Jamal Eddin Shamil is only eight years old when he is stolen from his native Caucasus Mountains and whisked away by Russian soldiers to the glittering court at St. Petersburg. There Czar Nicholas takes a special interest in his exotic Muslim hostage, the eldest son of Chechen warrior chief Imam Shamil. In St. Petersburg, Jamal Eddin is immersed in imperial life, educated alongside the czar’s own sons and gradually maturing into the consummate courtier. Through it all, he remains true to the Muslim faith of his father—until he falls in love with a beautiful Russian aristocrat. To marry her he must convert to Christianity, a sacrifice Jamal Eddin is prepared to make for the woman he loves. But he doesn’t realize that there are greater forces at work, forces that have lain in wait for Jamal Eddin to come of age and serve the purpose for which he was groomed. And when he is called to return to his native land and take his rightful place as leader of the Muslims, Jamal Eddin must choose: reject his people to follow his heart or abandon his bride to fulfill his duty.
Based on an astonishing true story, Between Love and Honor is a sweeping historical novel in the grand style of Alexandre Dumas and a breathtaking love story of sacrifice and devotion. It was awarded with two prestigious literary prizes upon its publication in France in 2009: the Prix des Romancières award presented by a jury of female novelists, and the Prix Vivre Plus award granted by the monthly magazine of the same name.
Question: What inspired you to write this story?
Alexandra Lapierre: I have always been interested in people who have done incredible things and yet been completely forgotten by history.
In the case of Between Love and Honor, I found a true story that is not only an extraordinary adventure, but a moving human drama of a young man caught between two cultures, Muslim and Christian, striving—mightily--to live with integrity and be part of both. Interestingly, Jamal Eddin’s struggle and his story illuminate much of what is still going on in a part of the world that is, for the most part, poorly understood. On top of all this, Jamal Eddin fell madly in love with a remarkable young woman, and their tragic tale of star-crossed love was also an inspiration.
Q: In the course of your research, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
AL: The biggest shock came when I finally got hold of Lisa’s diary.
I had heard that Jamal Eddin had been in love with a Russian aristocrat, but I simply did not believe it. I thought this detail was too good to be true. It was impossible that a young woman from an aristocratic family should have been given permission to wed the son of a rebel, a man who was Russia’s sworn enemy. And yet when I finally got Lisa’s diary, a document I chased for months more out of sense of due diligence and professional conscience than anything else, I was stunned. Though she was writing as an old woman, one who had since been twice married and had children, it opened with her recollections of Jamal Eddin! On the eve of the Russian revolution, it was this chapter of her life that she wanted to share with her grandchildren.
Q: As a biographer and writer of historical fiction, what qualities do you look for in prospective subject? What kinds of personalities do you most like to write about?
AL: I am obsessed by people who truly dared to live, men and women who took their destinies in their own hands. For example, Fanny Stevenson, the woman who would become the wife of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, moved with her three children to Paris in order to become a painter. For a single mother in the 19th century, possessed of neither fortune nor connections, this was unthinkable. When she fell in love with Stevenson, she was eleven years his senior and he was no famous writer, just a kid dying of consumption. But she loved him, and against all odds married him, and was not only his muse but his partner. Another of these daring souls is Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th century Italian painter. She lived at a time when there was simply no possibility that she could have a career; legally, women belonged to men, therefore she could not buy her paints, sign a contract, or travel. But thanks to her genius and determination to become the best painter of her day (not the best female painter, mind you, but the best painter. Period.) she broke all the rules, and her work is still admired today.
Q: You've won many awards for your writing--which honor is most meaningful to you and why?
AL: This is difficult to say, but being elected Woman of Culture by the City of Rome was very moving. I have always dreamed of being a cultural go-between; it is no accident that I am so drawn to Jamal Eddin, who is a true bridge between worlds. To be chosen by a country not my own was a particular honor. The same was true when, in the United States, I was made a member of the Association of American University Women. I like to believe that we need not be circumscribed by our own nationalities and countries of birth, that it is possible to be a citizen of the world… This is also why I am so determined to learn languages: you cannot understand a culture without understanding its language.