I never intended for this to be part of my holiday reading, but I happened to be in town during my week off and found this in the library, and having been recommended it so highly by @sianushka, I thought, why not, I’ll give it a go.
The story of the rise of Theodora from dancing girl to Empress of the Byzantium Roman Empire, this novel could be one of those ridiculous wish-fulfilment blockbusters where Our Heroine goes through seventeen different reincarnations reflecting ever aspect of a time and culture, resulting in a rather unlikely ascent to a position of power which the reader is never quite sure they deserve (*coughs* Forever Amber *coughs*). However, this book wins, because it’s real, it’s based on a real person who is now worshipped as a saint in the Orthodox Church, who really did start out a dancing girl, go through a religious conversion and become one of the most powerful women in the world.
Stella Duffy’s Constantinople is epic. Theodora is introduced to us as a clever, but cheeky, child, intent on fame when not being hideously abused in the name of love by her dancing master. She becomes a prostitute at 12, gives birth at 14, and at 18 leaves the city the most famous actress the Hippodrome has ever seen with her much much older lover, all of which makes for fairly squeamish reading and made me question when we consider people adult and our reasons for doing so.
Theodora herself is a marvel, mostly because she is so real. Although the modern language used in the dialogue was strange to me, as most historical fiction tends to shy away from modernising, it fitted well with the fast paced nature of the book and made Theodora a much more accessible character-a ‘modern’ woman working her way up the chain, being used variously by the men and institutions she encounters along the way.
Knowing nothing about Byzantium Rome (we only ever went up to the end of Roman Britain with Mrs Oldfield’s class), Theodora or Justinian I have no idea if this is accurate or a true reflection of how people thought and lived. The explanations of the schism in the Church over the Divinity of Christ I found particularly baffling-being a massive heathen I have but a little knowledge of such things, and reading around the subject this is something I really should have paid closer attention to as the next book in the series The Purple Shroud published later this year (ARC would be LOVELY, thank you) deals more heavily with Theodora as a symbol of faith against religious persecution.
However, this book was fun, and made me think, and if you are looking for some medium-weight holiday reading and are a fan of feisty women from history a bit further back than the current Plantagenet Explosion, then this would be perfect for you.