My quest to find decent novels about Ancient Mesopotamia continues, although I’m still not having much luck finding books about this period other than Biblical fiction. And so I came to Eleanor de Jong’s Delilah, the story of my favourite Biblical harlot-hairdresser. It turned out to be quite a contradiction: a Biblical tale that doesn’t particularly follow the Bible; an historical novel which shows little interest in history; and a story which should show women at their most wily and powerful, neutered into a love story. Come, join me, as we try to tease our way through an increasingly unfamiliar Biblical tale.
The first thing to stress is that Delilah isn’t a harlot, or a widow. (To be fair, the Bible only refers to her as a ‘woman’, which covers a broad range of possibilities.) De Jong decides that she isn’t even a true Philistine: instead, she is the daughter of Israelite parents, whose vintner father dies young. Delilah’s mother Beulah then marries her father’s kindly Philistine employer, Achish, as his second wife. Young Delilah must contend with the jibes of her mean-spirited new stepsister Hemin, and the mooncalf adoration of her stepbrother Ekron, but she grows up in the quiet knowledge that she is more beautiful than Hemin, wiser than Ekron, and more vital to the successful of Achish’s vineyard than either one of them. For Delilah has inherited her father’s understanding of the earth and the vine, and becomes Achish’s favourite, accompanying him to market and blessed with his indulgence. She has seen that the tensions between Israelites and Philistines are still all too raw – witness Hemin’s spiteful comments – but Delilah believes, following Achish’s example, that it’s possible to bring about peace between the rival peoples.
It’s for this reason that Achish decides to marry Hemin to an Israelite: the celebrated strongman Samson, who is already regarded as a leader among his people. But the betrothal party goes desperately wrong and soon Samson has marched off in a rage, leaving the house in chaos and Delilah dangerously fascinated by his arrogance. As time passes, and Hemin is married off to the Philistine leader Lord Phicol, Delilah begins to realise that her interest in Samson isn’t all one way. The man seems to be deliberately seeking her out. His attentions are so clumsy that she isn’t the only one who notices and, soon, Delilah finds herself summoned to Lord Phicol, who has a proposition to put to her. If she is willing to seduce Samson, and find out his plans to bring down the Philistine state, Phicol will pay Delilah a fortune. At first it seems like a good way to repay the man who caused such havoc in her home. But Delilah swiftly realises that she hadn’t taken into account the susceptibility of her own heart…
Let’s revisit this from the beginning, shall we? Essentially, Delilah’s family are conflated with that of the Biblical woman in Timnath, for whom Samson conceives a passion and whom he then (somehow) insults, when she cheats him by giving away the answer to a riddle he’s posed at their betrothal feast. All we know about the Biblical Delilah is that she comes from the valley of Sorek, and that from the beginning she’s working for the Philistines. She tries to betray Samson three times before she succeeds and there is no indication that she sees him as anything except a way to make a bit of money from her Philistine lords. (In fact, Biblical Delilah does far better out of the bargain than Book Delilah. Here Delilah gets 1,100 silver pieces from Lord Phicol. Biblical Delilah gets 1,100 silver pieces from each of the several Philistine lords who approach her.)
But it doesn’t look good for Book Delilah to be making a lot of money out of her fling with Samson, because De Jong doesn’t want a heroine who’s tricksy, smart and willing to exploit men’s weaknesses. Delilah could make a fantastic antihero, but instead, we have to have a romantic heroine, which means that Book Delilah ticks off all the stereotypical qualities for a girl who’s just waiting to have her bodice ripped. I should have guessed from the description of her on the back cover as ‘desirable, headstrong and reckless’, although my usual trigger words ‘spirited’ and ‘passionate’ were omitted. Book Delilah is a gutsy girl who runs around the countryside without a second thought, although if De Jong wanted us to truly admire her strength of character, she might have considered not making Delilah change her allegiances and belief solely on the basis of some amazing sex. Just a thought. Oh, and that hair-cutting stuff? Turns out she was trying to help him!
