top of page
  • cplesley

Interview with Clare McHugh

The short list of “historical fiction topics publishers can’t get enough of” definitely includes the last Russian tsar, Emperor Nicholas II, and his family. In particular, the tragic fate of his only son—whose hemophilia heightened Empress Alexandra’s tendency toward depression and her spiritual leanings, which in turn led to the exaggerated governmental role played by the renegade monk Rasputin and contributed to the destruction of the monarchy—have attracted a lot of literary attention. What I love about Clare McHugh’s novel is that it hints at the causes of the Romanovs’ eventual fate but focuses on an earlier period. It’s also well written and engaging, a thoroughly enjoyable read. I was delighted when she agreed to an interview. Read on to find out more.

CM: Thank you so much for including me on your blog!

Half-images of two young women in Victorian dress, one with long red hair, portrayed against the backdrop of a Russian imperial palace in winter; cover of The Romanov Brides by Clare McHugh

The Romanov Brides is your second novel. We talked about your first, A Most English Princess, on my old blog when it came out in 2020, so we won’t revisit the same territory here. Instead, I’ll ask you what made you decide to pivot to the princesses of the Hesse-Darmstadt line? And why focus on the earlier half of their lives?

I enjoyed “the world” of Queen Victoria’s family so much—chronicling how rivalries, affections, resentments, and camaraderie typical in any large clan played out against a background of important historical events—that I desired to return to this world. I considered penning a formal sequel to A Most English Princess, but I concluded I’d said a lot about the characters core to that story, and I wanted to spend time with different characters for a second book. The princesses of Hesse-Darmstadt, granddaughters of the queen, appealed to me because they are a foursome, like the sisters in Little Women, and they influenced each other as they grew up and made choices about their futures. Indeed, the fate of the youngest sister, Alix, was determined in large part by decisions made by the second eldest, Ella. I thought the dynamics of this sisterhood added depth to the novel. And I focused on their young lives, up to Alix’s wedding day, because the events of those years are far less well known than everything that comes after Alix’s fateful marriage to Nicky, and their time as tsar and tsarina of Russia.

The novel focuses on Ella and Alix, as you say, but give us a sense of the family as a whole when the novel opens in 1878.

This was a large family, of six children (one had died) and the mother, Princess Alice, was at the center of it. She set the tone. (Her husband Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, lacked her strength of character.) Alice was determined to bring up all her children, especially her five daughters, to be serious people, who would work hard for the benefit of others, be pious, and earn the respect of the citizens who would look up to them. I think it was a happy family before tragedy struck.

Almost immediately (in literary terms), they confront diphtheria. How does that change things for the family, not just in the immediate moment but in its effect on your heroines?

Without their mother, the Hesse princesses are left to raise themselves to a great extent. Had Alice lived, I’m not sure that either Ella or Alix would ever have married into the Romanov family. (In particular, I don’t think Alice would have approved of Serge as a husband for Ella.) Queen Victoria tried to fill the void that her daughter’s death had created, but she was living far away in England, and the princesses remained in Darmstadt with their father, who quite quickly acquired a mistress. And the long-term impact on Alix, only six years old at the time of her mother’s death, is incalculable. Throughout her life she was prone to melancholy and anxiety, which must be linked to this early, brutal loss. Also, Alix believed herself to be someone who brought bad luck to people she loved, which compounded her despair when the only son she gave birth to was discovered to have hemophilia.

Portrait of Princess Ella of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1887; a beautiful young woman with pearls in her hair, on her ears, and around her neck

Ella is six years older than Alix, so she enters the marriage market first. What draws her to her cousin, Grand Duke Serge?

Ella was much in demand as a bride because she was very pretty and had an amiable temperament. But she harbored a desire (prompted I think by what she remembered of her mother) to marry someone who wasn’t trivial, someone she could look up to and admire, as well as love. Her cousin was a forceful character, who had a deep religious belief and artistic interests, as she did. She did waver, however, when Serge proposed because he was an irascible and difficult person to please. In the end, however, he pressed and pressed and she gave in. Their relationship had challenges, as readers will discover, but she did love Serge deeply.

