New book tells of dramatic life of Russian princess

Lydia as Melisande, the Princess of Dreams
Lydia as Melisande, the Princess of Dreams
  • Special offer for Herald and Gazette readers
  • Dramatic life is laid out like a play
  • Actress, fashion icon and campaigner against injustice
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A Russian princess is buried in the churchyard of St Nicolas, Old Shoreham, as many readers are aware.

This year marks the 95th anniversary of the death of Lydia Yavorska, Princess Bariatinsky, and the church has held several events to commemorate the anniversary.

The cover of Princess of Dreams

The cover of Princess of Dreams

Now, a new book, Princess of Dreams, has been published to tell the story of her life – a life which was more dramatic than the plays in which she appeared.

Authors John and Jeannette Simpson, who met in the 1960s when they were language students, have been researching the life of the princess for the last four years.

Their linguistic skills were particularly useful when they extended their search beyond the archives of the UK to Russia, Italy and Estonia and found the clues which have enabled them to piece together this fascinating story.

Jeannette said: “We are used to working as a team. We’ve been married for 48 years and have been giving talks together on local history, Japan and genealogy for more than 20 years.”

They both have experience as technical authors and are editors of the journal of the Daniel Ceramic Circle, a society dedicated to researching the work of Henry and Richard Daniel, a Stoke-on-Trent pottery little known today but famous in its day. They were recently awarded the circle’s Challenge Cup for their work last year on researching Daniel Earthenwares and writing a ground-breaking new book on the subject.

Like many people in Shoreham, John and Jeannette were intrigued by the unusual gravestone in St Nicolas’ churchyard, with its cryptic references to a princess who was also an actress, and set out to discover her story.

Their initial aim was to add a few paragraphs to the church website but they quickly discovered there was a huge story waiting to be told. Over the years, they have tracked down press cuttings from archives all over the world and built up an archive of contemporary photographs and theatre programmes.

Lydia Yavorska was a celebrated actress, theatre manager and fashion icon, a pin-up of her day, but she was also a fighter against injustice within Russia, a suffragette in this country and a tireless fundraiser during World War One for refugees in Russia and Poland.

As a theatre manager, she was a bold innovator who was not afraid to try out controversial plays, bringing authors such as Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov to the English stage. The book title is taken from the play which first made her name in Russia but probably her greatest achievement as both producer and actress was in bringing Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the British stage.

Lydia died in Hove on September 3, 1921, and is buried on the north side of the churchyard.

John said: “In her day, the Princess was world famous but is relatively little known today. As an aristocrat and staunch opponent of the Bolsheviks, she was written out of Soviet theatre history but was also sidelined in the story of early 20th century English theatre.

“With this new book we hope to set the record straight, highlighting her considerable achievements and restoring Lydia Yavorska to her rightful place in theatre history.

“This is not a dry and dusty biography. To reflect Lydia’s life in the theatre, it is laid out like a play, divided into acts and scenes, and decorated with touches of art nouveau to evoke the period.”

The A4 size book has 350 pages and 650 illustrations. Any profits will be shared between a fund to maintain the grave and the Friends of St Nicolas, who look after the fabric of the ancient church. Princess of Dreams is priced £30 but Herald and Gazette readers are being offered a special discount price of £25, with a coupon printed in tomorrow’s editions of the Shoreham Herald and Steyning Herald.

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