Wednesday, June 29, 2011

History and mystery: Three authors of historical crime fiction on what they do and why they do it

When talk turned to anachronism a few months back here at Detectives Beyond Borders, several authors of historical mysteries weighed in both privately and in the public discussion. I have always been in awe of the task that writers of such fiction set for themselves. In addition to writing a satisfying and entertaining crime story, they must serve the muses of history and of accuracy. They can't screw up details, and they must convey the flavor a bygone period while holding contemporary readers' attention.

As a good historian would, I went to the source and asked three authors of historical crime fiction to talk about what they do and how they do it. Let's meet our three guests and get to the questions.
Rebecca Cantrell writes the Hannah Vogel mystery series set in 1930s Berlin, including A Trace of Smoke, A Night of Long Knives, and A Game of Lies. Her short stories are included in the First Thrills anthology. She also writes the YA iMonsters series, including iDrakula, as Bekka Black. She lives in Hawaii with her husband, her son, and too many geckoes to count. She is online at www.rebeccacantrell.com and www.bekkablack.com.
***
Gary Corby has been fascinated by ancient history since he was a teenager.  "What happened for real, thousands of years ago, was as exciting and even more bizarre than any modern thriller," he writes. " I also love the puzzles of murder mysteries.  So I combined the two to create an historical mystery series set in classical Greece.  The Pericles Commission was released last year,  The Ionia Sanction is out in November. I live in Sydney, Australia, with one wife, two daughters, and four guinea pigs.  My daughters tell me I must now include the two budgies we've adopted.  You can catch me on my blog at GaryCorby.com." 
***
I. J. Parker was born in Munich, Germany, and attended German and American universities.  Her Akitada mystery series, set in eleventh-century Japan, was partially the outcome of research into Asian literature.  She writes both novels and short stories, the latter published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine In 2001, "Akitada's First Case" won the Shamus award.  Her books have been translated into ten foreign languages. She is also a contributor to the recent Shaken: Stories for Japan. 
===========================
How important is period detail to a successful historical mystery?

Rebecca Cantrell: "Crucial. The reason I read historical mysteries is to time travel within the pages of a book. If the detail isn't there, or if it's incorrect, the time machine breaks, and I'm thrown out of the story into my own time. This makes me a cranky reader. So, as a writer, I take great pains to make sure that everything is as accurate as I can make it so that the readers stay safely inside the time capsule. If I must deviate from history for plot reasons, I am always careful to note that in the Author's Notes at the end of the book. That said, don't read those notes before you read the novel, as they sometimes contain spoilers. If you do, don't say you weren't warned." 

Gary Corby: "Period detail is essential. Some people read historical mysteries because they like mysteries, and the exotic background is a bonus. There are others who read because they want to be immersed in a different time and place; those people don't really care `who done it.'  For them, the puzzle aspect of the story is merely a device to keep the plot moving so they can explore more of the world. I've been surprised and gratified by the number of people who've told me they enjoyed reading my book, and then add that they picked up more ancient Greek history from reading a light whodunit than they ever learned at school."

I.J. Parker: "Very important, provided it doesn’t interfere with the story.  The setting in a historical novel takes in much more than the background. It also involves customs and mindset of the time (and place). The author must guess at just how much and what detail the reader needs without knowing his education or experience. Putting in too much will ruin the book." 

What kinds of anachronisms can kill a historical mystery?

RC: "Modern attitudes and language." 

GC: "There's the classic wristwatch-on-the-chariot-driver type of error. Those are relatively easy to catch. There are anachronistic phrases, and they can be deadly. My characters in 460 BC should not be quoting either Shakespeare or the Bible. You would not believe how many stock modern phrases come from Shakespeare and the Bible. On the plus side, it stops me from using clichés. Finally, there are the more subtle historical errors which only an expert is likely to catch. To prevent those you have to become a pseudo-expert yourself."

