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Illegitimacy doesn’t mean much in today’s Europe and North America. In an age when we celebrate many different kinds of families, “bastard” has become an epithet thrown, most often inaccurately, at someone who upsets you. But that was not always true. In early 19th-century Russia, for example, you could marry in one church only to have the marriage denied in another, leaving your children unable to inherit, stripped even of your name. This reality defined the lives of fictional people, such as Pierre Bezukhov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and real ones—for example, Alexander Herzen, the Russian socialist writer who took refuge in London after falling foul of Tsar Nicholas I. It defines the life of Nicolas Nijinsky, hero of The Estate of Wormwood and Honey (Russian Estate Books, 2012).
Nicolas’s early life as the cherished only son of a rural nobleman vanishes in an instant when his mother dies and his father remarries. As a child, he cannot understand why abuse and mistreatment infringe on his carefree life or why his beloved father exiles him to an elite military school, where his fellow cadets do not hesitate to throw his questionable birth in his face. His only friend is Sergey, the equally despised son of a noncommissioned officer killed at the Battle of Borodino. Soon Sergey becomes the scapegoat for another rich man’s son, and Nicolas must face his tormentors alone. Until, fifteen years later, his fortunes change, and he returns to his childhood home with Sergey at his side and one goal in mind: to settle scores with those who drove him away.
Follow us into the past as Julian Berengaut kicks off New Books in Historical Fiction by discussing The Estate of Wormwood and Honey. For Russian literature buffs everywhere. I am your host, C. P. Lesley, and I hope you will join me for many such conversations.