A friend of mine has a glorious tradition. She still reads with her near-teenage son every night. To my absolute joy, she is currently reading Mary Renault with him, in an attempt to introduce him to complex, layered prose.
I bow to no-one in my veneration of Mary Renault. But my friend is less convinced. She sent me a text this morning: “Is the casual misogyny in her books intended to reflect the mores of the age of Mary Renault or was she just very unenlightened? I never noticed as a child but returning to them as an adult it’s starting to irritate me.”
They are reading The King Must Die, the first in Renault’s two book series about Theseus. Her Theseus is brilliantly realised. Swaggering, arrogant and full of his own destiny.
But, my friend replied, all the women are either witches or sex symbols. ‘I read it to my son interspersed with lots of commentary along the lines of You Can’t Treat Girls Like That.’
To be clear, this friend is one of the most brilliant women I know – intellectually fearless, and hugely successful in her chosen career. I love the idea that she is worried that her son’s attitude to women might be more shaped by a book from a long dead writer, than by the extraordinary role-mother he has.
She is not wrong about the women in The King Must Die. Theseus’ mother is distinguishable largely by her wonderful breasts: ‘smooth as milk and the tips so rosy that she never painted them, though she was still wearing them bare, not being, at that time, much above three and twenty.”
His first wife is the witchy Queen of Eleusis, whom he beats, humiliates and ousts from her role as matriarch, establishing a patriarchy – much to the relief of the henpecked young Eleusian lads. In Crete, he treats Ariadne like a painted doll. He abandons her on Naxos when she partakes too freely of the Dionysian rites; and the implication is clear that Theseus’ God is the Apollonian vision of harmony and wisdom, not the mad, womanly, bloody call of the maenads.
The joy of reading Renault is how immersive her fiction is. There is no other writer of historical fiction of whom you would whisper: ‘Perhaps she was actually there?’
So my answer to my friend was this: that ancient Greek society, particularly in Athens, was revoltingly misogynistic. Women were not educated, could not be citizens, did not own their own property, were not allowed the freedom to walk the streets and were covered in public.
So what, as historical fiction writers, do we do about that? We have two clear choices, in my opinion. We can write an anachronistic female character who walks in the Agora thinking feisty, proto-feminist thoughts because she has been educated by her anachronistically enlightened Father. Or we can, as a more general rule, attempt to be as true as possible to the actual lives, values and mores of the societies about which we write, and trust our readers.
There are practically no women in The Last of the Wine, the great Athenian novel about Alexias and Lysis, lovers during the Peloponnesian War. But this reflects a great irony that modern day women just have to lump: the greatest, early flowering of intellectual thought and art and culture in the Western World was in a society devoid of female input. We have few references to women at all – such as the shrewish wife of Socrates. Aspasia is one who emerges – she was the compaion of Pericles, but she was not respectable. Expensive prostitutes – hetairai – were allowed to be educated and witty and literate; wives not so much.
Renault can write great female characters. The Bull from the Sea is centred around Theseus’ love for Hippolyta, and she is a character who leaps from the page, sword-bright and vivid. Their first meeting is a fight. “She stood with gleaming arms under the fading sky and the little moon, straight, slight and strong.” I have read The Bull from the Sea so many times that I can quote whole passages from it by heart – but I never read the last third unless I need to cry.
Alexander’s mother, Olympias, is also brilliantly realised in Fire from Heaven. She is passionate and political, jealously guarding her territory and privilege from the depredations of her husband, Phillip.
Most of the time, however, Renault’s most memorable characters are male. If you have read the books as often as I have, they are constant companions: Alexias and Lysis, Theseus. Bagoas, the Persian boy. Simonides, the brilliant, ugly poet. Nikeratos, the actor. Hephaestion. Alexander himself.
The image is my bust of Alexander – a much cherished 30th birthday present from my husband. It’s not the real Alexander – it’s Renault’s version in my head: the brilliant, beautiful boy who can’t rest until he has conquered the world.
In the same week that I was having this exchange, I was listening to a brilliant audio dramatisation of Antony Trollope’s The American Senator. This gave me a clue as to how to deal with this thorny mismatch between my feminism and my historicity as a novelist. The lead character in The American Senator is Arabella Trefoil, one of my favourite characters in all of literature. She is a decade into her search for a husband; a dedicated, enervating, humiliating and ceaseless quest. In true Trollopian fashion, she is constrated with Mary Masters – a sweet, noble girl who does the right thing and loves purely.
Trollope can be a bit of a prig, and a moralist and he has severe views about women’s conduct; what we might term an actual historical misogynist, rather than a modern historical fiction writer pretending to be a misogynist. Yet he writes Arabella, his anti-heroine, as such a rounded, whole character that he clearly ends up adoring her. She has all the best lines. She gets all our sympathy.
Arabella is honest. She recognises her lack of agency, and that her only hope of financial advantage and societal position is to be married. When all her hopes appear to be confounded, again, Trollope writes: [She was] sick of the dust of battle and conscious of her fading strength.
The Trollopian answer is to be a novelist first: to make all the characters – male and female – as rounded, human, vivid, fallible and brightly-burning as possible. Then the politics will take care of themselves.