IJP: "Factual ones.  Here again, the problem of the unknown reader.  How much does the reader know?  Best not to take any chances and do the research. Historical novel web sites are full of readers mocking authors for making silly mistakes (like having thirteenth century Venetian cooks prepare potato dishes)." 

How do you juggle the tasks of portraying a historical period faithfully and making a story inviting and accessible to contemporary readers?

RC: "I research and research until I know the era fairly well and have far more details in my head than I could cram into a novel. Once I know enough to do so, I put myself in Hannah's shoes and see only what she sees and know only what she knows. This means that I cannot have her make comments about events that haven't happened, guess about future events without evidence, or go into long soliloquies about how the Olympic Stadium was constructed (even if the details of the construction are fascinating to me personally)." 

GC: "Any detail you mention has to be directly to do with the problems your characters face in the story. Never explain anything, unless it genuinely needs to be explained to a character. Any dialogue that begins, `As you know...' is a red alert.

"For example, I know in classical Athens sewerage pooled in gutters running down the middle of the street. I could write a couple of pages on the drainage system of Athens in 460 BC, but somehow I have a feeling you're not going to read it. Instead, when my hero Nicolaos is dragged off down the street by a couple of thugs, something squishy that doesn't bear thinking about gets caught between his sandal and his foot, and he has to hop on the other foot while shaking the first to get it clear. A whole day's research on drainage has devolved into two lines of book text about a messy foot. That's good, because a foot with poo on it is story and character, a treatise on drainage is not."

IJP: "There’s the trick.  The story becomes accessible through the characters, not the other way around.  Make your characters fully developed human beings that readers can relate to, and the rest follows.  However, modern readers do not relate well to certain historical customs. Those must be handled carefully." 

Which authors of historical mysteries do you admire? Why?

RC: "I love Kelli Stanley's Miranda Corbie series. (A City of Dragons is the first; start there.) She has a wonderful voice and a strong sense of the place and time. I also think Laurie King, Anne Perry, and Charles Todd write evocatively of the era between the wars. For a lighter touch, I like Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness books." 

GC: "I'm going to cheat by starting with three historical authors who did not write mysteries: The Flashman stories of George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser is the gold standard for accuracy in historical novels. Also, his Flashman is hilarious. The Greek novels of Mary Renault, because they're the best novels of ancient Greece ever written. Patrick O'Brian wrote the best sea adventure stories ever, set during the Napoleonic Wars. They're generally known as the Aubrey-Maturin novels, after the two heroes.

"There are so many excellent historical mysteries these days, it's hard to know who to include without doing injustice to many others. Ruth Downie writes a series set in Roman Britain, starring a doctor named Ruso. The books are very funny, Ruso is a wonderful character, plus we get to see a Roman doctor at work. Rebecca Cantrell's mysteries are set in Germany at the height of the Nazi party, starring a reporter named Hannah Vogel. A tough subject, and she carries it off brilliantly. The mysteries of John Maddox Roberts, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis were the first to be set in the ancient world. C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake is an investigator in the time of Henry VIII, working for a chap named Cromwell. Very high-quality writing."

IJP: "Robert Van Gulik, of course.  To a lesser degree, Lindsey Davis.  Both have the trick of drawing the reader into the book.  Van Gulik relies more on the exotic setting.  Davis portrays her protagonist much like the modern hard-boiled detective."

Why did you choose to write about the period you did? If you were to write historical fiction about a period other than the one you do, which period would you choose? Why?

RC: "I've been toying with the idea of writing something set in Berlin during the Cold War, maybe even the 1980s. I lived there then, so I could remember details about popular songs and political events. But the thought of writing about an era of my own life as historical document makes me feel so old that it gives me pause."

GC: "Nicolaos begins his adventures in 460 BC, right at the start of the Golden Age of Athens. Democracy was invented about five days before his first murder investigation begins! It was a period packed with tales of adventure, war, conspiracy, lust, love, corruption, power politics, assassination. . . . you name it, and it happened, all at one of the most critical periods in human history. If he can survive his highly hazardous missions, Nico will live to see the founding of western civilization.

