The Mirrored World, by Debra Dean, is a dense and ornate historical glimpse into the lives of nobility in St. Petersburg’s Russia in the 1700s. Through an old woman’s memories, we look at the lush, over-the-top, and frequently absurd social conventions of the royal court where cruelty and manipulations are disguised behind elegant facades. Strict rules of conformity are observed under penalty of banishment or death. Girls have no value in society except as marriage material, even then, an heir must be provided for the woman to be of use….in spite of the example of the strong, ruthless empress. What is madness and who is insane?
The inside view comes from the eyes of innocent Dasha. At age thirteen, she is first dangled before the court’s eligible bachelors along with her two older sisters. Her sister, Nadya takes to society because she is naturally aloof, grasping, and mean. She is quickly rewarded with a rich old husband and ready-made household of children. Xenia, the free-spirited, sensitive sister, cannot conform and extravagantly falls in love with a successful court entertainer who loves her just as intently. Their happiness is punished with their inability to bear children. When the young husband dies, Xenia goes mad.
Dasha’s chances to marry slip by as she cares for her sister. When Xenia’s madness impoverishes the household, the extended family tries to have her declared insane, but the judge disagrees. Dasha marries the court’s eunuch for protection. The scandal further alienates her parents and oldest sister, Nadya, but Xenia blesses the marriage by giving Dasha her house and her few remaining assets. Xenia then disappears.
Nadya is satisfied with her marriage but regrets not having children. She doesn’t realize she loves the eunuch until he dies from fever. On her own, she tries to keep Xenia’s household together. She discovers Xenia lives on the streets, disconnected from reality, and is known as a holy woman because of her prophecies and generosity. Dasha brings her home again and again.
As Dasha tries to stretch her limited funds to care for the household staff, Xenia shows up over the years with unfortunates in tow. Dasha’s home becomes an aid station. Xenia’s prophecies also brings Dasha an adopted son. She ends up taking in orphans and builds a satisfying life, believing that the simple existence she and Xenia have, and the loves they found, were far superior to the riches of the royal court.
I read The Mirrored World in one day. Though the plot was segmented and sometimes jarring, I kept reading. The mean-spirited society’s disregard for life staggered me. Several times the plot led the reader to some happy action, but then hit us with a death. For example, a courtier irked the empress, so she made him a jester, married him off to an elderly servant in a spectacular wedding, gave them a palace constructed of ice. They lay on their marriage bed, also made of ice, naked and left to freeze to death. It was considered unseemly to mourn the death of a girl baby. It was against the law to give money to beggars. Choirboys were castrated so their voices would remain high forever.
I was also intrigued by the question of madness. Is it more mad to participate in the royal court’s insanities or to give all you have to those with nothing? How is it that mean people were richly rewarded while good people were disdained? Why were flirting and flattery taught, but love was inappropriate foolishness?
A book discussion group will find much to discuss.