“She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she – all the Trojan women – should be memorialised as much as any other person.”
– A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayne
I have a love for irreverence in all its mischievous forms. In the world of the bookish, my attraction to the flames of insubordination is stoked by so-called alternate histories. Throughout history, women have been condemned to the margins; they are nameless and silent, prizes and plunder, never partners. In recent years there is evidence that we are in a moment, perhaps, of brilliant female writers turning that narrative on its head, and I am HERE. FOR. IT. Several extraordinary examples of this subversion include Madeline Miller’s “Circe”, Pat Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls”, “A Thousand Ships” by Natalie Haynes, and Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Book of Longings.” These four books present profound retellings of stories as old as history itself, retellings that take the stories we “know” at our very core and recenter them around women.
Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships casts an impossibly wide net, weaving together the deeper stories of countless women who received only a line in the epics of old such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. It is a feminist retelling of history and love, centering women and goddesses in the story of the Trojan War.
“But this is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.”
Haynes deftly interweaves numerous lives – the vanquished, the warriors, the enslaved, the feuding goddesses, and the women left behind
“A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches, so why do we?”
Above all, Haynes demands that women get their due, that their roles in war are recast and reconsidered.
“He loses his wife so he stirs up an army to bring her back to him, costing countless lives and creating countless widows, orphans, and slaves. [She] loses her husband and she raises her son. Which of these is the heroic act?”
In Circe, Madeline Miller explores a similar era, a similar cast of characters. Miller expounds upon the story of Circe, daughter of Helios, born with the power of witchcraft, banished by Zeus to an isolated island.
“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
The deep meaning and irony of this particular passage in a book written to ‘remember’ the women of history is delicious.
“Would I be skimmed milk or a harpy? A foolish gull or a villainous monster? These could not still be the only choices.” And truly, Circe is none of these things. Though Circe receives only a few lines in the classical tomes, here, she is fully formed and in every way immortal.
In the much lauded novel The Silence of the Girls, we have a third treatment of the Trojan War and classical Greek mythology. Pat Barker explores the story of Briseis, queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms who is captured and made Achilles’s concubine. Briseis is a brilliant foil to the male heroes, one of thousands of women whose stories we ought to know just as well.
“As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: ‘I do what no man has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.’ Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: ‘And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.'”
Weary not only of the rampant misogyny which rules her world, Briseis also sees with crystal clarity illogic and injustice of narratives which leave out the women.
“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy – I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”
Finally, in The Book of Longings Sue Monk Kidd explores a different but even more ubiquitous world – that of Jesus of Nazareth. Kidd tells us the beautiful story of Ana, daughter of a wealthy family, a woman who longs to learn and to write and who is the unknown wife of Jesus himself.
“All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night.”
Ana’s journey – from secret scribe to helpmeet to learned leader – is exquisitely painful. Kidd’s story reads more like apocrypha than apostasy.
As Ana herself says, “I think every pain in this world wants to be witnessed.” In The Book of Longings, we bear witness to what might have been and are forced to remember those whose stories were never told.
If bold historical novels that turn staid history on its head are at all your bailiwick, any of these four would be a magnificent addition to your reading list.