"I can tell you three I definitely would not write: ancient Rome (and Roman Britain), mediaeval England, and Victorian London. All three have been done extensively by many fine writers, and fun as they are, there's no need for me to add to the existing corpus. There are so many fascinating periods. I might be tempted to go further back in history, for example, to somewhere like Mesopotamia. Renaissance Italy would be fun too."

IJP: "I loved Van Gulik’s books and the literature of eleventh-century Japan.  As for other periods, I have written a book set in eighteenth-century Bavaria.  I like the eighteenth century and will probably do more of this.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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48 Comments:

Blogger C.B. James said...

While I am not a fan of historical fictions, I prefer straight history, I enjoyed this post. Fascinating to read what these different authors thing about their work.

June 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B., I'm pleased that you enjoyed the post. When not reading crime fiction, I most often read history. I sometimes have trouble reconciling two, which is why I was eager to hear from authors who do so in their fiction.

June 29, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, naturally the past is also a foreign country -- which is why historical novels belong here. :)

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have used precisely that rationale in my occasional discussion of historical crime fiction here.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

I totally love historical crime fiction, but I've been worried about reading those that seem inauthentic, or uninformed. Mostly I like those taking place in early modern Europe. Although Eco's book is one of my favorites. Thanks for these interviews. Now I have some leads on some books to check out.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lisa Em, you have lots of leads to check out. I think you'll also see that these three authors think seriously about what they do and take into account the things that concern you as a reader.

My favorite historical mysteries are Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy: Carte Blanche, The Damned Season, and Via delle Oche, set in late- and post-Fascist Italy. I also liked David Liss’ The Coffee Trader for its rich picture of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, though I think I.J. Parker disagrees with me about Liss.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I spent a long childhood and adolescence reading many historical mysteries.

The past is mysterious, in any case.

A favourite was "The Cretan Counterfeit" by Katherine Farrer and the following review mentions how dons enjoy a good thriller.

".ruemorguepress.com/authors/farrer.html"

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Quite a few dons have written thrillers, too, haven't they?

June 30, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, my only problem with Liss is that I can't get into his books. I strangle on the "authentic" language. I have the same problems with a lot of other authors who try to reproduce the language if that time.
In that context, let me recommend Patrick O'Brian, whose Aubrey-Maturin series of 18/19th century naval novels handles that problem superbly with just a few characteristic phrases. I also like Bernard Cornwell who covers the same period for the military and dispenses with 18th c. English altogether. For me, a little goes a long way.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., your comment about Patrick O'Brian reminds me of what has always struck me as the best way for an author to convey the flavor of dialect.

I should flip through The Coffee Trader again to look for examples of gratingly "authentic" language.

I want to read the Aubrey/Maturin novel in which Maturin confuses hurling and cricket with hilarious results.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

Peter- I will checkout those books, or at least look into them. Yes, the interviews were educating, they made me aware of how much more attentive of a reader I should become. The idea that one would know so much about something only to use that info for one or two lines- I have never considered how details are distilled that way.

I like hcf (historical crime fiction) because it allows you to be immersed in a time period without getting too boggy with factual details. Although I have found that reading a "factual" book while also reading a fictional work came be doubly informative.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The more attentive we become, the harder those poor authors will have to work to get the smallest details right. You're referring to Gary's comment, I presume. I bet you had never learned so much from a comment about sewers.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

No, I will never look at a soggy foot the same way.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That was disgusting, wasn't it?

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Hi Lisa,

Going back to your first comment, long before we three were historical mystery authors, we were historical mystery readers. So when you worry about reading something that's inauthentic, you can be sure that as readers we feel the same as you.

When I write, to whatever degree my talent permits, I try to keep the strengths of books I've loved, and cover what I felt were the weaknesses. Which means, among other things, getting the details right.

