The Europeans is a richly enthralling, panoramic cultural history of nineteenth-century Europe, told through the intertwined lives of three remarkable people: a great singer, Pauline Viardot, a great writer, Ivan Turgenev, and a great connoisseur, Pauline’s husband Louis. Their passionate, ambitious lives were bound up with an astonishing array of writers, composers and painters all trying to make their way through the exciting, prosperous and genuinely pan-European culture that came about as a result of huge economic and technological change. This culture – through trains, telegraphs and printing – allowed artists of all kinds to exchange ideas and make a living, shuttling back and forth across the whole continent from the British Isles to Imperial Russia, as they exploited a new cosmopolitan age.
The Europeans is Orlando Figes’ masterpiece. Surprising, beautifully written, it describes huge changes through intimate details, little-known stories and through the lens of Turgenev and the Viardots’ touching, strange love triangle. Events which we now see as central to European high culture are made completely fresh, allowing the reader to revel in the sheer precariousness with which the great salons, premieres and bestsellers came into existence.