Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: Stella Duffy

★★★

There isn’t enough historical fiction set in Byzantium (I’m open for recommendations!), and so I was very happy to find a copy of this book and its sequel, The Purple Shroud, in my local library. Although I read Antony Bridge’s biography of Theodora last year, I still don’t know as much about her as I’d like and I hoped that Duffy’s novel would throw some further light on the subject.

Duffy certainly gives us a persuasive picture of Theodora as a person, a being of flaws and virtues, rather than the controversial figure described by historians, who’ve traditionally been polarised between Procopius’ salacious disapproval and Bridge’s quiet admiration. In this book we are shown a more nuanced Theodora, who is very attractive to the modern mind: capable, assertive and intelligent, and willing to play to her strengths in order to survive in a complicated world. It’s a good story. As a piece of historical fiction, however, there were a couple of things which didn’t quite work. More on that later.

Theodora is one of the greatest social climbers in history. The daughter of a bear-keeper at the Hippodrome, she joins a theatrical troupe as a small girl and, by the age of twelve, is delighting audiences as an actress on the stage (as well as earning her keep with certain men backstage as well). In this harsh world you need wits and ambition to survive, and Theodora is determined not to become just another washed-up old actress dreaming over her successful past. Endlessly creative, shameless and knowing, she becomes the darling of the City and Duffy doesn’t hesitate to work in some of Procopius’ more prurient stories (I was glad to see the famous geese making a cameo appearance).

As time passes, Theodora realises the need for long-term security; so, when she is invited to accompany the new Governor of the Pentapolis as his mistress, she accepts. Needless to say, the infatuation doesn’t last for long and Theodora must once again call on her native intelligence to carry her back to the City, where she belongs. Her path takes her to Alexandria, to a man named Timothy – the Patriarch – who offers her an unexpected chance to redeem herself spiritually. In return, he asks Theodora to join with those who are striving to heal the divisions within the Church – a task for which, ultimately, she must return to Constantinople. There she is introduced to a bookish, overly serious man, who will come to play a major role in her future: the Emperor’s nephew, Justinian.

There, on the distant eastern shore, were the old buildings of Chalcedon. Soon she would be able to count the hills of the City, maybe even make out the outline of her church, her Hagia Sophia. Theodora shifted her gaze to the still-dark west and waited. She didn’t know she had been so hungry for this view… Now, waiting for home to emerge from the dark, she knew she was starving, and had been for a long time.

Duffy writes with verve and frankness, and her Theodora is an appealing creature: loyal, stubborn and feisty, with a well-concealed loneliness at her heart. Hardened by her childhood, she is familiar with the whole range of human passion except deep, genuine love; and it is Justinian’s love for her, rather than his status or prospects, which wins her over to him. And yet she’s no yielding romantic heroine: this tough woman is perceptive and hard when necessary; determined to raise herself no matter how hard the graft. I did wonder whether even an actress, set outside the usual restrictions of respectable female behaviour, would have had the kind of physical and social freedom that Duffy implies in the novel, but I don’t know enough about the status of Byzantine women to be sure (I evidently need to read Judith Herrin’s book Women in Purple).

Duffy’s main characters feel very modern, you see, with values that chime with modern sensibilities: you could dress Theodora, Justinian and Narses in different outfits and seamlessly transfer them to a contemporary setting (the reformed call-girl; the quiet heir to a great company; the slightly camp adviser who bonds with the girl over fashion choices; etc.). Populated by these immediately accessible characters, Constantinople has never seemed less strange, less alienating – and whether you find that a positive or a negative will depend on your reading preferences. Myself, I would have preferred a little more indication of the ritual complexities and wonderful foreignness of this most glittering, passionate and tumultuous city.

One of the things that slightly confused me was the network of spies and intelligence, being fed back and forth between Narses and Timothy of Alexandria, which forms the driving force of Duffy’s novel. It’s through this network that Theodora is given a shot at redemption in the desert. It’s through Timothy that she is sent on to Antioch, where she meets the dancer Macedonia, and from there back to Constantinople itself. Timothy is the one who gives her the introductory letter which propels her up, like a fortuitous throw in Snakes & Ladders, from the level of the street to Narses’ reception room. And it’s Timothy’s, Narses’ and (eventually) Justinian’s joint plan that eventually sees her married to the most powerful man in Christendom. Virtually every change in Theodora’s life after her arrival in Alexandria is worked through the invisible plotting of this cabal, according to Duffy.