Condensing a day of research into two lines of text is par for the course, I'm afraid. I recently spent more than a day proving "Ophelia" was a name in use in classical Greece, so I could use it for a character. That required working through inscription lists from Oxford. I once idly mentioned a meal had garlic, then had to spend a couple of hours making sure ancient Greeks had garlic (they did). Nicolaos once ate an apple. It was easy to demonstrate they had apples, but what colour was it? Guess what...red apples hadn't evolved yet.

It might sound like a massive time sink, and it is, but it's also lots of fun. Sometimes I'll read things in passing that I just have to include, because they're so bizarre, yet true.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, I just learned that garlic and onions are related. I never would have known this had I not looked up the history of garlic after reading your comment. I owe you a debt of gratitude.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sometimes I'll read things in passing that I just have to include, because they're so bizarre, yet true.

Gary, what are some of those bizarre details?

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

It's hard to answer that without giving away spoilers! I tend to be most excited about my most recent discoveries, which of course are in books that are still in the pipeline.

Okay, here are some examples:

It was illegal for one citizen to lay hands on another. No exceptions. This made arresting criminals something of a challenge. They solved the problem with typical Athenian logic: they bought 300 slaves and passed a law giving these slaves power of arrest. Thus the only people permitted to beat up citizens in the street were slaves, which is somewhat the wrong way round for most civilizations. (These slaves were called the Scythian Guard, and their chief is one of my main characters.)

Under Athenian law a man was legally a child until his father died. Let me put this in perspective: if you're reading this and your father is alive, then you would have been considered a child with no power to open a bank account or buy a car, no matter how old you are, even if you're married with your own kids. The playwright Sophocles lived past the age of 90, thus annoying his 60 year old son, who had no more legal rights than a 12 year old. Sick of this, the son took daddy to court to have him declared mentally incompetent. Sophocles defended himself by reciting from memory his latest blockbuster, which today we know as Oedipus Rex, the first public recital of which was in court to prove the author didn't have dementia.

The Gettysburg Address is almost identical to Pericles' Oration For the Fallen, so much so that many people believe Lincoln modeled his famous speech on Pericles'. Except Pericles didn't write it. Plato tells us point blank, via Socrates, that The Oration for the Fallen was written by Pericles' wife, Aspasia, who before she married Pericles was (probably) a high class call girl. Thus two of the most famous speeches in history were designed by a hooker who happened to be a genius of rhetoric. (Aspasia was also one of the teachers of Socrates.)

Western civilization was founded in a period of only 50 years, by a small group of geniuses all of whom either knew each other personally, or were friends of friends. (I use this fact relentlessly.) For example Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine and the Hippocratic Oath, was born on the island of Kos the same year my series opens. Despite his enormous fame, there is one and only one contemporary reference to Hippocrates, and that person is...Socrates! Pericles once invited Hippocrates to visit Athens. It's certain therefore that at some point, Pericles, Socrates and Hippocrates were in the same room together.

My heroine Diotima was a real person and is known for sure to have been one of the teachers of Socrates, thus making her part of the most powerful student-teacher chain in history: Diotima taught Socrates. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great conquered the world. Aristotle also taught Ptolemy, who became Pharoah of Egypt and founded the Library of Alexandria.

The world's oldest surviving play is The Persians, by Aeschylus. That play is normally considered the beginning of modern drama. What is less well known is that it was commissioned by an up and coming young politician named Pericles, who probably also chose the subject matter (the superiority of the Greeks) to score a political point. There was also about this time a philosopher named Anaxagoras, who was the first person to work out that all matter is made up of tiny particles. Anaxagoras was the world's first professional philosopher/scientist, and his employer was none other than...Pericles! Pericles thus funded the invention of both modern drama and atomic physics, which probably makes him the most successful patron in human history. Clearly he was a man who knew talent when he saw it, which makes me wonder why he also commissioned Nicolaos to be the world's first professional investigator. I guess two out of three isn't bad.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It was illegal for one citizen to lay hands on another. No exceptions. This made arresting criminals something of a challenge. They solved the problem with typical Athenian logic: they bought 300 slaves and passed a law giving these slaves power of arrest. Thus the only people permitted to beat up citizens in the street were slaves, which is somewhat the wrong way round for most civilizations.

