Gospel Oak novelist Gill Paul’s Tsar turn
Set against the dying days of the Russian Royal Family, Gill Paul’s ‘time slip’ bestseller blends fact and fiction
23 March, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Author Gill Paul: ‘My parents told me writing was a hobby, not a career’
THE Grand Duchess Tatiana met a violent death along with other members of the Russian Royal Family 99 years ago at the hand of revolutionaries seeking to confine the Tsarist regime to the past.
Now Gospel Oak-based novelist Gill Paul has brought the daughter of Tsar Nicholas back to life in her bestselling novel, The Secret Wife.
Her story tells of Tatiana’s relationship with a cavalry guard officer as revolution loomed – and links their tragic tale to a contemporary story about the officer’s great-granddaughter Kitty, who after domestic upheaval begins to discover a long-forgotten family secret.
It’s a gripping story using a narrative that takes the reader from Kitty’s research today to the final weeks of Tsarist Russia – and has topped the bestseller charts in America.
It is Gill’s sixth novel, and draws on her love of using incidents from history for her fiction. Previous books have told stories from the Titanic to the Crimea War, and even the set of the 1960s film of Cleopatra, where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor met and fell in love.
Gill originally studied medicine but had always harboured an ambition to be a writer – “my parents told me it was a hobby, not a career” – but after completing her medical training she then studied for an arts degree. From there, she went into publishing as she wrote novels. She now pens her stories from her book-lined study, writing from 9am until 7pm each day, with a break only to go for a daily dip at the Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath.
The idea for a story based on the secret affair between Tatiana and a cavalry officer was first prompted when Gill saw a documentary by the historian Helen Rappaport on the Romanovs, who were shot together by Bolsheviks in the months after they took power.
Grand Duchess Tatiana and Dmitri Malama
“I was fascinated by them as a teenager,” she says. “I found their story shocking – that even the children were killed. I was always struck by that, and it seemed desperately unfair.”
And the Duchess Tatiana had always held a fascination for Gill.
“She was always my favourite,” says Gill. “She was the best one in a crisis, she stood up and looked after her family, and, shallow though it may sound, she was the most beautiful. I found her intriguing as a person.”
Helen Rappaport’s documentary introduced Gill to the character of Dmitri Malama.
“He is a historical character,” she adds. “There are pictures of him – and even an image of him with Tatiana.
“And we know she wrote about him in her diary. We know he gave her a French Bulldog, for example, and while there is not much documentary evidence about their relationship after that, there are other parts of the novel that are true.
“When Dimitri came back from the front, we know he met the Romanovs.”
Their relationship forms the basis for the parts of the novel set 100 years ago – but Gill has written a contemporary character, Kitty, who inherits a small, tumbledown lakeside house in America from her great-grandfather – which works as a device to hear more about the special relationship between the duchess and the cavalry officer.
“I have always enjoyed ‘time slip’ novels,” she explains. “And having Kitty’s contemporary character gives you a way of exploring what happened without it becoming too much like a historical textbook.”
And to make the Romanov aspect feel true, Gill has drawn on plenty of research.
Writing “time slip” novels – where the story jumps across generations – requires detailed planning, she says, often penning 40,000 words as she draws up the plot of her novel.
“I have everything thoroughly planned before I start,” she says. “And the Romanovs are extremely well documented. They wrote diaries, they wrote letters. There are plenty of pictures – they all owned cameras – and even home movies of the family. It is, after all, just 100 years ago. They were the richest family in the world at the time by a long shot – in comparison, they were richer than Bill Gates is today. They had an unimaginable amount of money.”
And as for the book’s success in the US, she says she was “astonished, but of course thrilled”.
“I didn’t do any promotion, but there is a lot of interest in the Romanovs, and of course the Romanovs are in the news again because of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I am now being asked to speak to book clubs across the States – which means doing Skype calls in the middle of the night, due to the time difference.”
But no wonder this book has captured an audience: The Secret Wife offers a personalised view of a momentous period in modern history, bringing back to life a woman whose violent end has been well chronicled in a new, fresh way.
• The Secret Wife. By Gill Paul, Harper Collins, £7.99