So, you have all heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald, right? Well, if you haven’t, then you have certainly heard of The Great Gatsby. A sad tale of love lost, it has remained one of the enduring tales of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, having become the subject of numerous films and other forms of entertainment, and the subject of the study of literature at many schools worldwide.
It is no doubt then that you have to have heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald or his infamous work. But how many people know of his wife? Zelda Fitzgerald. How many people know anything about her? How many people even know that she exists?
Sadly, like many women behind great men, she remains just that – behind the ‘great’ F. Scott Fitzgerald. And like many before her, and many after, she is as great, if not greater, than the man overshadowing her.
So, more about Zelda Fitzgerald
Her tale is a tragic one. As tragic as her husband’s masterpiece. A novelist, ballerina and painter, she was great in her own right.
But, to paint the picture of her marriage, one needs to go back to the beginning. An encounter that was strangely reminiscent of the meeting of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the meeting of Zelda and Francis inspired the male Fitzgerald in his writing of that scene. He was also ‘inspired’ by many of Zelda’s own writings in her diaries, taking them verbatim to use in his stories.
But for all the romance one expected of this young rendezvous, one that would create the most renowned Jazz couple in history – Francis and Zelda being prolific socialites, and Francis calling his wife ‘the first American flapper’ – Zelda’s life would forever be marred by her famous spouse.
Yearning for escapes, and suffering from schizophrenia, she struggled in her pursuit of literary creativity – her husband increasingly infuriated with her very presence. Eventually confined to a psychiatric facility, she and Francis became increasingly estranged. To paint the picture of their loss of love, when the male Fitzgerald learnt of the female Fitzgerald’s novel, Save Me the Waltz, he was further infuriated. He found disdain in her use of their marital history as material, not only for its portrayal of him, but because he had intended to write an autobiography himself. He no doubt saw his wife’s success as his loss. He thus forced her to remove many parts of the novel – parts that he would go on to use in his autobiography.
Sadly, her novel did not reach success. This was not aided by her husband’s berating of it. He called her plagiaristic, a third rate writer. This would only add to her struggle to emerge from her husband’s shadow. Something which she would never come to do. Something which she has still not come to do.
By her husband’s death, they were separated. She was confined to a facility. She would come to die in a fire in one of this facilities. And would history remember her name? It would not. Her name would only touch those who sought it out.
And thus, she became one of the many women drowning in the shadow of their husband. It sounds uncannily similar to the tale of Daisy Buchanan. Strangely, many of the stories written by the Fitzgeralds mirror their own lives. But, in The Great Gastby, Daisy abandoned her love. Sadly, Zelda’s lover abandoned her. And thus, history abandoned her too.
With the long due, and imminent release of The Monk’s Curse, a novel which I conceived and wrote about almost two years ago, I have decided to make things more interesting by revealing the research I did to write each chapter. This will be something very interesting as the novel is historical content heavy and the link between the various historical threads is fascinating. I shall write a post once a week on each chapter. This week is the prologue.
So without further ado.
This was by far one of the most interesting chapters to write. That is because it is based entirely on the real life experience of the Russian Imperial Family after the Tsar’s abdication in 1917.
And what makes it more interesting is the narrator of this chapter. It is none other than the last Empress Consort of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna.
Some Historical Perspective
What makes this narrator fascinating is that the Empress was a Princess of a German Grand Duchy – the Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine. This was a region in the German Empire.
As a foreign Empress, she was disliked by the Russian population – nobles and peasants alike – and her mother-in-law. That her husband’s reign, a reign much like Louis XVI’s of France, ended in their execution is not the only similarity that the last ruling family of France and Russia shared. As it happens, Louis XVI’s wife was German too. Something that is far too similar to be a coincidence – a historical poetic justice of sorts, Marie Antoinette of France was born as an Archduchess of Austria. A German Princess like Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. She was also disliked by the French population.
It thus adds to one of the many similarities shared by the French and Russian revolutions. Both shared foreign wives of the monarch. Both had incompetent monarchs. Both were the result of a deeply entrenched system of the precedence of society following this pattern: the monarch, the clergy, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the peasant or working class.
But these similarities are nothing more than a historical marvel admired by many – myself included.
The Research Involved
But the writing of the Prologue required a lot more knowledge than the Empress’s historical background. It would be vital to understand her feelings toward her subjects. It would be vital to understand her thought process, for the reign of her husband was marred by her own influence. An influence disliked by the Russians, and one made worse by her close relationship with the Russian fanatic, Grigori Rasputin.
How could I possibly come to know her thoughts? Her last days. Her convictions. How could I make it historically plausible, in its prose that is?
Simple. With the marvellous tool of Wikipedia and films made about the time. Sure, no historian worth their salt would ever base an entire chapter of their book on the conjecture of Wikipedia and twentieth century film producers. But, I am no historian. And, my book is no history book. It is fiction.
So began the earnest search for the Empress’s thoughts. I shall skip the Wikipedia part. Sure, it gave me the events, the family’s nicknames, their companions, their places of captivity, the time of their captivity, the seasons, and so much more. But I needed more. I needed drama. I needed the daily lives of the Imperial family in their last days.
Here is where the movies come in. Notably, four movies. Assassin of the Tsar. BBC’s Infamous Assassinations: The Assassination of Tsar Nicholas II. Rasputin – Dark Servant of Destiny. Nicholas and Alexandra.
Assassin of the Tsar.
This was an interesting one. Totally devoid of what one would normally expect, this 1991 film starred Malcolm McDowell and a host of Russian actors. It is ‘abnormal’ in that it is not an actual historical picture of the last days of the Imperial family. Rather, it follows Malcolm McDowell’s character, Timofyev, a patient in a mental asylum, who claims to have assassinated both Tsar Alexander II and Tsar Nicholas II. Somehow, the family’s last days are characterised by McDowell starring as the family’s guard, Yakov Yurovsky; and by Dr Smirnov (Timofyev’s doctor in the mental asylum) starring as Tsar Nicholas II. It makes for an interesting look into the wild mind of Timofyev, and the last days of the Imperial family. More than anything, it gave me a brief look into the events that my prologue would contain rather than the look into my narrator’s mind.
Rasputin – Dark Servant of Destiny.
This one was not only interesting, but it was a pleasure to watch. With an all star cast, three of my favourites – Alan Rickman, Ian McKellen, and Greta Scacchi – it was thoroughly enjoyable.
The cast left nothing in want, brilliantly portraying the last days of the Imperial family, and placing particular focus on the relationship between Rasputin, the man who ‘supposedly’ aided the health of Tsesarevich Alexei in his affliction with haemophilia, and the Empress. To me, their relationship almost seemed sensual as the snivelling Rasputin gained the favour of the Empress, posing as her saviour. It makes for a compelling tale that leaves one not in doubt about why the Russian population disliked their Empress and her notorious confidante.
Nicholas and Alexandra
This was by far my favourite of them all. In part because it stars the beautiful Janet Suzman, born in my home country South Africa, and niece of Helen Suzman, an anti-apartheid activist. Janet Suzman delivers a stellar performance as Alexandra, painting the perfect picture of the imperious woman, her strength in her convictions, and her love for her family and Nicholas.
Of them all, this movie guided my hand the most as I wrote the first chapter to my first novel. As such, it will remain a film that will be firmly embedded in my memory. It is one that I highly recommend.
Finally…the conception of a prologue worthy of its succeeding chapters
Now, whether all these movies and my perusal of the necessary Wikipedia pages gave me an accurate picture into the Empress’s thoughts or not, I certainly shaped a character from them. A compelling character. An antagonist some might claim. But the perfect start to my novel.