Gary, I actually knew this thank to Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. If you or anyone else reading this don't know those books, I recommend them highly.

Under Athenian law a man was legally a child until his father died.

By Zeus, your books must write themelves.

It's certain therefore that at some point, Pericles, Socrates and Hippocrates were in the same room together.

Who picked up the tab? And let me conclude by suggesting that you could increase enrollment in classics departments worldwide. Many thanks!

July 01, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Great stuff, everyone. Lots of leads on books I haven't read. Having just finished Eric Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, which is a nonfiction account of the American ambassador in Berlin in the early 1930s, Rebecca Cantrell's books seem an obvious place to go next.

Although my teacher Mary Holmes said many times that the great world movements start with four or five people somewhere, Gary's linking of a bunch of ancient Greeks is still surprising--especially the feminine aspect. Which, let's admit it, we rarely hear of when it comes to the Greeks.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Gary has narrowed it down to the four or five, an even more impressive grouping than Einstein and Marilyn Monroe.

In re women and ancient Greece, I expect that fiction gives Gary license to extrapolate (plausibly, of ocurse!) from information that may not be all that plentiful in the ancient sources.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

"I just learned that garlic and onions are related."

None of the allium family is poisonous, BTW. (A moment of hesitation there, as I pondered whether to put "is" or "are" with none. Some help needed.)

Also, universities seem to attract dodgy characters.

"www.classiccrimefiction.com/university-mysteries.htm"

A visitor to our house once explained this:

"People in universities are intelligent. This makes them cruel."

Much to think about...

July 01, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Of course, garlic and onion are related. I cook and I garden. :)

What may seem bizarre to us was not bizarre then. In eleventh century Japan, women of the upper classes blackened their teeth. (My protagonist is not altogether enchanted by the custom.) I suppose I could integrate that tidbit by introducing poison into some lady's tooth-blackening (a paste made of vinegar and metal filings).
Another custom that is hard to sell to modern readers (especially women) is polygamy. (My protagonist is frequently tempted but has remained monogamous so far).
And then there are the innumerable superstitions and the belief in miracles that can really become a problem for crime detection. For example, there were directional taboos that forced people to take round-about journeys to visit a neighbor. (My protagonist tends to doubt and ignore such beliefs -- however, he wasn't the only one in his time to do so).

The point, I suppose, is that you should know all that stuff, but only use what is appropriate and doesn't take you away from the scene or the story. I've found that Americans, in particular, have learned to hate history, and they will not tolerate long infodumps. I had a history minor in college because I loved it in school.

July 01, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Plato tells us point blank, via Socrates, that The Oration for the Fallen was written by Pericles' wife, Aspasia

Nice story, but I'm not sure it would stand up in court. Plato, that arch anti-democrat, was opposed to what he considerd the 'veneration' of Pericles. It would be more reasonable to assume that Plato's attribution of The Oration of the Fallen to Aspasia was not to credit Aspasia, but to discredit Pericles.

It is a commonplace of history that any female who achieves power or influence is automatically accused of sexual immorality, whether guilty or not. Plato is no different, in this regard.

Anachronisms in historical fiction wouldn't bother me; such books live or die according to the quality of their fiction, not their history. And history? I'd put all history books in the fiction section.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

Wow, what a great conversation that happened while I was away. Thanks Gary for the additional insight. I will have to look into apple’s history, but my first suspicion is the apple’s color would be a tawny gold-blush. I agree that the little details, which makes history interesting, also help make the character feel real and the story more compelling.

I think writing hcf would be fun yet very time consuming, but I really do like reading it. I think the combination of feeling, or being immersed in the history plus the puzzle aspect of the mystery makes for an absorbing read. The facts also tend to stick in the head longer.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Photographe à Dublin, it does not shock me that no members of the family are poisonous. I like the omes I've tried.

