Recently I have read a number of books where women’s voices, both making them heard and questioning their silence, has been a predominant topic. This is particularly the case for two books which bring life, flesh and voice to silenced women of two of the world’s best-known stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epics, soaked in the blood and sweat (no tears) of bellicose patriarchy, feature women only as pawns in deadly war-games, and I remember reading them both for my A-levels and thinking I’d probably like them more if the women ever got to say anything. (I preferred the Aeneid, and Dido, because though tragic at least she had some power somewhere along the way).
Pat Barker’s novels are always perfectly formed, in my view; she never strikes a wrong note, and this is no exception, though very different from her other novels. The effects of war are explored as poignantly here as in Regeneration, say, but with a very different focus and feel to it. Briseis is a princess, beautiful and well-behaved, according to Homer. After her city is destroyed and Achilles has killed her family, she is awarded to him as a prize, and becomes a silent pawn in the power-struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon. She does, briefly, speak in the Iliad, but is presented as dutiful and submissive. Barker’s novel, however, gives a voice to Briseis and other women who become spoils of war, their lives, homes and families destroyed, given to powerful and brutal men as slaves. The horror that this entails, and the trauma that arises and the way in which the women cope – forming alliances, protecting themselves, but remaining inwardly individual and resistant – is beautifully explored by Barker. ‘Silence becomes a woman’, the enslaved women are told repeatedly, but even before, as the wife of a king, Briseis was prized for her beauty and silence. The women’s side of war – the lack of glory, the mind-numbing dullness of it, as well as the concomitant horror, asks us to rethink the way we read history and consider the effects on those who have no choice and no voice. The Silence of the Girls moves past the ending of the Iliad, though, and offers a possible sense of hope as Briseis moves into a new future, saying, ‘Now, my own story can begin.’ That story is lost to history, but Barker’s novel gives us the tools to imagine it.
Madeleine Miller’s Circe takes the mythical witch of Homer’s Odyssey and considers what her past and future might have been, giving her a life beyond her bit-part in Odysseus’s life. Circe, in the Odyssey and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, has been a part of men’s stories, and she has been further transformed, from goddess into femme fatale witch, by artist’s representations of her, especially Pre-Raphaelite ones (see more on this here).
In Miller’s retelling, we see Circe’s life as a nymph in the court of her father Helios, the sun-god, and her development into a woman who has powers she can use to transform those around her. Exiled for her witchcraft to an island, the novel outlines her inner life as well as the events – the visitors, the shipwrecked sailors who would attack her, the fear she lives with, until eventually she comes into her own, able to use her magic to protect herself. Odysseus is a visitor, of course, but here his story of her, immortalised in The Odyssey, is not quite true. This Odysseus is not quite the hero he seems, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ulysses of Tennyson’s poem, who ‘cannot rest from travel’, ‘always roaming with a hungry heart’ and unable to settle with his wife even when his travels are over. Evenutally, both Miller’s and Tennyson’s Odysseus deny age and infirmity, ever seeking more in a bid for the immortality which Circe has:
We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
It is, in many ways, a very twenty-first century novel of a woman overcoming adversity to become her own woman – and being publicly reviled for it. But it is an appealing and convincing representation, going far beyond the mythical bounds of the character but relying on research on the myths of gods and goddesses, warriors and travellers. The pettiness of the divinities, their squabbling and jostling for position, is framed like those of modern celebrities, famous for being famous. In the midst of this world, Circe holds her centre, describing the world and the events she experiences, from love and death to motherhood as well as witchcraft, in a compelling narrative which explores what women are supposed to be like (beautiful, not too powerful or clever) and what happens to those who break the rules.