Saturday 23 September 2017

Review: Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy

Virago, €14.50

Sile McArdle

HISTORY is always risky, especially for an author who has made her name firmly in the contemporary. But with her latest novel, Stella Duffy has bravely backtracked 15 centuries to the complicated world of Constantinople.

Based on the real sixth-century Byzantine Roman Empress Theodora, Duffy's book is tagged with an impressive bibliography. It has obviously been intensively researched and diligently crafted to present the history, geography, religion and politics of the day at their most authentic (although the author's note also stresses that historical accuracy has at times been sacrificed in favour of plot, pace or character).

It's that bit harder to criticise a work that has so clearly been laboured over word by word, but in all honesty this reviewer found it far too dense to truly enjoy.

Apart, that is, from one compelling purple patch in the middle where Theodora is exiled in the wilderness to examine the wilderness in her soul and see if she can repent the sins of the flesh her poverty-stricken upbringing forced her to commit.

The real-life Theodora was hailed as both saint and feminist, but, given her provenance in prostitution, had very many detractors. Duffy chooses to focus on the earthy twists in life which shaped Theodora from girl to woman to queen, however, rather than any lofty posthumous accolades.

The novel opens with Theodora's masochistic taskmaster, Menander, schooling his young charges about the Roman Empire so they can converse intelligently as well as entertain with poetry, song, dance and acrobatics (often including the sexual kind) at gatherings in private houses before they take to bigger stages. His tough-love reasoning is that they'll attract generous patrons if they can use their minds as well as their bodies.

The child Theodora will bend her body for her forceful eunuch teacher, but she will not bend her will. She is prickly and cheekily daring -- pure protection mechanisms, of course -- and it is difficult to warm to her.

When her mother, Hypatia, whose bear-keeper husband was mauled to death in front of Theodora, controversially displays her three white-robed budding performer daughters in the Hippodrome to plead for a benefactor, their fate is sealed. The ploy works: the Conservative Blue party elders accept the joint entreaty, to the gaps of the Greens, the traditional champions of the arts and artisans.

Politics run deep in this novel, and religious fervour deeper still. In fact, division of all kinds -- especially the intricacies of the class divide -- is the lifeblood of this ancient people. It is Theodora's knowledge of what makes them tick which fuels her usefulness and her meteoric rise in status after her whoring watershed.

Theodora's choppy journey from actress-whore to Patrician wife of emperor Justinian contains many classic female errors, including following her heart to be Governor Hecebolus's mistress in Apollonia, only to be betrayed by him and her friend Chrysomallo under the harsh African sun and flee in the dead of night.

But her survival instincts are well-honed; her judgement whetted by her many mistakes, especially the tendency to push herself to the limit and want too much.

Even when its intelligent heroine is at her most passionate, this novel has a strange coldness and cynicism to it. Everything has its price; marriages, for instance -- even good ones -- are acknowledged by all the diverse female characters as "sanctified prostitution".

Perhaps Theodora has suffered too much too young ever to truly face her own vulnerability, except in times of genuine catharsis -- undoubtedly the novel's highlights.

That head and heart never reach perfect balance is clearly illustrated by the heroine's callous treatment of her introverted daughter, Ana. Even when in a privileged position, she does not truly repair that flawed relationship.

At its most basic, the plot is a Cinderella-meets-Pretty- Woman tale of rags to riches, from fallen to risen.

But its emotional draw is far too compromised by the complex historical, geographical, religious and political setting -- the very aspects of Theodora thatDuffy has striven so hard to recreate.

Sometimes the devil is definitely not in the detail.

Sunday Independent

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