None is singular, but its use with plural verb forms is raging out of control like-- well, like some wild plant. Many people regard plural use as acceptable.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course, garlic and onion are related. I cook and I garden. :)

I.J., my only notable piece of knowledge about garlic is that many people refer to a clove of garlic when they mean the entire head. This could have practical consequences when one cooks from a recipe.

How would you introduce the blackened teeth if you thought it worth presenting to readers but did not want to make it a vehicle of poisoning? You could not have a character regard it as extraodinary or even worth explaining in detail unless that character was an outsider.

I like your allowance for a bit of irreverence toward taboos and social standards. I suspect writers of historical fiction can be lured too easily into having everyone adhere rigidly to the codes of the day. Another challenge, to my way of thinking, to authors of historical mysteries: creating characters who can stray entertainingly from the codes without seeming anachronistrically modern.

July 01, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I control description quite a bit, but the teeth may, of course, be mentioned among other striking aspects of a lady's appearance. Normally, it's a turn-off but recently in a racy section, I have my protagonist find it a turn-on instead. The mystery beyond the red lips.
The big danger in historical novels is to do superficial research and dump all of it into the novel.
I think cooks know what a clove of garlic is. :) Actually, I tend to use the powdered kind (for shame). But I have ornamental garlic in my garden, as well as ornamental onion.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nice story, but I'm not sure it would stand up in court.

Solo, I would like to see that courtroom drama.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lisa, popular literature is probably a great way to learn history, whether that literature is crime fiction or The Cartoon History of the Universe. Not only will the facts stick in your head longer, but you may be inspired to go back and read the sources.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am glad cooks know the difference between a clove of garlic and a head. I love the stuff, so a little extra probably would not bother me, but some people--

The mystery beyond the red lips.

Very nice!

July 01, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

The cook's real mystery: what's the difference between "minced" and "chopped" when confronted with that clove of garlic.

I'm about to start Lindsey Davis's "Silver Pigs," the first in her Falco novels.

Happy Canada Day, Peter.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks!

Another cook's mystery: the difference between a pinch and a dash?

One of Lindsey Davis' novels concerns the building of what is now called Fishbourne Roman villa in England. I asked staff when I visited what they thought of her and the book. They thought highly of both and of Davis' work as a scholar, and they said she had done a book launch there.

July 01, 2011  
Blogger Janet Reid said...

I think this is the third or fourth time I've seen the George McDonald Fraser FLASHMAN series mentioned, so I've surrendered and bought the lot.

It gets very expensive to read these great interviews! Please don't stop!

July 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words. I've also heard and read a number of Flashman recommendations. Gary's may push over the edge into trying the series.

Gary, should I start from the beginning with Flashman?

July 02, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

I just saw that you've started Flashman on the March. It doesn't really matter what order you read them in. Fraser wrote them out of chronological order, the conceit being that packets of Flashman's diary pages come to light in a random order. I'd suggest though reading the first Flashman book early, since that explains his origins, and reading the Indian Flashman books before the American, since otherwise it might seem a little out of kilter. But really, almost any order will work.

July 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, Everyman Library publishes an omnibus edition of the first three books. I think I'll look for that nest.

I was tempted to say I'd be curious to see how Flashman winds up in America, but after reading how he wound up in Abyssinia, I'm prepared to believe he could wind up anywhere.

July 04, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The film, Pericles and Aspasia, is currently in production, scheduled for release in 2012. And I loved Taylor Caldwell's 1974 historical novel of the famous couple, The Glory and the Lightning. I'd probably not care much for it now, based on remembrances of much of the historical fiction I ran through at the time.

Isn't it interesting how many famous women of Antiquity, about whom little is known, and who may have been either the power behind the throne, or even on the throne, were said to be prostitutes, courtesans? Hmm, wonder if male prejudices, jealousies, fears, etc. are at work here.

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I hope Gary is still following this thread because I would be eager to hear what he has to say about the film and about the larger question of women in antiquity.

I should go back to the sources (in translation, of course) to see what they had to say about women in antiquity.

In the ancient near east, Ishtar, for instance, was more a femme fatale than a prostitute.

