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Dames (and Dukes) at Sea
on 25 August 2011
This is a great read but could do better, as my school reports used to say.
I began at the beginning, with the Dramatis Personae. Top of the bill is the mother of the Tsar, the Dowager Empress. Then we have the Tsar's sister and her children - two sons and a daughter, who are therefore the Tsar's nephews and niece. But the Dramatis Personae insists they are the Tsar's grandchildren! No, they're the Dowager's grandchildren.
Six pages in we read about the Dowager's five grandsons. Five? Back to the Dramatis Personae. Just two grandsons there. Help! Which arrives on page 49, in the form of a photo of, yes, five grandsons. So three of them were spear-carriers who didn't make it to the Dramatis Personae, poor darlings. But then it's a big cast. Talking of which, the Dramatis Personae is useful but even more useful would be a family tree for the two branches of the Romanovs, the Ai-Todors and the Dulbers - I kept getting lost without one. Before embarking on a second reading (geddit?) I made one for myself and found it much easier to keep tabs on who was who.
Ai-Todor and Dulber we quickly learn are the names of relevant Romanov palaces; and it would have been good to have had photos of them - Dulber in particular is a wonderfully OTT Moroccan pleasure dome. There are photos on the internet but in this book all we get is a scrappy snap of another palace, Koreiz. And could we not have a little map of how they and Yalta, the principal port, sit on the Crimean coast? And Sevastopol while we're at it, as that features also.
The author lives at Aldeburgh, on the coast of our sea-girt island home, with boats galore bobbing about the briny, so why on earth aren't we told more about the boat at the centre of the tale, HMS Marlborough? All we get is "a distingushed (sic) Iron Duke battleship, still bearing the scars of a torpedo hit at Jutland in 1916", and then, at the very end of the book, a small photo of the vessel wrapped in Piranesian gloom. Come now, Frances: chaps read your salty tale and we want to know that she was launched in 1912, 25000 tons, length 622 ft, beam 90 ft, speed 21 knots, crew 925, ten 13-inch guns in five twin turrets... You get the idea. Or could we settle for a plan of the ship, complete with cabins?
And while I'm being picky (moi?), the Dowager Empress may have mistaken the Bosphorus for the Dardanelles (p.123) but our bending author shouldn't.
Nunquam mens, this is a gripping yarn - there are very few books I read twice in quick succession. Roll on the second edition.