116). Many of Alexandra’s books were shelved in the famous ‘Mauve Boudoir’, at the Alexander Palace, where alongside the religious and sentimental works, were also to be found art books, travel guides and even the magazine, National Geographic. (Alexander Palace Time Machine).

Somewhat touchingly, one small volume bound in silk called ‘Heavenly Dew’, was given to Alexandra to mark her confirmation from her cousin, Princess Maud of Wales, future Queen of Norway. Princess Maud had also been a bridesmaid at Princess Beatrice’s wedding. That Alexandra took these books to Russia shows I think, how much they must have meant to her. Even in her last diary at Ekaterinburg in 1918, she noted the birthday for example, of her English aunt, Queen Victoria’s third daughter, Princess Helena.

Alexandra’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden remembered that the Tsarina preferred serious works, but also enjoyed contemporary English novels, which she also read with her daughters, the Grand Duchesses. (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Pg 161-62, 1928). In the early years of her marriage, she wrote to one of her sisters that she was reading with the Tsar, a list which included Le Roman du Prince Eugene, La Duchesse d’Angouleme by Nolhac and a book about Napolean on St. Helena; all French titles. As Princess of Hesse, Alexandra had read according to Buxhoeveden, Guizot’s Reformation de la Litterature, a life of Cromwell, Geschichte der Hohenstaufen by Raumer (five volumes) and in between all this, Paradise Lost; choices which certainly show that her tastes stretched far more seriously than the novellas which she also enjoyed.

An analysis of what Alexandra read can therefore, also reveal what she wanted to take with her from her past as she moved towards a momentous future, as the consort of Tsar Nicholas II. Reading being both a communal and a singular exercise, it enables us to know what she had in her hands and what occupied her mind as a backdrop to key periods of her life. Books created an environment of personal meaning, in rooms which were full of sentimental importance to Alexandra, and were furnished as such.

At the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where the Russian imperial family would be murdered on July 16/17 1918, the ex-Tsar and Tsarina ‘read’ books whilst the young Grand Duchesses embroidered and knitted. (Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra, Pg 485. 1967).

It was a replica of the family life they had always enjoyed, even at the last – especially at the last. On the night of her death, Alexandra made an entry into a book – her last diary – in which she wrote: ‘At 10 ½ to bed. 15 degrees’.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.