But did it really exist? It’s certainly explains a lot, but is there any evidence for it? I didn’t come across any mention of such a plot in Bridge; I’ve just double-checked, and he’s actually very vague about exactly how Theodora met Timothy in Alexandria or how she came to move in Justinian’s circles back in Constantinople (though he does suggest that Macedonia, with her high-society contacts, might have given her some introductions). I know this is a novel, not a history book, but even so I generally assume that writers stick as closely as possible to the facts, and discuss any embellishments or deviations in their author’s note. Has anyone come across this theory elsewhere? It just seems a bit unlikely to me that Theodora’s marriage to Justinian was engineered in this way, considering her notoriety and the conservatism of the ruling faction… but I genuinely don’t know enough about this period. It’d be fascinating to know what the historical facts suggest. If it were true, that would be a bit of a shame from a dramatic point of view, because it diminishes Theodora’s independence. It takes her achievements away from her and puts her in the position of a pawn moved by others.

There were some stylistic choices in the book which I didn’t like, chiefly the distracting intrusion of contemporary idioms. The book is written in a modern style, which is fine in itself – I’m not advocating a return to the impenetrable style of The Last Days of Pompeii – but I believe that a historical novel should remain at least nominally faithful to the period in which it’s set. There are several occasions when 20th or 21st-century expressions jar painfully against the backdrop of 6th-century Constantinople. For example, ‘Theodora didn’t want to screw it up.’ Or, Narses speaking to Theodora, ‘Don’t kid yourself it will suffice’. This isn’t a major issue, admittedly, and many people won’t find it as distracting as I do, but it’s a shame to have a historical world undermined by anachronistic expressions.

Nevertheless, this is an easy and vivid book to read and I’ll certainly be continuing on to The Purple Shroud in due course. This would be a good introduction to Theodora’s story if you haven’t come across her before, and it gives a tantalising picture of the golden age of Constantinople, full of religious rivalries and the frenzied hooliganism of the Blues and Greens in the Hippodrome. It just doesn’t quite have the richness, the weight and the sensitivity of language that would have made me enjoy it even more. Off the top of my head, other novels which you could try if you’re interested in Byzantium in this period are Count Belisarius (which offers a very different take on Theodora), or Sailing to Sarantium and its sequel Lord of Emperors (which tell an alternate-universe version of Justinian and Theodora’s story). From a non-fiction point of view, you could go back to the source with Procopius’ Secret History, try John Julius Norwich’s magisterial history of Byzantium: The Early Centuries (which I haven’t read yet) or, if you were feeling particularly energetic and intellectual (which I’m not), dip into the relevant chapters of Gibbon

Please do let me know if you’ve read anything else set in this period: I’m always keen to add to my reading list, as you probably know very well by now!

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14 thoughts on “Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: Stella Duffy

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'm fond of Gillian Bradshaw's THE BEARKEEPER'S DAUGHTER, with the main character being a son of Theodora's, who comes to her when she's empress. He didn't quite believe what his father told him about his mother. Anyway, she's delighted, and his life changes.

    I didn't think I liked it that much when I read it the first time, but it haunted me after.

    Elaine T.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks Elaine! I haven't heard of that, but you always give me solid recommendations and I'll keep an eye out for this one. If it haunted you, it must have been worth reading even if you didn't immediately like it. 🙂

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha – fair point, Charlie. But wouldn't it be lovely if an author admitted when they'd made things up and when things were solidly based in fact? Most of those I've recently do this, actually – it's one area where Cornwell, for example, is extremely thorough. Perhaps I'm going wrong, in a way. When I read a historical novel about a real person, part of my motivation is wanting to find out more about that person and it's frustrating not to be able to look back at the end and know what's 'true' and what's not. Some people might suggest, quite reasonably, that I should just read a straight history book if that's what I want. (There's a whole debate about how far history is ever 'true', but let's not go down that path…)

    As a way into Byzantine history, definitely, this is a good place to start. I'm just channelling a bit of my pedantic historian persona above, to be honest.

    Just remembered another novel about Byzantium, a children's book this time: The Emperor's Winding Sheet by Jill Paton Walsh. I had a copy when I was younger but I can't find it on my bookshelves any more. If I remember correctly, it's about a trader's son from Bristol who ends up shipwrecked in Byzantium and becomes some kind of lucky mascot for the Emperor… I'm afraid I can't remember how good it was, though…

  4. Charlie says:

    I would say yes, they stick to the story… then I read The Other Boleyn Girl. This is an extreme example perhaps, having read about Gregory's theories of what a fact is, but unless an author suggests otherwise, I consider author notes only some of the information.

