MARGARETTA EAGAR. GOVERNESS to the Romanovs.
Margaretta is known for having been governess to the last Tsar’s daughters. These were Tatiana, Olga, Anastasia and Maria. She published a book entitled Six Years at the Russian Court.
She was born in Ireland. She came from the city of Limerick.
Margaretta was a Protestant which made her a minority in Ireland and a tiny minority in Limerick. She was one of ten children. She spent some time in Belfast and qualified as a nurse. She ran an orphanage for a while.
She was recruited specifically to be a governess to the Grand Duchesses. She courageously moved to Russia despite never having been there and speaking not a phonem of Russian. Miss Eagar’s first impression of Russia was positive,
”I may say here that the Russians are sympathetic and kind to a degree, and they are always willing to help a stranger in any way in their power.”
She worked as a governess to the Imperial Family from 1898. At 35 Margaretta Eagar was considered middle aged. She had ample relevant experience. She was unmarried and at the age of 35 it was assumed that she would always remain unmarried. Being a spinster was a prerequisite of the position.
The Tsar’s four daughters picked up a Hibernian lilt from their Irish governess. Protestants were more acceptable than Catholics in Russia. This is because the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church had an frosty relationship since the schism of 1054. The Russian imperial family sometimes wed Protestants but they never wed Catholics. As Margaretta Eagar noted some Orthodox Christians even attended Protestant worship sometimes:
” Many Russian people go on Easter Sunday to the English and Lutheran churches. ”
She lived at Susvina Dacha which was 4 or 5 miles from the Peterhof Palace. She spoke French which she found useful in communicating with many officials. French was the principal foreign language in Russia at the time.
Miss Eagar’s role was childcare more than education at that stage. Their Imperial Highnesses were all very little. However, she spoke English to them which they knew from their parents. She also did some basic literacy with them. Looking at Margaretta Eagar’s own writing there is no doubt that she was a highly intelligent woman. University education was scarcely available in Ireland for women. Even then it was effectively impossible for all but the wealthiest girls to access tertiary education.
Nikolai II has gone down in History as uncaring towards his subjects who suffered horrifically under his misrule. Miss Eagar had a different take on him. She found him considerate towards the lowliest of his subjects:
”When an Imperial train stops at a station, a deputation of the principal persons, headed by one called the Stavosta or Elder, presents the Emperor with bread and salt. Shortly after the accession of Nicholas II., he found that the poorer villages and communities were unable to afford the expense of the gold plate, and yet could not bear to be outdone by the richer villages. He therefore issued a decree that henceforth bread and salt should be presented only on wooden or china dishes. This is very characteristic of his thought for his poorer subjects.”
Miss Eagar was a hit with the princesses. She writes with blatant fondness about her former pupils. It is hard to remember that these people we see in sepia tinted photographs and who were so adulated were real people with foibles, fun and weaknesses. In her colourful prose the Grand Duchesses come alive as the little girls they really were:
”In the picture gallery here is the finest collection of Rembrandts extant. One of these represents the visit of the Trinity to Abraham. I was one day looking at it, trying to make out what it meant, when the little Grand Duchess Olga ran up to me, and, putting her hand in mine, asked me what I was looking at. I told her ; she then looked at it earnestly, and suddenly burst out laughing, exclaimed : ” Oh ! What a very funny picture a man holding a leg of mutton in his hand, and carving it with a knife, and a bird sitting at the table.” The bird, needless to say, was one of the angels.”
The daughters of the Tsar behaved badly sometimes like other children. It was their governess’s duty to deal with this. She recalled some squabbling between them:
” Once there was a cinematograph exhibition for the children and some friends. One picture showed two little girls playing in a garden, each with a table before her covered with toys. Suddenly the bigger girl snatched a toy from the little one who, how- ever, held on to it and refused to give it up. Foiled in her attempts, the elder seized a spoon and pounded the little one with it, who quickly relinquished the toy and began to cry. Tatiana wept to see the poor little one so ill-treated, but Olga was very quiet. After the exhibition was over she said, ” I can’t think that we saw the whole of that picture.”
Do not imagine that royalty are perfect. She recalled that the girls sometimes hit each other. Margaretta was fondest of Tatiana whom she found to be the most intellectually inquisitive. The governess read her charges many stories such asAlice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Both of these tales are by the Oxford Maths don Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).
Margaretta came to speak Russian. She got along well with her Russian colleagues. She was much older than most of them and they came to her for advice.
” The maids in the nursery used always to tell me if any man paid them attentions, More About the Children. 267 and just for all the world like an anxious mother, I used to make enquiries about his character, temper, position in life, and whether the would-be suitor could give his wife a home of her own ”
She recalled that the princesses were very solicitous towards even their maids. When a maid left to get married they had a farewell party for her.
” The other girls gave a little party to celebrate her leaving us, and the young man was amongst the guests. When the girl heard that he had arrived her grief broke forth again. She realised that the time of parting had come, and the children cried most bitterly. Little Tatiana Nicolaivna took a sheet of paper and a pencil, and wrote with great difficulty a letter which I trans- late : ” Vladislav, Be good with Tegla. Tatiana.” She placed this letter in an envelope and printed in large letters on the envelope, Vladislav, and sent it to him by the housemaid. ”
Margaretta Eagar accompanied the Imperial Household on voyages across the Baltic Sea to Denmark. Nikolai II’s mother was a Danish princess. She also went with them on the Imperial Train on journeys to Russian Poland. She also travelled with them to Yalta and cruised in the Black Sea with them. In Crimea she had the chance to visit some of the cemeteries that contained the mortal remains of British soldiers who had died in the Crimean War only 50 years before. Not a few of these Britishers were Irishmen.
