E. M. Almedingen Essay - Critical Essays

Almedingen, E. M.


E. M. Almedingen 1898–1971

(Born Martha Edith von Almedingen) Almedingen was a Russian-born British novelist, translator, lecturer, poet, playwright, and short story writer. She is best known for her biographical and autobiographical novels for young adults, many of which draw upon her Russian heritage and family history. Born in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), a city fondly remembered in many of her works, she was a distinguished student and later teacher of medieval history and literature at the University of Petrograd. The years 1917–22 were pivotal for her as well as for Russia; she survived the revolution and later wrote about her experiences in My Saint Petersburg: A Reminiscence of Childhood and Tomorrow Will Come. Almedingen, who emigrated to England in 1923, wrote for almost twenty years before she achieved critical recognition with the publication of Tomorrow Will Come, which was awarded the 1941 Atlantic Monthly prize for best nonfiction book of the year. One of her most popular books, Katia, is based on her great-aunt Catherine Almedingen's best-selling autobiography, The Story of a Little Girl. Although she was a prolific writer who wrote for adults, teenagers, and children, most critics agree that Almedingen's most successful works are her translated ancestral diaries and accounts, interwoven with Russian history and her personal reminiscences. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 3.)

Grimness and splendour, personal and dynastic, are the keynotes of The Nibelunglied, the German heroic epic, on which The Treasure of Siegfried is based. [Miss Almedingen] has achieved an exceptionally clean story line, yet enveloped it in a panoply and fairy-tale atmosphere that is positively Wagnerian. Indeed young music enthusiasts who read this may find it a great help towards understanding the monumental framework and Teutonic intensity of Wagner's work on the same theme. (p. 371)

The Junior Bookshelf, December, 1964.

Priscilla L. Moulton

Similar in many ways to the Arthurian legends, Kiev Cycle stories were collected and written down about one century ago, although their aural age is closer to ten centuries. Twelve of the more noteworthy tales are translated and retold [in The Knights of the Golden Table,] a collection for older children…. The contemporary rendition of these full-blooded legends makes them simpler to tell than some other hero tales. Colorful and dramatic, their surprisingly democratic spirit is a zestful antidote to the gloom sometimes associated with Russian life. (pp. 55-6)

Priscilla L. Moulton, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1965, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), February, 1965.

Sr. M. Dennis, R.S.M.

Almedingen writes in the fierce, bold style characteristic of the original epic [in The Treasure of Siegfried], portraying the legendary figures with cold sharp realism, particularly Kriemhild, who changes from a paragon of virtue to a veritable demon avenging her every offender. (p. 310)

Sr. M. Dennis, R.S.M., in Best Sellers (copyright 1965, by the University of Scranton), November 1, 1965.

[The Ladies of St. Hedwig's], moving with dignity to its tragic conclusion, shows Miss Almedingen's considerable talents to good advantage. A convent of nuns, most of them Polish, has been long settled in St. Petersburg. But it is rocked and wrecked by the Polish Mutiny of 1863 and by the savage outbreaks of anti-Polish violence in Russia which follow it. The prioress, half-Polish and half-American, is a well-realized character. She possesses the strength and serenity which sustain the community through mounting tribulations, re-establish it in Siberian exile, and inspire it to face ultimate martyrdom without flinching. This is a sombre, quiet book with no false emphases. (p. 1007)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 11, 1965.

Ethna Sheehan

E. M. Almedingen has adapted "The Treasure of Siegfried" from the German verse epic "The Nibelungenlied." To make the narrative suitable for children, some episodes have been softened and others omitted. While the story makes swift and entertaining reading, the language is flat, peppered with clichés and often with inept phrasing. The dialogue is at times quaintly Victorian, at others jarringly modern and the metamorphosis of Kremhild from a gentle, lovable, generous young woman to a vengeful fury is too drastic for credibility. (p. 66)

Ethna Sheehan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1965.