Photograph of Tsarevich Nicholas in 1868; a young man in military uniform, looking straight at the camera

It’s through Ella and Serge that Alix meets Tsarevich Nicholas. Could you tell us how that happens? What attracts Alix to Nicholas and vice versa?

When Alix traveled to Russia for Ella’s wedding to Serge with the rest of her family, she was a beautiful little girl of twelve, with golden-red hair, an angelic expression, and a shy manner. She brought out Nicky’s protective side. He himself was sixteen, and neither particularly assertive nor confident. He lived in the shadow of his bear-like father, the tsar. But he had a good heart and with his younger siblings and with Alix he was playful and kind. Alix quite immediately found him both nice and extremely handsome. He possessed large, soulful blue eyes. The young people spent ten days in each other’s company, and that laid the foundation for a life-long love.

And why is their grandmother, Queen Victoria, so determined to prevent either Ella or Alix from marrying into the Russian royal house?

The queen had many reasons to distrust the Romanovs. Russia and Britain had quite recently been at war with each other: the Crimean War lasted from 1853 to 1856. And even after peace had been declared, in the Mediterranean and in Afghanistan Russia continued to challenge British hegemony. The queen was not amused by this. Also, she considered Russia a semi-barbaric place, with a harsh climate, where serfdom had only just been abolished and where the tiny ruling elite lived like pashas. Queen Victoria had a fundamentally middle-class attitude toward life—early to bed, early to rise, get on with your work. She didn’t like excess, and the Romanovs were among the richest people in the world.

She was also a very firm Protestant, and the Russian Orthodox religion, with its exotic trappings including icons and incense, struck her as alien. But the number one reason she didn’t want her granddaughters marrying into the royal family of Russia was that she believed that throne was very unsafe. She thought the great inequities of Russian society, the autocratic grip that the Romanovs kept on power, and the revolutionary movement that succeeded in assassinating Nicky’s grandfather Tsar Alexander III all meant that the imperial regime was likely to be overthrown, putting Ella and Alix in mortal danger. Queen Victoria was very far-seeing.

Photograph of Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1890; a lovely young woman in late Victorian dress, reading a book

Even so, not only Ella and Alix but their eldest sister, Victoria, do defy the queen’s wishes and marry the men they want. What gives them the strength and tenacity to succeed?

This is an important question that the novel tries to answer! I think it’s complicated. Their aunt, Vicky, the protagonist of A Most English Princess, used to say that the Hesse girls were conceited—that they thought too well of themselves, and had their mother lived she would have knocked this out of them. I think there’s a grain of truth there. But I think, more importantly, the Hesse princesses were independent-minded, and they reinforced each other in that. At an early age, they found themselves without a mother, caring for a feckless father. Once the eldest, Victoria, made her own choice of husband, defying her grandmother’s misgivings, Ella and Irene felt empowered to do the same. Alix wouldn’t have bucked her father’s objections—and he did object to the match with Nicky—but then he died, too.

Feeling alone in the world, she turned to the boy she had always loved. Like so much in history, timing and circumstances play a role, but so, too, does personality. I was struck as I researched and wrote about Alix and Nicky how flawed but essentially well-intentioned they were. They didn’t anticipate the historical forces mustering against them when they chose to marry. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they failed to envision how different the future would be from the past. And, most poignantly, they didn’t realize the risk of hemophilia Alix carried. The things that were “thrown” at them by history and chance could not be overcome by a strong will or great tenacity. They needed to adapt and change and take good advice to “succeed” as the ground shifted underneath them, and this they proved unable to do.

Are you already working on another novel?

Yes, I am writing a novel now about a fictional political family in late twentieth-century America. I thought it was time to write something set in the country and in the era of my youth, and to try my hand at a story that is not based on historical events. But I will be returning to the royals in future! There’s a treasure trove of characters and episodes still to explore.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Clare McHugh, the author of A Most English Princess and The Romanov Brides, holds a degree in European history from Harvard. Before turning to fiction, she worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and high-school history teacher. Find out more about her and her books at

Photographs of Princess Ella of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1887, her sister Alix (the future Empress Alexandra) in 1890, and the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1868 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


bottom of page