Berlin 1920. A young woman throws herself from a bridge into the Landwehr Canal, intent on suicide. But she is saved. She does not speak and refuses to give any clue to her identity. She is literally a nobody. After two years of silence, she claims to be Anastasia, the fourth daughter of the Tsar of Russia. For over sixty years she lives with the firm conviction that she is, indeed, a grand duchess. It is only after her death in 1984 that DNA tests establish that the woman could not have been a Romanov. Who, then, was this mysterious woman, who lived a lie and convinced so many others of her fictional identity? And what of her own identity that she drowned that winter's night in Berlin?
In 'The Pretender', Mary Morrissy writes the prequel to the Anastasia myth. She creates a fictional history for Franziska Schanzkowska, the Polish factory worker who so successfully donned the mantle of the doomed princess. From the few facts that are known, Morrissy fashions the biography of a nobody - an impoverished Polish childhood, an adolescence set against the First World War and the ruinous humiliation of Germany in defeat, a young adulthood blighted by violence, trama and loss.
This is a nesting doll of a book. Morrissy unspools the multiple intricacies of female identity and explores the strategies that women employ to survive in a calamitous world. Was Franziska Schanzkowska a fraud? Was she deluded? Or was she a genius, an artist who turned her life into a work of fiction?