Turgenev and Chekhov are writers for the mature reader, [and] even the most precocious adolescent is hardly likely to make anything of them…. E. M. Almedingen's Little Katia [published in the United States as Katia], therefore, plunges into strange territory, a land where servants kneel to take off the shoes and stockings of the children of the house, where a journey to your grandmother's house may take three weeks and you run the risk of your throat being slit on the way, where a serf who displeases his master can be sent for twenty-five years' servitude in the army and well-born girls finish their schooldays in institutes for the nobility where there are no holidays, no release until their education is complete. These details are authentic, for the author has adapted her great-aunt's memoirs for modern readers.

Catherine Almedingen was born in 1829 and died in 1893. She was editor of a successful children's magazine, but it was The Story of a Little Girl which brought her her greatest fame…. The earlier version was far too long for modern taste, but on the other hand must have contained allusions which required lengthy explanation. All this has been done with great skill, it is impossible to detect which is the great-aunt, which the niece, and the whole forms the most readable and delightful portrait, both of a little girl growing up, and of a vanished regime. It can be compared to Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical accounts for children of pioneering days in America. It has the same simplicity of style, vigorous dialogue, acute observation of child and adult characters, and the same fundamental goodness.

"A Russian Childhood," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 19, 1966, p. 433.

Lewis Bates

Miss Almedingen's The Romanovs is an enjoyable sketch by a supporter of the dynasty who is shocked by the frequency with which its members were bloody and incompetent. She keeps a reasonble balance between vivid gossip about loves and rages and more far-reaching questions about access to the Baltic and Black Sea, the condition of the people and Russia's ramshackle administrative institutions. Her introduction pleads firmly for personal history to supplement the history of the group or mass and she gives the mystical rapport between Little Father and peasants its due as a historical fact. When she reaches the final Tsardom, personal feeling tugs hard at judicial impartiality. This is certainly not a rose-tinted picture of the ancien régime but it is a sadly affectionate one…. Very quietly, Miss Almedingen expresses regret that the chances of swift, systematic reform in the early years of the century were lost when blood-thirsty confusion became endemic on the Left as it had been on the Right. (p. 893)

Lewis Bates, in Punch (© 1966 Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved), June 15, 1966.

[Miss Almedingen's The Romanovs] follows the pattern she has earlier established in her biographies of individual Romanovs—that is to say, it is mainly concerned with the dynasty in its personal and intimate aspect and shows little grasp of the historical...

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Hans Kohn

The Emperor Alexander I [is] a movingly written portrait…. Mrs. Almedingen wrote her book not for the historian but for the general public, to which it can be warmly recommended. Not a "romantic" or fictional biography, but based on letters and memoirs of the period, the book frankly acknowledges the disastrous weakness in Alexander's character and political judgment. Nevertheless the work profits by its warm sympathy with the elusive personality of its hero. (p. 38)

Hans Kohn, in Saturday Review (© 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 17, 1966.

Ruth Hill Viguers

Katia's relationships with her many relatives of all ages, her adjustment to her beautiful young stepmother, whom she came to love, and all the details of luxurious living, including parties and holiday festivities, of a well-to-do family in Czarist Russia make [Katia] a story with the romantic appeal of an almost fairy-tale world. The children are completely real in their reactions and behavior. Quite apart from its significance as a picture of a vanished era, the book is important because it is such irresistibly good reading. (p. 210)

Ruth Hill Viguers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1967, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April, 1967.


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Shirley L. Hopkinson

[The Ladies of St. Hedwig's is a] well-written historical novel … based on facts told to the author in 1919 by an elderly, secular priest…. Miss Almedingen has skillfully woven a tale from the meager facts, a story of fallible and very human people who, nevertheless, knew what they must do in an environment of endless contradictions, bewilderment, and despair of the future. Miss Almedingen portrays these believable characters sympathetically but never mawkishly, and her excellent descriptive prose helps to establish the mood. (p. 4025)

Shirley L. Hopkinson, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, November 1, 1967; published by R. R. Bowker...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

[The Story of Gudrun, as retold] from a 12th- or 13th-century German epic …, has the quality of a folk tale within the framework of a brief novel. Gudrun, daughter of one king and betrothed to another, is a romantic and heroic figure…. [She] deserves to be better known than she is and I am grateful to Miss Almedingen for this vigorous portrait, set against a richly detailed background. (p. 167)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in Book World—Chicago Tribune, Part II (© 1967 Postrib Corp.), November 5, 1967.

