Garden of Venus by Eva Stachniak is based on a real life story of a famous courtesan, beautiful Sophie Glavani born in Greece in the middle of the 18th century. The novel is set up in two slightly differing times and circumstances. We get to know Sophie as a girl of simple origin, a sweet young "Dou-Dou", we watch her become a lover of a Polish minister in Istanbul, a young wife of a Polish noble, and finally the wife of Count Felix Potocki and a Polish countess. She was able to change her status thanks to her beauty, intelligence and shrewdness. The complicated story of Sophie's life is intermingled with history - since her two husbands (Jan de Witt and Count Felix Potocki) and her children were prominent figures in Polish history of the turn of 18th and 19th centuries. Felix Potocki was so much in love with Sophie, his wife, that he built a beautiful garden which he called "Sophievka" in her name.
In Garden of Venus Sophie's almost complete life story is interwoven with the events of the last weeks of her life in 1822. Sophie, terminally ill with cancer stops her journey in search of medical help in Berlin, in the house of Graf Alfred von Haefen. Although Sophie is a main character of the novel, we become familiar with the complexity of the lives of other characters, among them - Rosalia who takes care of Sophie and Sophie's French doctor - Thomas Lafleur and his Polish friend Ignacy Bolecki. Rosalia is a daughter of Polish-Jewish survivors of the Uman tragedy, doctor Thomas witnessed the French revolution and the Napoleon's campaign to Russia, Ignacy is a great Polish patriot.
The lives of all the characters in Garden of Venus bear the consequences of the dramatic Polish history. By 1822 when the novel begins, Poland has lost its independence and found herself stranded by Napoleon's defeat. Rosalia's parents paid for this tragedy with their lives, leaving their daughter on the verge of despair. Thomas has become disillusioned with post Napoleonic Europe. Ignacy thinks of preparing a future Polish uprising. Sophie herself seems unscathed by the historical dramas that rage around her, though her indifference turns out to be yet another of her many masks, her protection in the ruthless world where she has to fight for her position until the end. Count Felix Potocki, Sophie's husband, has been one of the main actors of Polish political scene of this time. He was involved in the Confederacy of Targowica which opposed the democratic reforms of the 3rd May constitution. The 3rd May Constitution, one of the most modern and progressive constitutions of its time was approved by the Polish king and many educated senators. The Targowica confederacy, formed by Felix Potocki and some other magnates helped Prussia and Russia to overthrow the Polish state.
Eva Stachniak's novel is based on historical documents, letters and memoirs of the times and it gives the reader a rare chance to experience history through their senses. The characters live and breathe and their world is filled with fascinating details. The author, Eva Stachniak had to become very familiar with the medicine of the beginning of the 19th century which is seen through the medical knowledge of Sophie's French doctor, Thomas. The characters of Sophie and her family are based on historical people. Rosalia and Sophie's doctors - are fictional but composed out of historically accurate material.
The novel is brilliantly written. Sophie's life story is shown with the help of poetic, sensuous and exotic scenes. It shows a tumultuous history of its time and it explores the conflicting loyalties of the characters. The characters are convincingly placed it its historical epoch and geographical places (life of Greek province and Istanbul, Eastern Poland, Germany, French aristocratic salons). The book reads very well. I enjoyed it a lot and I recommend it to everybody!
Garden of Venus (Hardcover), by Eva Stachniak
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