But how does this actually fit with what’s plausible for the historical period? There is precious little sense of antiquity here. Delilah is amazingly liberated for a young woman of good family living in (let’s say, for the sake of argument) the Fertile Crescent in the 12th century BC. At the age of seventeen, she’s still unmarried and her indulgent old stepdad has promised not to marry her off to anyone who doesn’t meet with her approval. Achish comes across as very modern and enlightened for a man in an age when girls were probably married off at twelve or thirteen, and seventeen must have been virtually on the shelf. Plus, he is quite happy for her to stay away from home for nights on end without knowing where she is – even though he must suspect that she’s sleeping with someone without his permission. Really? Were Bronze Age fathers so laid-back? And Achish isn’t the only character who feels unconvincing. In fact, all characters are either heroes or villains. Joshua, the handsome servant, is fiercely loyal to Delilah, even after realising that she’s abandoned their short-lived affair in favour of sleeping with Samson. Ekron, the stepbrother, grows increasingly two-dimensional and villainous as we progress. And Lord Phicol is as slimy and evil as you’d expect of someone who is never mentioned without his honorific (a parallel: Darth Vader).
Let’s take a look at Samson. There isn’t much to work with. Biblical Samson comes across as very violent, unsympathetic, and rather dense. When a woman has already asked three times how your strength can be bound; and when you’ve lied to her three times; and when you’ve faced three capture attempts by Philistines who conveniently use the techniques you made up for the woman… how can you possibly blame anyone but yourself when you’re daft enough to tell her the truth about cutting off your hair? De Jong wants her hero to be better than this, and so we have Samson as freedom fighter, as helper of widows and children, as loving son, prone to staring at Delilah with his beautiful blue eyes, which are frequently described. But there’s a problem with this. You can’t get away from the fact that Biblical Samson does some pretty horrendous things, such as killing thirty men out of pique when his riddle is spoiled, or destroying a family’s livelihood by burning their vineyard via the old burning-brand-tied-to-fox-tail trick (and let’s not even look at his record of animal rights).
De Jong certainly has a go at turning him into a brooding Robin Hood type, who is clearly A Real Man because he gives Delilah mind-blowing experiences in bed (we’re told about this frequently). But it doesn’t work. You can’t turn a Bronze Age folk hero into a modern romantic hero, because the principles of one age are so utterly foreign to another. We end up with a Samson who starts out behaving like an absolute swine, and we’re then meant to write this off later as something to do with him being filled with spirit of God. (How many people, after committing hideous atrocities, claim that they did so because they were filled with the spirit of God? It’s an uncomfortable thought, isn’t it?)
The most annoying thing is that I don’t even feel I know any more about the period. Of course, the story of Samson is so ancient that it doesn’t belong to a specific period, but based on the dates of the city of Askelon, I suppose we’re somewhere in the second or third millennium BC. I would have loved to understand a bit more about the real culture of the time, rather than seeing a modern society with a few temples, lovingly-described ancient dresses, and the odd reference to Dagon or Ba’al. I’m not even sure that (from this novel) I’d know why the Philistines and Israelites hated one another so much; is it just on the basis of the Philistines moving inland to Israelite territories, or is there a greater cultural disconnect? It would have been lovely to have more of a sense of the lifestyle; the rites; the kind of houses; the social customs.
I happened to pick up De Jong’s Jezebel at the same time, so gird your loins for that, although I know much less about Jezebel’s story and am therefore likely to be less annoyed by it. I will come to it with an open mind: I have to say that De Jong’s writing isn’t bad, it’s just a touch on the breathless romantic side (had I looked more closely, I’d have noticed that Delilah and Jezebel are both published by the romantic imprint Avon, so really it’s all my own fault for not paying attention). There’s also another take on Samson coming up, thanks to Eric Linklater’s Husband of Delilah, which raises questions just from its title (were Samson and Delilah married?!). Sooner or later I hope to find something which breaks the bounds of Biblical fiction and takes a clear-eyed, secular look at real Mesopotamian society, in all its mystery and unfamiliarity.
The search goes on.
Does anyone know where I can find an author portrait of De Jong?