The Grand Duchess of Nowhere

Jan 4, 2015

Eastwell Park_Kent_EnglandWhen a novel opens with a two-page diagram showing generations of the Romanov family tree, I admit to being daunted. Yet The Grand Duchess of Nowhere by Laurie Graham is not daunting at all. Told in the chatty, first-person voice of the Grand Duchess Victoria (Melita) Feodorovna, it’s brisk and lively. I quickly came to know the important characters and no longer needed to look to the family tree to keep up with them.

Called “Ducky” by her family, the Duchess is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria on her father’s side, and of Tsar Nicholas I on her mother’s side. Her grandmother, Queen Victoria, expects her to marry a cousin and she does, twice: first Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, then later her real love, Cyril Vladimirovich, Grand Duke of Russia.





But one of Ducky’s most important relatives is someone she doesn’t spend much time with. Cousin “Nicky” marries Ernest’s sister, cousin Alexandra (called “Sunny”), and becomes Tsar Nicholas II. We all know where that ends.

Ducky and Ernest attend the wedding, a huge affair with parades and ceremonies.

There’s no sound on earth like Russian church bells. There’s a scheme to English bells, like the steps of a quadrille, and a German carillon makes a pretty sound. But the intention of Russian bells seems to be to rock the earth off its axis.


Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, 1895; painting by Laurits Tuxen

Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, 1895; painting by Laurits Tuxen


Knowing where the story of Nicholas and Alexandra ends is not a problem here. It’s fine to learn this history through Ducky’s likable, almost glib voice. The pace is fast and the author has her history right.

Ducky falls out of favor with her cousin the Tsar when she divorces Ernest. Maybe she could forgive Ernie for sleeping with the stable boys, but they married under family pressure in the first place, and she is unhappy. She and Cyril were in love from the beginning, but when he marries her, a disgraced divorcee, Tsar Nicholas (Nicky) strips him of his titles, rank and allowances. Even Queen Victoria is furious. “Marriage is sacred,” she says. “Happiness is irrelevant.” I like to think she actually said that because it’s such a good line, and it gives us her character succinctly.

Ducky and Cyril are not allowed to live in Russia for quite some time, but as the Romanov dynasty begins to show weakness, Cyril is needed at home and they’re happy to go back. All of the book is engrossing but the appearance of Grigory Rasputin, the intrigue of the Revolution and the fall of the Romanovs is the most gripping. One begins to wonder if it could have been helped, or at least foreseen.




Our Duchess would have us believe that her cousin Tsar Nicholas II was largely responsible. She calls him “a little man in a big man’s boots.” He takes his counsel from his wife, who takes hers from Rasputin. Essentially, Rasputin is running things, and running them into the ground. By the time he is killed (with more of Ducky’s cousins involved), it’s too late.

Graham’s tale creates a picture of idyllic royal life—the beautiful homes and gardens, the minor worries treated as important. She also shows how the Romanovs, through ignorance and denial, missed what was coming. Ducky hardly mentions poor people, making me wonder if those stable boys had any choice about sex with Ernie. The servant class is there to serve, their rank is low, their value next to nothing. Each of them is replaceable.

Ducky, as narrator, gives us this uncaring picture. But this is the only thing Graham might not have gotten quite right. It would be unrealistic to think Ducky is enough different from other royals to make her completely sympathetic to the revolutionaries. However, one need go only as far as Wikipedia to find this:

Victoria [Ducky] wrote to Queen Marie of Romania [her sister] in February 1917 that their home was surrounded by a mob, “yet heart and soul we are with this movement of freedom which at the time probably signs our own death warrant … We personally are losing all, our lives changed at one blow and yet we are almost leading the movement.”

Was Ducky deluding herself? If Laurie Graham has given us her character clearly, she was anything but delusional.

The question on the cover, “What would you give up for love?” is misleading. Many characters in this story give things up for love. But this is no romance. It’s a fast-paced history of wealth, denial, and the last generation of a doomed dynasty.







Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at and LivingVicuriously.

Petrea’s novel, Camelot & Vine, can be bought locally at the Pasadena Museum of History, Hoopla! in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse. The ebook version is available on

Petrea’s new release Act As If is available from Amazon (Kindle and paperback), and locally at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, as well as at Hoopla! in Altadena.





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