"Theodora of the Hippodrome, of the brothel, could never have achieved so much if she had not been practical as well as wild." So writes novelist Stella Duffy of Theodora, the daughter of a bear-keeper in sixth-century Constantinople, who rose to become Empress of Byzantium, alongside one of that empire's strongest rulers, Justinian.
It's hard to find well-written historical fiction these days that is more than just another variant of a story told about the ancient Romans, the Plantagenets, the Tudors or the days of the French Revolution. But in this novel (already available in the UK; to be published in the US in September) Duffy tells the story of Theodora and her improbable feat. Born into a world which offered her little choice beyond taking to the stage of the Hippodrome as an acrobat and comedienne renowned, so history tells it, for lewd performances involving geese. (Read it for yourselves...) Offstage, like all actresses of the period, she earned money as a prostitute -- and the most she could hope for was to find someone who would take her on as a mistress for the short term; no man was allowed to marry a performer. But Theodora's life takes a surprising course just when it seems her hopes of some stability vanish and she discovers a new direction for herself, both personally and as a public figure.
The Constantinople that Duffy portrays so vividly in this fascinating novel is a world in which ordinary working men and women are prepared to literally come to blows over the pressing theological issues of the day, particularly the precise nature of Christ's divinity. That territory has proven to be a minefield for other authors, notably Anne Perry, whose recent foray into historical fiction set prior to 1850 (The Sheen on the Silk set in a later Constantinople) was deeply disappointing. Duffy succeeds triumphantly where Perry failed, painting a portrait in words of a woman whose face has come down to us through time in the form of the famous mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. Her Theodora is a pragmatist; hard-headed, ribald and too outspoken for her own good, her challenge to develop judgment, compassion and heart. And the world she inhabits is conjured up for us from the physical setting to its scents and sounds; its mores and the ribald dramas its masses prefer; the role of eunuchs and the importance of the various religious schisms -- Monophysite, Arian, etc. None of that ever feels overwhelming in Duffy's hands.
Best of all, Duffy doesn't make the mistake of romanticizing Theodora's story. Romantic love was largely absent in any modern sense in her era, and Duffy doesn't fall into the trap of trying to impose a 21st century ethos on her 6th century characters. True, the language is crisp and modern -- no "thees" and "thous" -- but the attitudes are very much of the time, with Theodora experiencing pain and pleasure but never really lapsing into sentimentality. That can make it harder to identify with Theodora as a person, perhaps, but not to enjoy or appreciate the book itself, which I simply couldn't put down.
This novel is a boon for historical fiction fans, especially those in search of a respite from the endless stream of books set in northern Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Duffy has made her name in the UK with some of her contemporary novels short-listed for the Orange Prize; I'll be hunting for some of those as well as hoping that she pens a sequel to this excellent book, which ends as Justinian and Theodora become rulers of the empire.
Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of the book via NetGalley.com. I expect that when it becomes available for purchase in the US that I'll be adding it to my permanent library.
For some other historical novels set outside the mainstream, try the following:
- Indu Sundaresan's trilogy about Moghul India, culminating in The Shadow Princess
- A Man in Uniform, Kate Taylor's novel set in the Paris of the Dreyfus scandal and the "Belle Epoque".
- Two novels by Jude Morgan, The King's Touch (based on the life of the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son) and Passion, which deals with the interlinked lives of Shelley, Byron, and Keats.
- Beautiful Creatures by Tracey Chevalier, focusing on the life of a woman in obsessive quest of fossils in the early 19th century.