Miss Almedingen's picaro's-eye-view of Russia in the eighteenth century [in Young Mark—the Story of a Venture] is...

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Jessie B. Kitching

["Tomorrow Will Come" is a] reading experience not soon forgotten. This autobiographical account of a childhood and girlhood in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) up to 1922 (when Miss Almedingen escaped to Italy) is extraordinarily moving and beautifully written. The book was first published in 1941. It is being republished on the strong advice of librarians, because it is a classic which should never have gone out of print….

Though this is the story of how one young life was affected by the Russian Revolution, it is not a political book but a very personal saga, taut with emotion and drama. (p. 88)

Jessie B. Kitching, in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from...

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Zena Sutherland

Based on the third part of an anonymous German epic of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, [The Story of Gudrun] is a romantic tale of stoicism and valor, good overcoming evil, and of the court intrigue of feudal life…. The story is retold in a most fitting style, dignified yet graceful, with that larger-than-life portentousness that distinguishes the epic from folk literature. (p. 154)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (copyright 1968 by The University of Chicago; all rights reserved), June, 1968.

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Roger Sale

[E. M. Almedingen's preface to the 1967 edition of Tomorrow Will Come] is sour, clear and simple about her loathing of the revolution and Soviet Russia, but the narrative is different, written with loving care of the blinding pain and loneliness that was her childhood and with little regard to what the adult writer "makes" of it all. (p. 549)

The first third of the book is simply magnificent, sharp and poignantly seen vignettes in which the girl's way of seeing is everything—her older brother is drowned in an act of childish bravery, but we get the faces at the door, the hushed conversations, the worry for mother that precedes worry for self because the girl cannot fathom what has happened,...

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Guy Davenport

[Tomorrow Will Come] is a book about a woman who remained sane in a time of madness. It was written in 1936, written lucidly, truthfully, and with a firm exactitude that seems at times understatement, until we realize that only a few have been gifted with the mastery of words necessary to present such turbulence in its proper fire. Here we have instead cold truth exactly put. (p. 1072)

The first impact of this strange and heroic book is its realistic account of a revolution from the underside, wholly from the point of view of a young lady who knew nothing of it until it happened, and who had to survive it as a victim. The second is that it pictures the collapse of a civilization. The story has...

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Rosemary Neiswender

Miss Almedingen is especially adept at translating history into terms dramatic enough to capture the imagination of younger readers without sacrificing accuracy. Readers of an older generation will remember her Tomorrow Will Come …, a vivid evocation of the author's early life in pre-Revolutionary Russia and of her later emigration to England…. [In The Retreat from Moscow] the author presents the story of Napoleon's ill-fated 1812 march across Russia to Moscow…. This is told from a pro-Russian viewpoint, and while it is scarcely a postage-stamp War and Peace, it contains many lively, colorful vignettes and can be considered good fictionalized history. (p. 1)


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Zena Sutherland

The story line [of A Candle at Dusk] is of minor importance, although it reflects historical events; the major interest in the book is the recreation of a period, and this is effected with notable success. The pattern of life on a Frankish freehold, the struggle for power within the church, and the pressing fear of Saracen invasion are vividly evoked. (pp. 59-60)

Zena Sutherland, in Saturday Review (© 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 10, 1969.

Many of Miss Almedingen's previous books combine historical data with fictionalization but [Stephen's Light] may well be her least successful. Set...

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Margaret N. Coughlan

[Stephen's Light] fails as a compelling, engaging narrative. The late 15th Century, with its decadent church and rise of the burghers, provides the background for the story of Sabina, only child of a wealthy burgher…. Though the story is well written and the setting authentic, neither characters nor incidents are fully realized. There's no fire in the telling, and the book is, at best, a supplementary item for libraries needing more period fiction for girls. (p. 56)

Margaret N. Coughlan, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the December, 1969 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1969),...

