Garden of Venus blends historical fact and fiction. The story of Sophie Glavani Celice, primo voto de Witt, secundo voto Countess Potocka is one of these fascinating stories from Eastern Europe for years cut off from the West by the Iron Curtain. In Poland, Sophie's biography became popular in 1970s, when a well-known Polish historian, Jerzy Łojek's, published his Dzieje pięknej Bitynki [The story of a beautiful Bythinienne] a historical account of the rise of la Belle Phanariote in the courts of Europe.
I came across Łojek's book by chance, in a Canadian library, among other Polish books on the 18th century. My first novel, Necessary Lies, dealt with very recent Polish history (Word War II) seen from the Canadian perspective, through the eyes of an immigrant who was trying to free herself from the official, inherited national truths. I found this a fascinating process, and I wanted to repeat it.
Sophie's story was just such a chance. It is set against the backdrop of the tumultuous Polish history of the late 18th century, the time when Poland lost its independence, and early 19th century when Polish Napoleonic dreams led the country to new disasters. I found Sophie irresistible. I could not believe her chutzpah, the scope of her social success, the extend of misogyny she had to fight. The men who wrote about her, for example, always seemed to find it incomprehensible that however ruthless she was in her relationships with men, she was a good and loving mother.
The way I began to see her, Sophie was an immigrant to Poland, an immigrant without family and resources other than her beauty and intelligence. She had to take sides in growing political conflicts, forge new loyalties, new alliances. She had to fend for herself and her children. She made many questionable choices, but somehow she managed to succeed in the world in spite of every attempt to thwart her. I began to see her as a female Napoleon who took Europe by storm, a life force who conquered the old stifling social structures. A woman who triumphed over adversity.
Slowly, as the story formed itself in my mind, I saw the great national dramas of the times as background to her extraordinary life. For places and people associated with Countess Sophie Potocka had their dramatic stories to tell. There was a bloody Ukrainian peasant uprising in Uman, a town which belonged to the Potocki family and where her husband built the famous Sophievka garden in her honour. The same husband, Count Felix Potocki, became part of an infamous confederacy that brought about the third, final partition of Poland. Sophie's Parisian friends lived through the French revolution, exile, one of her sons took part in the November Uprising against Russia. All these events are reflected in the lives of the secondary characters in the novel, for only in the context of these tumultuous events Sophie's choices become, perhaps, more understandable.
Historical fiction presents particular challenges to the writer. I have to see and hear my characters before I can write about them. In historical fiction where I cannot rely on my own memory or observation it means giving myself time to absorb the voices and the details of the times. It is a long process and often frustrating, for many documents are silent on everyday issues. It is much easier to come across a long commentary on politics and intrigues of the times, then to learn what people talked and complained about when they met in the street, or how it felt to ride in a carriage. For many of the letter or memoir writers these were ordinary details of life, self-evident and not worth mentioning, but from time to time I came across a diary or a letter that gave me insights into the ordinary lives of a Russian palace or a French army unit. Since one of my characters is a doctor I had to spend some time studying the history of medicine, learn to see the world through his eyes.
What I like about historical fiction, is that it forces me to question my own assumptions and my hindsight. It is easy to assume superiority over an 18th century surgeon once we know of the existence of bacteria. It is easy to judge political choices once their outcome becomes clear. But these are the luxuries we do not have in our own lives, so I find this process of re-imagining the past very rewarding. It gives me a sense of distance, it allows for more tolerance, more understanding.
I do hope that Sophie's extraordinary life, her social defiance, her spirit, and her courage will bring to life the forgotten stories of the other Europe, where so many of us are from.