Although E. M. Almedingen protests that this is not a translation or even an abridgement of her great-aunt’s much longer work, she says she has followed the “landscape” faithfully and has used much of the dialogue, as well as the incidents and characters of the original, all of which were based on diaries kept by Catherine Almedingen since childhood. The tone reflects nineteenth century attitudes toward children. Katia’s occasional lapses from good behavior are recounted frankly, and it is easy to understand why she might have had a tantrum or been tempted into some childhood fault. Yet such incidents are usually followed by a reproving comment, and the decisions of the adults, some of which may seem unreasonable to the modern reader, are not questioned.
This picture of the disciplined life of children amid the lavish extravagance on three great estates is the most interesting aspect of the book. While wealthy women such as Aunt Marie are waited upon at every turn, not even deigning to put on their own stockings, Katia and the young Mirkovs are expected to wash in cold water, dress themselves, and exercise outdoors no matter what the weather, as well as being required to study diligently and eat without speaking unless addressed by an adult. While the estate has immense orchards with many acres of fruit trees, the children are allowed only one pear and two plums each day. This restriction leads to the most memorable incident in the book. Katia came upon a porcelain basket of fruit in the drawing room and, being alone, extracted three plums and ate them. Although she confessed and repented with tears, she was punished some weeks later by being left at home while the others went for a long-awaited all-day picnic and fireworks treat at a neighboring estate.
Like Trostnikova, Matzovka is virtually a self-sustaining nation in itself, differing in its subtropical climate that allows myrtles, palms, and orange, lemon, and banana trees to grow in the enormous winter garden where parrots fly freely. Its park has a lake with a small island in the middle. Dubky, the estate of Katia’s stepmother’s family, is gloomy by contrast, with a dark house, a garden of cabbages and onions, wide, flat fields, and a park in which the children are not encouraged to wander. Dubky is filled with visitors who stay all day, the men endlessly discussing land problems and the women gossiping about funerals, weddings, and the latest provincial scandals. The owners of these estates are virtual monarchs, controlling the commerce to and from the area and the lives of those connected to the land.
The landowners’ power over their serfs is reflected in a telling incident in Katia’s first year at Trostnikova. The children overheard Aunt Marie pleading with her husband to forgive someone for minor rudeness, and the next morning their weeping young schoolroom maid begged Nina to intercede with Uncle Nicholas not to send her brother Andrew to the army. Such service was for twenty-five years under harsh conditions that made it virtually a life sentence. Nina decided to wait until the evening, when her father played so charmingly with the children, but early in the afternoon they heard a shot and learned that Andrew had killed himself. The children were told that it was an accident.
The book also gives some sense of the great distances covered by travelers before the advent of the railroad. From Tver to Trostnikova is seven hundred miles, a journey that Katia made twice by horse-drawn coach over roads nearly impassable with ruts or mud, once being chased by highwaymen, an ever-present threat. From Trostnikova to Matzovka it is five hundred miles with primitive inns that offer only hay on which to sleep, so the travelers bring their own bedding, food, and cooks, usually eating in the open air. The contrast between the opulent living that their wealth made possible and the hardships that they endured without comment is one of the many telling aspects of the society pictured.