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Virginia Haviland

[Ellen is another chapter in the story of E. M. Almedingen's] extraordinary English-Russian forebears. Fictional in form, but with no fictional characters or events, it is a lively biography of her Kentish grandmother, Ellen, the mother of Frances whose life is told in Fanny…. The book is closely related to the author's previous writing about old Russia…. [It] is rich in ample details of rural life in a large home near Canterbury and in the full-bodied characterizations of children, servants, relatives, and visitors. It is unusually effective for its portrait of the English family surrounding a lovable, spirited child and young woman. (p. 53)

Virginia Haviland,...

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John W. Conner

Adolescent girls who love to read stories about nineteenth-century, middle-class English country maidens who marry wealthy European noblemen have an inviting … novel in store for them. Ellen is a book for these young readers to cherish. E. M. Almedingen relates the true story of her grandmother, Ellen Southee, with great affection and excellent taste.

Ellen is a beautifully developed character. Miss Almedingen sees her as a temperamental, sometimes lazy young lady who must mature when her mother dies leaving Ellen's family under the haphazard guidance of her fun-loving, free spending father….

There are a great many characters in Ellen. Yet, somehow Miss Almedingen...

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Ann Thwaite

There seems to be no end to the extraordinary family papers this lucky author has to draw on. She has already told the stories of other relations in Little Katia, Young Mark and Fanny. In the preface to Ellen she tells us she has not included a single 'invented happening or imagined person'. She writes in the first person and it is difficult to believe she is not remembering it herself. It has its inconsistencies and longueurs, as the autobiography of any elderly lady would have, but it is also carefully packed with plenty of good stories and meaningful detail. The last quarter of the book, from the arrival in Russia, is by far the most interesting. (p. 312)


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Valerie Alderson

Among contemporary writers of English children's books, E. M. Almedingen probably had one of the most colourful family backgrounds, and this was reflected in much of her writing, particularly in the later years when she turned to children's books. (p. 149)

[Characters] in her adult novels such as The Scarlet Goose or Stand Fast Beloved City or even Frossia, seem dead—indeed they do have '… wood in their breast and water in their veins', as she herself said, although potentially, the stories could have lent themselves to much livelier treatment. (p. 151)

[It] is in her last two books for children, Fanny and Ellen that one can most clearly make...

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Margery Fisher

[The Retreat from Moscow is a] brief, brisk account of Napoleon's campaign in Russia, in essence a paean of praise to Alexander I. The author has used a good deal of invented dialogue to diversify her facts; this is very much a novelist's book, for as always she sees history mainly in terms of individuals. (p. 1884)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, January, 1972.

[Rus into Muscovy: The History of Early Russia (published in the United States as Land of Muscovy) is a] posthumous work by an author who always loved Russia and knew it well. It is a history of the early days of the country from A.D. 862 to the...

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Zena Sutherland

Familiar to young readers as the author of many stories set in Russia and based on the history of her own aristocratic family, E. M. Almedingen has written, in Land of Muscovy, a book as dramatic and colorful as any of her novels. The text traces Russian history from the times of the first scattered, nomadic tribes to the beginning of the Romanov dynasty; it has enough action, intrigue, tragedy, and triumph to fashion a handful of opera libretti. (p. 70)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1973 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), January, 1973.

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Sheila G. Ray

Although the stories which she has written for young people do not have a contemporary setting, E. M. Almedingen does manage to convey the sense of spaciousness, the richness of tradition and the mixed character of the Russian people which are still as true of the country as they were before 1917. Even though the political system was very different in the days of which she writes in most of her books, they may nevertheless help to understand the way of life in Eastern Europe….

[She] was an expert on Russian history and many of her books reflect this fact. (p. 301)

The Poltoratzkys represent E. M. Almedingen's maternal relations. Catherine von Almedingen, the heroine of Little...

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Ethel L. Chamberlain

[E. M. Almedingen] is a crafter of the first order, she plays with words and images, and, early on, her story casts its spell…. (p. 553)

[Too Early Lilac] is the story of Lena Stelling, of her growing up in a pampered, aristocratic household, of her maturing and of her coming to grips with that question. Indeed it is strange that in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg nothing constructive is happening around her. True, she studies French and literature with a governess from Limoges, and Russian History with a tutor from the university, but all is stagnant, as much idle chatter as the talk of the kitchen help…. It is as if events outside the door do not affect these people, and Miss...

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