Miss Eagar had an inquiring mind. She was conscious of complexity. She wrote that she was very aware of the ethno-religious diversity of the Russian Empire. She commented on the different habits of Tatars who were Muslims. Back then a lot of ethnic minority people in Russia did not speak Russian. Their religious customs made a huge difference at the time. She heard the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Romanovs to which she did not seem to object even privately.
Miss Eagar had the opportunity to observe some of the mightiest men in the world up close. Here is what she had to say about a remarkably cordial meeting between the Tsar and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany:
” On our way to Poland we paid a visit to Potsdam, to the German Emperor and Empress. On arriving we found the troops drawn up in a line, and the Emperor himself met us at the station. The band played the Russian National Anthem, and the two Emperors walked along and inspected the regiments. The Emperor of Russia shook hands with the officers and congratulated them. He and the Empress then went off to lunch at the palace, but we stayed in the train till after lunch, when a carriage arrived and took us up to the palace. The German Emperor is very like his portraits ”
She also got to meet an in-law of the Romanovs: King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. The Tsarina Alexandra was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and therefore a first cousin of Edward VII. Margaretta Eagar was understandably timid about meeting her sovereign. Contrary to his uncaring public image she found her king to be benevolent:
” The King frequently spoke to me, too, and called me ” My Irish subject.” He has very winning manners and great tact. He has a marvellous memory. This year he sent me, in memory of the birth of the Czarovitch, a brooch, in green enamel, because I am Irish. They say he never forgets any- thing, and I know he never forgets to be kind. ”
Margaretta was allowed occasional holidays back to Ireland. She then went to Kilkee, Co Clare which is a seaside resort.
Relations between the Hohenzollerns were very warm. Because of the First World War it is hard to remember just how well royal houses got on beforehand.
” The Crown Prince of Germany paid us a visit, and became very intimate with his little cousins.”
Do not misunderstand the word ‘intimate’ here. It is not hinting at any improper behaviour.
Though the overthrow the Romanovs was some years off Miss Eagar wrote of the increasing frequency of revolutionary violence. Even she made some criticisms of the way the Tsar governed. Naturally she sympathised with the family she worked for an denounced revolutionaries as demons.
She left the imperial employ in the summer of 1904. She stated that this was for personal reasons. It could be that she was dismissed because she was British. All Irish people were British citizens at the time since the whole of Ireland was a portion of the UK at the time. In 1904 the Russo-Japanese War began. The United Kingdom openly sympathised with Japan. This made it impolitic for the Romanovs to employ a woman of that nationality.
She did not leave the Romanovs immediately after the outbreak of this war. It was a few months later. She recalled that the Romanovs were actuated by genuine patriotism and were prepared to make a few sacrifices themselves. Despite their extremely exalted statues they were not too grand to do war work:
” After the war broke out the children, even little Anastasie, worked at frame knitting. They made scarves for the soldiers, and Olga and Tatiana crocheted caps indefatigably.”
Yet the children were not above the vindictive feelings that war inspires:
” It was very sad to me to witness the wrathful vindictive spirit that the war raised in my little charges. One of the illustrated papers had a picture of the baby children of the Crown Prince of Japan. Marie and Anastasie came running across to see the picture, and wanted to know who those queer little children were. I told them, and with a look of hatred coming into her sweet little face Marie slapped the picture with her open hand. ” Horrid little people,” said she ; ” they came and destroyed our poor ships and drowned our sailors.” ”
Despite the unhappy circumstances of Miss Eagar’s departure the Romanovs faithfully paid her her pension. She corresponded with her girls for many years. There is no doubt about the genuine affection between them. Had the war not intervened she probably would have lasted many more years with them. She was an excellent governess for several reasons. Margaretta was respectable and smartly dressed. She knew how to behave. She was deferential and mannerly. Miss Eagar was able to take charge of these children despite their lofty rank. She handled bad behaviour with aplomb. A natural authority enabled her to win the respect of her wards. She was academically able and she could entertain children. It helped that she was a nurse and solicitous for their health. Margaretta maintained warm and constructive relation with the Russian nannies and other servants. They perceived her as an ally and not an enemy. This is partly down to her tact and emotional intelligence.
Perhaps personal reasons did play a role in Miss Eagar leaving the Romanovs. She missed Ireland and frequently mentioned her native land in her book.
She published Six Years at the Russian Court. This remarkable book is lively and closely observed. It is a superb window on the family life of the Romanovs. It is set before the haemophilia of Tsarevich Alexei was known. He was born only weeks before Margaretta left Russia. Therefore these were fairly carefree years for the family. They were not haunted by the fear of illness, death and revolution. This memoir is filled with charming apercus. She gives a whistle stop tour through Russian History and she describes the lifestyles of all levels of society. She treats her readers to her judgment on different members of the Romanov family. She had this to say about the Dowager Empress (mother of Nikolai II).
” The Dowager Empress is a very attractive person. She has the full rich voice, and the excessive tact which belong to the Danish family, as well as their youthful looks. ”
The Tsarina approved of the idea of publishing Six Years at the Russian Court which came out in 1906. She said it was necessary to rebut many of the calumnies printed about the Romanovs. Whether she Tsarina saw the manuscript is doubtful. Presumably she would not have liked so much information about their private life being revealed. The book is almost entirely flattering but it mentions some shortcomings. Eagar defended her erstwhile employers on many points. She even said the government was not all responsible for the Kishniev Pogroms.
Maragretta Eagar never married.She moved to London and ran a boarding house their in Holland Park. Her business was not a success and she died relatively poor.