This was the first novel I have read by Cynthia Harrod Eagles. I was enthralled with the story throughout the first two thirds of “Anna”; the descriptions of 19th century life in Russia were so poetic and imaginative! The author describes the vastness of this land and its many varied peoples and customs in such an inviting way, it truly makes one grieve for the changes that subsequent political upheaval brought to this land and peoples.
Anna is an English gentlewoman who, upon the death of her father, falls upon necessary employment as a governess. Life as a governess however, is not ‘a bowl full of cherries.’ Dismayed by the harsh treatment of an employer who has no qualms about taking advantage of Anna, she is finally rescued by a Russian nobleman who subsequently engages her to teach his own children. Gifted from her father’s teaching to speak more than one language, she is able to make the huge adjustment in cultures as her adventures take her to Russia and society in the early 1800’s. However, war and Napoleon’s armies are looming on the horizon, and as Anna finds herself falling in love with her employer, she has some decisions to make that will have lifelong repercussions not just for her, but for her employer’s family.
This is quite a lengthy novel and a big time investment, but I was not dismayed by the length as the author does have a talent to keep the reader’s interest! The descriptions themselves are lyrical and the reader feels themselves ‘’right there’ along with the characters:
“Beyond the Steppes the country changed again. It was as if the flat grasslands had been crumpled up like bedclothes into a series of gentle rolling foothills. The tracks were dusty, the blue sky windless, and the heat at noon was oppressive, and made the horses sweat, so that at the end of the day their coats were matted and pale with dust. There began to be trees again, oaks and maples, and the strange feathery grasses of the dry lands, giant thistles and poppies, bellflowers and yellow mullein, and sometimes patches of marsh sewn with reeds. The cicadas sang all day long; there were vultures with hideous bare necks perched unnervingly near the track; and sometimes a pelican flew over from the Sea of Azov.”
Other reviewers have compared the plot of “Anna” to “Jane Eyre”; I found it more comparative to “Anna Karenina”. However there is a huge difference with how the writers tie up the dilemmas in the characters’ lives. For Anna Karenina, there is a much more openly obvious consequence to her choice. In this first book of the Kirov series, the reader is hard put (at first), to find a consequence for marital infidelity. At first, it seems to be justified for the reader, although the situation within one marriage is shown to be already compromised. And so for the reader, the dilemma presents itself; when one member of a couple has already proven unfaithful, does that justify a decision to, in turn, commit adultery? Personal happiness in this book seems to be upheld regardless of any of society’s mores, and ‘being sinned against’ justifies infidelity. (However, later in the story, there is a consequence of the choice made that results in a family estrangement, and to give the author credit, it is possible that this was her purpose in writing; to show that there *are* lasting consequences in our life decisions. The tragedy of this story (as it so often does happen in real life), is that had these two only waited for a bit, as events played out in their lives and the tragedy of war interferes, they would have gotten what they wanted after all. A subtle lesson for the reader!)
However, I do find a difference between my all-time favorite writer (Elizabeth Goudge), and this novel. Goudge never ‘pretends’ that life is easy or that marriages are always completely fulfilling and happy (in fact I am unsure whether there is one happy marriage in her novels!) However there is an unequivocal, strong moral foundation in her books. Although the characters agonize whether personal happiness is worth the price of compromising the marriage vows (are ‘in sickness or in health, til death do us part’ really just empty words?), they ultimately find true satisfaction in ‘doing the right thing.’ Goudge’s characters, although their struggles are real and obvious, seem to be ‘stronger’ in their moral fiber (and I wonder if this is the trait that is missing in much of our contemporary literature; the ‘black and white’ of choice, has become meshed and now become ‘grey’.)
A reviewer, I suppose, is not supposed to ‘moralize.’ However, as we call to mind our love of literature and the classics, we find we are most moved by those characters who are either openly ‘evil’ (and we are shocked by it), or admire those who stand fast for goodness and truth. (The very fact that good and evil exist is a moral truth!) We enjoy Dickens and Trollope because they never ‘whitewash’ their characters but rather paint the human personality with all of its foibles, just as it is. Sometimes there is hope for change, and personally I feel that is where the best of literature comes in; when there is a redemption for the characters and hope for a different outcome than the consequence of evil.
“Poor Anna,” Sergei said tenderly. ‘I’m so used to your being here, that I forget Russia isn’t your home too.’
“I forget it, most of the time,’ she said. ‘It’s just occasionally … Things are so very different here. And there’s so much of everything, that sometimes I feel overwhelmed.’
She saw that he didn’t understand her – and indeed, how could he? He had never been to England, and if he had, he would have felt, like the Count, confined by the smallness. Only someone born there could understand that a place might be larger on the inside than on the outside; that to be encircled by a closed horizon could give one more freedom than to stand in the middle of a vast and featureless plain.
It was a little, she thought, like the freedom of religion, the power and scope that was granted to one by virtue of belonging to God; the atheist might think he was free, but the very emptiness of his life was a prison. She thought of the Second Collect for Peace, ‘…whose service is perfect freedom.”
(I find I am always surprised when a reviewer will write that a reference to God or morality or even the Christian message of the Gospel is ‘offensive’ to them. I have a hard time understanding how a Savior who has given His own life so that mankind can have real hope for his personal failures can be offensive? I do not mean to bring up a debate, but we as we see how literature over the years has ‘progressed’ I must admit that of those who wrote the classics, many at least admitted (or referred to, however subtly), to the existence of a Creator, and I doubt whether He was portrayed purposely to ‘bring offence’ to the reader.)
I enjoyed this novel but I do wish the author had given the reader a story that showed more of the triumph of the human spirit over circumstances, rather than the dark consequences of war and human nature. There is a LOT of history especially in the last third of the book with the European conflict and battles, negotiations, governmental figures and cabinets, and the author has obviously meticulously done her research.
When the reader finally does see the results of Anna and Count Kirov’s choices, a good question to ask might be, “what price are we willing to pay for personal happiness? should our own happiness be the ultimate goal of our lives, or is there a higher purpose and satisfaction to be found in putting others before ourselves?”
Do I recommend this book? Yes, with some cautions. The reader will enjoy the story and be caught up in all the romance of the period, the descriptions of the banquets, the attention paid to the conventions and structure in society, the ‘White Nights’, the food and dancing, the countryside scenery and opulent mansions, and feel with the characters themselves the tragedy and pathos that war brings to human existence. But be warned also that there are, although not numerous, some scenes (especially one or two that come to mind) that might give you more than you bargained for.