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Gary's still following! Albeit slowly.

I had no idea there's a film of Pericles and Aspasia in production. I'll be intrigued to learn what's in the plot.

Women in antiquity is a huge and complex subject, unsurprisingly. Imagine if you had to write about women in the modern world...how would you build a single, coherent story out of the situations in say, Iran, Japan and Iceland? The diversity is simply enormous. I do have a future post scheduled for my blog on women in ancient Greece. I'll move it up the queue.

The summary of my view is, women were much better off than most people think; they certainly had better legal support than you find in some modern cultures. A few women had enormous position and wealth. Phryne in the time of Alexander the Great, for example, offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes out of her own pocket. Queen Artemisia was the best front line commander on the Persian side at the Battle of Salamis. But it obviously wasn't like a 21st century nation either. If you cherry pick a set of Mediaeval, Victorian, and modern Indian social customs you could get something I imagine is close to the ancient Greek position. I have no trouble creating female characters that modern women can relate to, simply by following the rule of demanding a precedent for anything my characters do. (And Aspasia supplies some of those precedents.)

July 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Gary,
re "The summary of my view is, women were much better off than most people think." I think you're absolutely right. It's suited any number of ax-grinding feminists (who are not historians) to present the history of women as one long, bitter, demeaning, and crushing subjugation under man.

When I think of the historical periods I know something about (Byzantine, Viking, Norman, Renaissance, 17th c.) a number of powerful, influential, and intelligent women come to mind. Was it (is it still) a man's world? Of course. But women throughout history have been able to adapt to that truism, make it work for them, and succeed within the constraints placed upon them. This can make for some pretty compelling historical fiction.

I did not mean to convey the idea that I object to "female characters that modern women can relate to" but rather that sometimes the fretting over whether a contemporary woman will relate to a historical female figure trumps the historical precedents, historical accuracy (so far as they can be known).

Creating fictional women characters whose role is more to make modern girls /women feel good about themselves (this practice is widespread in preteen/teen lit) does a disservice to both the reader and to the historical record.

July 06, 2011  
Anonymous May said...

What an interesting post and what fascinating comments!

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, here's Alexander Hamilton from Federalist Paper #6, "Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States":

"The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the SAMNIANS. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the MEGARENSIANS another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the PELOPONNESIAN war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth. "

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, this discussion has gone beyond what I expected, and I hope it keeps going!

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

I wasn't aware of that piece by Hamilton; thanks for that Peter. That's really rather funny.

Pericles wasn't above the occasional mass execution when it suited his purposes; I paint him as a somewhat hard-nosed boss for poor Nico. The view of Aspasia as an evil hooker was common for centuries and is certainly wrong, tainted by subsequent morals. Hetaerae (professional courtesans) were high status celebrities; the modern equivalent, to be honest, without wishing to cast any comment on their moral values, is the female Hollywood star and rock stars.

I think it's pretty well known that the Founding Fathers had very strong classical educations and Jefferson in particular was highly proficient in ancient Greek. It seems an odd fact of life that even to this day, historians are still fighting the Peloponnesian War between themselves, arguing about whose fault it was, and generally taking sides.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm steeping myself in the American Founding Fathers these days and finding any number of classical allusions. I wonder if the Greek orators influenced their rhetorical style. I don't see much biblical influence, for instance.

But yes, the classical world was alive to those men in that wonderful eighteenth century. Jefferson talks about the substitution of, I think, Doric columns for Corinthian in one of his projects because the Corinthian were too hard to make, if I recall correctly.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Many writers of historical fiction seem to become experts in botany and herbalism, which pleases me a lot.

Medieval life was so full of strange ideas and superstitions and I've been thinking about how writers so often choose names for heroines from flowers and nature.

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3100

There's a photo of a macro lily on moderntwist2, for your pleasure...

March 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, it seems to me that the further back one goes in time, the more plant nomenclature figures. That and gun nomenclature, too, though that impression may be due to my recent reading of some of Elmore Leonard's Westerns.

March 26, 2012  

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