My enduring mission to hunt down fiction set in Achaemenid Persia brought me to this book: a retelling of the story of Esther by Norah Lofts, who impressed me with her King’s Pleasure. Expressly aimed at teenage readers, it’s a charming little book which conveys both Esther’s intelligence and the king’s humanity in a far more effective and engaging way than the painful film One Night with the King. It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I was willing to accept a fairly major historical swerve.
You’re probably familiar with the story already, but just to summarise: the King of Persia divorces his wife Vashti, who has undermined his authority by refusing to appear in front of his male friends at a feast. Seeking her replacement, he orders a survey of eligible maidens across the entire reach of his empire: those judged potentially worthy are brought to his capital at Susa, where he auditions them. The unexpectedly successful candidate is Esther, an orphan from the town of Susa itself, who has been brought up by her scholarly uncle Mordecai. But Esther has a secret which must be kept from the king at all costs: she is Jewish, and Jews are currently a suspect religious group. When the king’s new favourite Haman attempts to stir up the antisemitism into open massacre, Esther must risk her life by speaking up – revealing her own faith in order to save her people.
So far so standard. But who is the King of Persia in Esther’s story? The Bible doesn’t help by calling him Ahasuerus, but everywhere I’ve looked so far people have accepted that he was Xerxes (this makes more sense when you realise that Xerxes’ real name, i.e. not passed through Greek transliteration, was Khashayarsha). Lofts, however, decides that he was Artaxerxes. For most readers this won’t make an ounce of difference, beyond making the name that bit more difficult to pronounce, but for me it was more difficult. As I’m a total geek, I have very distinct ideas of what Xerxes and Artaxerxes were like (the first, temperamental and over-ambitious; the second sweet, endearing, not terribly bright).
Fortunately Lofts’s rather hapless king fits perfectly with my notion of the latter (‘nice‘, assesses one character, ‘but a bit silly‘). It’s far from historically accurate, of course, as Lofts calls Artaxerxes an ‘upstart’ and suggests that his ancestors were Phoenician traders. But it seems silly to fret over that when there’s no evidence that Vashti, Esther or Mordecai even existed. And any gripes vanished in my delight over the opening scene, which shows poor Artaxerxes being taken to task by his withering wife Vashti for his complete lack of interior decorating skills. Red with purple? What was the man thinking?
For one wild optimistic moment Artaxerxes imagined that he had impressed her so much that she was speechless. He waited. And then Vashti said, in the sweetest, lightest voice: ‘I wish you had asked me to help you, Artaxerxes. I would, you know, willingly. I could have advised you about the colours … Darling, I think you had better open your feast with a speech and admit that you’re quite colour blind. That will sound very lovable.’
This lightness of spirit made much of the book very entertaining. It did, however, mean that this felt more like an amuse-bouche than the kind of big, meaty historical doorstop that I think Artaxerxes (and Xerxes) deserves. But that’s all right. Lofts succeeds where One Night with the King signally failed: she makes Esther’s story engaging without being preachy, and she creates an emotional situation in which Esther genuinely does feel uncertain about going into the king’s presence without an official summons. That scene, however – the lynchpin of Esther’s story; her great moment of defiance and faith – falls slightly flat here too. I think it’s a moment that works better in painting, where you can linger on the swooning woman and gracious king without it feeling overdone, as it probably would in fiction (Lofts’s Esther, I noted, is far too sensible to swoon).
Were I being picky, I would also note that Artaxerxes comes over as a bit immature for a man with ranks of women at his disposal, but Lofts makes it clear that he is very young for his position and perhaps also slightly spoiled. The story is not just about Esther’s rise to influence, but also about Artaxerxes’ own struggle towards self-knowledge and self-reliance. Interestingly, since I’m making comparisons with One Night with the King, Artaxerxes puts his young ladies through an equally chaste test, inviting them one by one for dinner and a nice chat. His fondness for Esther grows over a discussion of the scrolls she’s been borrowing from his library (the standard of literacy in Lofts’s Persia is staggeringly high). It’s all cosy and inoffensive, geared to appeal to the romantic teenage bookworms who I suppose were Lofts’s audience when the book was originally published in 1950. But it doesn’t feel particularly dated: it’s smart and manages the admirable feat of being sweet rather than saccharine – even if you do feel slightly bad about smiling and saying, ‘Aw, bless’, as Haman is hauled away in the background.
This is best approached not as a historical novel or as an improving religious story but as a fairytale: a kind of Cinderella, perhaps. The handsome prince invites every eligible girl in the kingdom to a great gathering, where he will choose a bride. Dramatic satisfaction demands that he should choose, not the prettiest, or the wealthiest or the noblest, but the simple, smart and practical girl from a modest background. Throw in an arrogant villain, whose rapid rise has gone to his head, and you have a recipe for a story that won’t change the world, but will offer a few hours’ amusement on a dark winter evening.
And here is a jolly picture of Esther and Ahasuerus (whoever he may be), painted by Konrad Witz in 1435, and now in the Kunstmuseum in Basel in Switzerland.