It all started with a dress. As I enter graduate school in 2001, the search for a thesis topic was on! The thesis process intimidated me. I think it intimidates most people. I had never written anything that long and although I knew I was a good writer and a good researcher, the end result was going to be a manuscript bigger than any thing I ever imagined producing. I knew myself well enough to know that I had to pick a topic that was EXTREMELY passionate about or I might not finish!
This was my problem – I was passionate about late Imperial Russian history. Nicholas and Alexandra, court society, and pretty clothing.
Late imperial russian history had been a fascination of mine since elementary school. Social studies had always been my favorite subject. But it all came together in Mrs. Colford’s class at Booker Arts Magnet. That year (1987?) I remember getting a pen pal from Germany, doing a report on Australia (country chosen because The Facts Of Life had a made for tv movie set in Australia) and reading a little spotlight blurb in our textbook about the murder of the last czar.
It’s the blurb that’s important for this story. You remember how elementary textbooks are laid out?!?!?! Small bits of important information with lots of pictures. Well this picture of this family caught my eye. The blurb told of their murder and the mystery of one daughter who might just have survived.
I don’t remember going to the library to look up information on the Romanovs or Anastasia. And of course this was long before the internet. but this little grain of information from my 6th grade textbook stuck. At some point in junior high I came across Peter Kurth’s book Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson. It was at the Brentino’s in Park Plaza Mall and I would go by every time I was at the mall and read a little. At some point I saved up enough money to buy it. It think it was about $30 and that seemed like a fortune!
Over the next 2 decades I became a collector of all things Romanov. I bought books on them – real history, historical fiction, anything. I watched all the movies (live action or animated), documentary, old or new. One year for Christmas my mom bought be an beautiful two volume catalog of the Hermitage Museum treasures. I went to Memphis for the exhibit on Catherine the Great. I was a little obsessed.
Back to 2001 and graduate school… We were encourage by our professors to look at Arkansas History for topic ideas. And the reasons were logical – we were in Arkansas and the primary resource materials would be easily accessible plus strong, scholarly history needed to be written about our little state. Well logical and easy have not been my mo! When I want something, I find a way to get it!
Arkansas was about a far as you can get from the Imperial Court of the Autocrats of All the Russias! Or so I thought. In 1999, I began working at the Old State House Museum. I was a tour guide just about to start the Public History Program at UALR. Over the first few months of working at OSH, my boss started asking me about thesis topics and what I might be interested in researching. Like me she was a lover of fashion and costume. I mentioned my fasciation with the Romanovs and she said “do you know about the Breckinridge gown?”
In the Old State House Museum collection was the court gown of Katherine Carson Breckinridge. Her husband, Clifton Rodes Breckinridge had been a United States Congressman and close ally of President Grover Cleveland. CRB was appointed Minister to Russia in 1894 by Cleveland. The Breckinridges traveled to Saint Petersburg in late 1894 and arrived 3 days before Tsar Alexander III died. In this twist of fate, Katherine Breckinridge witnessed the funeral of a Tsar, the wedding of the new Tsar to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darnstadt, the coronation of the Tsar and Tsarina and the birth of one of the Grand Duchess. In fact Arkansas and Russia were not so far apart after all.
A quick internet search (no Google yet but I think Yahoo!) I discovered KCB’s letters. Yes, I know that everyone wrote letters in the 1890s but she wrote hundreds of letters from Russia to her friends and family in the United States. She wrote about life in Russia, about the Imperial Court and the wedding and coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra. All her papers are in the Breckinridge Family Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. And it wasn’t just one side correspondence. In many cases her papers had both sides. Can you say gold mine?
I had the dress – I was on a mission. This WOULD be my thesis topic. I just had to figure out what direction I would take. A very wise man once told me that a thesis is simply a really big research project. But research projects have many branches. So what seemed like a dead end or bumpy road or circle drive in 2005, might be a clearer path in 2017. So now that the signature pages are signed and the manuscript is bound and collecting dust on my living room bookshelf, it’s time to take a look at it all again. Reexamine the original answers, ask new questions, look at original sources again and find new ones. As with knitting its about the process not the project!