‘Theodora. Actress. Empress. Whore.’ by Stella Duffy

For this novel set in Constantinople during the Byzantine period, Stella Duffy takes the scandalous stories written by Procopious about Theodora the wife of the Roman Emperor Justinian, throws in the spice of more contemporary historical interpretations, whisks in a novelist’s invention, and turns them into a narrative of an extraordinary woman who rose from the bottom of the heap to the highest of ranks.

From the beginning, it’s a romping good read, throwing us into the world of the circus and performance, into a city bursting with people and animals and all the aromas and sensations that those will bring in combination.  When Theodora is a small child, she witnesses her father killed by the bear he trained for the circus; his death plunges the family even deeper into poverty, and Theodora and her sisters are effectively sold to train as performers.  Their education is harsh, involving terrible physical punishment, the reading of which set me squirming in my chair.

Through force of will and a determination not to submit, our heroine survives and flourishes, becoming the main attraction.  As with many actresses, apparently, during that period, she is also expected to act as a prostitute.  So well taught has she been that Theodora acts every role that is required of her.

Her fortunes reverse when she follows her heart, and leaves the city.  We follow her through misadventure into a slow conversion to Christianity.  It was during this phase that the novel raised questions for me that were not completely answered.  A power struggle between different parts of the still young Christian church appear to have huge political importance, and Theodora becomes a tool used by the leader of one faction against another, but I’m not sure I understand what exactly was at stake.

So I think I have been perfectly set up for the sequel.  As Empress, beside the Emperor Justinian, she had been put in place to secure the interests of part of the Church, and my curiosity has been whetted as to what she would do with power and influence once she had secured it.  She’s such a complex character in Duffy’s hands that nothing is certain, and her path will certainly be a winding one.

This is a novel I came to through recommendations on Twitter.  That statement in and of itself marks how far my interaction with online social media has evolved in the last 9 months.  I’m not completely given over to the digital world though, I haven’t yet abandoned the paper book – I even attempted to buy it in a real bookshop, but failure there led me to Amazon.  The changeover is gradual but inexorable……

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2 Comments

  1. jill

     /  October 12, 2011

    Sounds amazing, I’ve added it to my list of Books To Read. Thanks.

    Reply

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