    I think I've come across this book on other blogs (the cover looks similar to another so I'm not completely sure) but regardless I'd love to read it. You're right in that there's little fiction about Byzantium (or at least popular fiction) and it sounds a good place to start learning.

  5. Heloise says:

    Being largely ignorant about Byzantian history, I had to google what was up with the geese and came upon this article by Stella Duffy on her book. I found the discussion in the comments quite interesting.

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    I love the Guardian's comments section. You can always predict the kind of thing you're going to get, and the fact that it will have descended into petty name-calling by the end of the first page…

    I thought this was a little harsh: 'a book with a contradictory, incorrect, and provocative title juxtaposing the words Empress and Whore designed to stimulate sales to a historically ignorant MP3 generation seeking feminist self validation' (it's not necessarily contradictory… it could be consecutive; and besides, what's wrong with seeking feminist self validation?). And it amused me when another commentator observed: 'If anyone reads a historical novel and takes it as historical fact, then it is they, not the novelist, who is guilty of naivety and ignorance.' (*Raises hand to anonymous commentator* Well, I would like to be able to have a reasonable confidence that the historical fiction I'm reading is on at least nodding terms with historical fact. Does that make me naive and ignorant, I wonder?)

    Love the person who describes the story as 'Evita with better clothes'. I seriously considered drawing parallels between the Empress Theodora and Eva Peron, but thought it might be a bit much… And kudos to Stella Duffy for taking on some of the more virulent commentators and standing up for herself. Brava Stella.

    I note that the whole discussion is centred on Duffy's decision to use Procopius as one of her sources of inspiration, which some people felt was immediately misleading. This aspect actually doesn't bother me that much. Procopius might have been biased and unpleasant, but he's one of the key sources for the period and we have to run with what we've got. I'm just interested to know if Duffy introduced any major innovations of her own to the story (e.g. that spy-network which moves Theodora into position). Of course conversations and motivations etc. are things that have to be invented.

    I was interested to see (on my brisk read-through) that no one in the comments appeared to mention the very modern language. I'd have thought that would be just the kind of thing that would get Guardian-readers riled, but apparently not… 🙂

  7. Unknown says:

    Sorry I'm a bit late to the party — I stumbled on your site when I was looking for Dorothy Dunnett reviews but it turns out you have very similar reading tastes to me so I've enjoyed your other reviews too. I had to comment because I also got hooked on fiction set in Byzantium after reading 'Theodora' and 'Sailing to Sarantium' and I've been trying to scratch the itch ever since!

    I wholeheartedly recommend 'The Empress' by Meg Clothier, set about 400 years after Theodora but still has the same sense of palace intrigue, mixed with compelling history. She's written another book as well, called 'The Girl King' about a Queen of Georgia set at around the same time (the two books overlap slightly) and that one has a note about the founding of Trebizond at the end. It was while reading about Trebizond that I came across Dorothy Dunnett in the first place, which just shows how these things go in circles! You can read my reviews of these two books on my LibraryThing account (my username is Yarrow).

    I've also read 'The Sheen on the Silk' by Anne Perry, which was ok, but a little forgettable. It neatly filled in some of what happened after the events of 'The Empress' though. There's another book called 'Anna of Byzantium' which was again a bit pedestrian but filled in some intervening history for me and was a quick read. I found all these by using LibraryThings tag mash feature to look for Byzantium+fiction, and I'm slowly making my way through the list!

    Anyway I'm really enjoying your site, and look forward to reading more of your reviews.

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you so much for this, Yarrow! It's great to hear about some other books from this period and I'm looking forward to following up your reviews on LibraryThing. 'The Empress' sounds very interesting and I'll keep my eyes open for that. If you also love Dorothy Dunnett and Sailing to Sarantium, then I think we're going to have a lot of interests in common. As proof of that, I've just spotted on your LibraryThing profile that you've recently added Travels with a Tangerine, which is something I've been toying with the idea of reading for some time, so you must let me know what you think of that when you get round to it. I see you've got The Goldfinch and The Luminaries lined up too – just as I have. 🙂

    I'm just going to have a little wander through your library now to see what other goodies I can find. Once again thanks so much for the comment and please, please do feel free to chip in if you've got recommendations arising out of any of the other books I've mentioned on here. Lovely to meet you!

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