Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie

**UPDATE: I originally was going to DNF this.  I wrote a review and everything.  But then I ended up finishing.  As it turns out, my opinion about the book remains essentially unchanged, so the new review just has a few edits.

 

Catherine the Great has to be one of the most fascinating women of history.  Intelligent, cynical, and enigmatic, she started as a nobody, deftly navigated the intrigues of court, orchestrated a coup, and ended up as one of the most successful rulers in Russian history.  She is complex and difficult to classify; the Machiavellian intelligence she demonstrates means that nothing about her can be taken at face value.  When my library got an audiobook of her biography, therefore, I jumped at the chance to learn more about her.

 

Unfortunately, I don't think that Massie does his subject justice. (**Before you take my word for it, please note that he has won awards for this book, so my opinion is definitely not mainstream.)

 

To me, one of the most necessary traits of a historian is skepticism.  A historian must examine a host of primary documents with the understanding that each one was written by a fallible human with his or her own motivations and biases.  Only after resolving these different facets in an attempt to find the kernel of truth within can the historian try to weave together a narrative.  In fact, a good historian should treat their subject as a court case, but must assume each role--detective, attorney, judge, and jury--in turn, hunting down clues, taking the witness statements, weighing the evidence, and attempting to harmonize all information into a coherent thesis.

 

To beat this analogy to death, Massie comes across as a combination of Conan Doyle's Inspector Lestrade and Circuit Judge George Frobisher from the Rumpole series.

 

To put this entire review into one succinct sentence:

I think Massie is far too credulous.

 

At least in the opening 30% of the narrative, Massie appears to depend almost entirely on Catherine's own account of her early life.  He treats her primary documents as truth and reports her viewpoint on the people around her as fact.  Unsurprisingly, given his source material, he portrays Catherine as devout and dutiful, kindly and clever. Everyone else may have flaws, but Catherine always takes the most virtuous, well-considered action. She is so pure, so virginal, that she knows nothing of the bare mechanics of sex before marriage; she is so scrupulous in duty that every conflict is someone else's fault. Her mother is a shrew.  Her husband is a psychotic idiot.  Empress Elizabeth is a jealous harridan.  Curiously, the result is so sickeningly priggish that I found her detestable.  Massie attributes various quotes to the people around Catherine, but so far as I can determine from the sloppy citations, he is actually quoting Catherine's report of their words.  This, as any argumentative kindergartner should know, is not quite the same thing.

 

Worse still, whether or not Massie managed to remember it, most of his source material for this oh-so-perfect being came from the being herself.  That adds a rather different spin to, for example, a story in which Catherine goes riding with another woman apparently renowned for her riding.  According to Massie--which, since he quotes parts of the story from her memoirs, is clearly according to Catherine-- Catherine is praised for her fluidity in entering the saddle, to the point that everyone is amazed that it is a woman's saddle, as they have never seen such grace.  Her companion is clumsy and sits in the seat like a sack in comparison to Catherine.  Catherine's prowess is so great that the Empress Elizabeth is amazed and laughs heartily at the other woman's expense.  At other points, we discover that Catherine was incredibly beautiful with countless admirers--at least, that's what she reports. And each time she was complemented on her appearance, or discovered a man was in love with her, she reports her surprise.  After an exhaustive list of partners and complements, she adds, "to tell the truth, I have never believed myself beautiful."  Personally, I found this false humility absolutely disgusting.  I decided to stop reading when I realized my irritation for Massie's unintentional bitchy, smug, self-righteous prig began to outweigh any of my respect or fascination for the woman herself.  I'm not sure whether Catherine's memoirs are as sickeningly saccharine as the excerpts Massie chooses, and I'm not sure I want to find out.

 

We all tend to spin our lives in such a way that we are the heroes, that the fault lies elsewhere, and that we remain innocent and ill-used.  Added to this is the fact that not only was Catherine an extremely intelligent woman, but it certainly would have been in her favour for her to sanctify herself and demonize those she overthrew.  She certainly shows objective evidence of herself as a spinner--most of the material, after all, appears to come from the memoirs of an adult, who, even as a girl, wrote an essay about herself called "Portrait of a Fifteen-Year-Old Philosopher."

 

Fortunately for the narrative, Catherine's memoir stops relatively early in her life, after which Massie begins to look for other sources.  Unfortunately, he still seems far too credulous, far too willing to take Catherine's comments in her letters as truth.  When any conflicting opinions emerge, Massie always presents Catherine positively, dismissing all other viewpoints. He even takes this to the extreme of reporting all the positive stories told about Catherine, yet dismissing or ignoring all the negative ones (the infamous "horse" thing doesn't even come up.) His narrative focuses less on this complex, fascinating woman, and more on the scandals of court, the dresses, and the food.  I could care less about what Catherine wore or what was whispered about her lovers; I want to know about the politics and machinations, her faults and feelings.  Overall, I was dissatisfied with this book; Massie did all in his power to present Catherine positively, and the obvious bias made me unwilling to trust the remainder.

 

I sympathise with historians of the Middle Ages or Roman or even earlier periods; there simply isn't that much material to work with.  Sometimes you just have to trust a source, even if you suspect it is biased.  However, Catherine lived in the eighteenth century: surely there would be no shortage of primary documents to work with and sieve through and compare.  Yet the sickeningly angelic portrayal, the quotes taken almost entirely from the memoir, do not give me any confidence that Massie did the research.   If I want a biased, self-congratulatory spin, I can read Catherine's own account of her life.  And if Massie thinks that the best authority on Catherine is Catherine herself, well...I've got a bridge to sell him.