Sex and the Polis
Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers marked something of a departure for the hugely successful American novelist, better known for magical realist holiday fodder like Practical Magic or The Story Sisters. Her latest novel plunges us into 70AD, into the midst of Jewish resistance to the Roman siege of Masala, and into the lives of four women who meet in the dovecot used for processing the manure needed for ye-olde fertiliser.
When the Romans finally manage to prise the fort open, they find 2,000 defiants dead; the only survivor, from whose account this whole story stems, is Josephus – once a Jewish freedom fighter, now a Roman emissary – and he’s hardly a reliable witness.
All material for a hugely entertaining, absorbing, magisterial, gripping page-turner, n’est-ce pas?
Quite the contrary.
Reviewers had great fun tearing the book apart, flying in the face of the adoring publicity blurb adorning its cover. Ron Charles of the Washington Post, demonstrated exactly what this po-faced novel was missing with his insightful, good natured wit:
‘Despite the distance of 2,000 years, these poor Jewish women are all surprisingly well-educated liberals with little interest in religion, unless it’s appropriately hip and pagan. One might expect in a community willing to die for its beliefs that we’d see more religious fervency, but these narrators possess a friendly sense of agnosticism and tolerance. In fact, for all Hoffman’s commendable attention to physical details, her heroines’ values seem closer to modern-day New Yorkers’ than ancient Jews’: sexual freedom, gender equality, emancipation. I am yenta, hear me roar!’
The Washington Post’s literary editor’s discovery of his inner Jewish babe highlights the double bind in which authors basing novels on ancient history, or set texts, often find themselves. How do you make the distant past and familiar stories not seem, well, ‘ancient’? How do you weave in themes that will resonate with modern day readers yet still portray the alien quality of that past long ago whose thoughts, feelings and morals we will never be able to grasp fully? Gosh. It all seems rather complicated.
One thing is sure; Hoffman’s clothing of what essentially are Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda in hemp skirts, girdles and tunics doth not an authentic reconstruction of the past make. Nor does uttering mystical maxims like Confucius with a bit of Betty Friedman thrown in make you clever.
When writing a historical novel, women authors, in particular, are faced with this difficulty: they must resist the temptation to indulge in a type of feminism that can be excruciatingly anachronistic yet still give a voice to those overlooked in history (usually girls or gays). Two authors have recently managed to do this rather well. Professor Madeleine Miller’s take on the Trojan War, The Song of Achilles, is told through the eyes of Patroclus, a relatively shadowy figure in Homer despite his importance. The poet Alice Oswald, who studied Classics at Oxford, was recently shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. Memorial, a beautiful distillation of Homer, bypasses Helen in favour of a roll call of the victims. Miller and Oswald demonstrate a profound knowledge of their subject and genre; these are startling additions to the collection of myths and stories into which The Iliad is woven. Both authors show how one should approach the literary and historical past. They accept the challenge issued by the gaps and ellipses in the master narrative to create an exciting work that makes one want to race back to the original. Historical accuracy, new insight, imagination: I am a female historical writer, hear me roar!
This article first appeared on The Spectator Book Blog