Book Review: Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood

Daughters of Sparta, which I received from NetGalley for review, purports to tell the stories of Helen and Klytemnestra, daughters of king Tyndareos and queen Leda of Sparta. Dual alternating third person narrators follow the sisters chronologically from childhood through the end of the Trojan war, including their marriages, experiences with childbirth and motherhood, and war years.

Heywood leaves the gods out of the story, other than as vague powers to whom characters refer, in this sense taking a quasi-historical/materialist/psychoanalytic rather than fantasy approach to the Trojan war myth. The choices she makes to achieve this approach toward the characters and their experiences are interesting to think about, and her prose is engaging. I believe this novel will find an enthusiastic audience among readers who enjoy modern women’s narratives dressed in ancient Greek costumes.

The book focuses exclusively on Helen and Klytemnestra’s points of view. Because this focus meant the majority of the story was internal monologue of the women’s thoughts and feelings about their experiences, the third person narrative felt jarring, as compared to the intimacy of first person. I wondered if the intention was to bestow a sense of universality on these two women’s experiences. If so, it didn’t quite work. Heywood’s tendency to project modern worldviews and resentments into the past amplified the disconnect between narrative style and characters. It also felt reductive, as it stripped the myths and the various ways they were told across antiquity of their complexities, paradoxes, and ambivalent meanings.

This novel and I got off on the wrong foot with the epigraph, before the story even had a chance to properly begin. Heywood includes a quote from the Odyssey: “For there is nothing in this world so cruel and so shameless as a woman when she has fallen into such guilt as hers was […]/[…] her abominable crime has brought disgrace on herself and all women who shall come after—even on the good ones.”

As it is the presented, the quote seems to express the view of “Homer” in “the Odyssey.” But the quote is so decontextualized and chopped up as to be denuded of its meaning. If you’ve read the Odyssey, you might recall that the above words appear in book eleven as part of a speech by Agamemnon delivered post-mortem, from Hades, as he explains to Odysseus how he died.

Here is Agamemnon’s full reply (Richmond Lattimore’s translation, underlines are mine to correspond with what Heywood extracts from, if I’m not mistaken, Emily Wilson’s translation):

“Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus,/not in the ships, nor did Poseidon, rousing a storm blast/of battering winds that none would wish for, prove my destruction,/nor on dry land did enemy men destroy me in battle;/Aigisthos, working out my death and destruction, invited me to his house, and feasted me, and killed me there,/with the help of my sluttish wife, as one cuts down an ox at his manger./So I died a most pitiful death, and my other companions/were killed around me without mercy, like pigs with shining/tusks, in the house of a man rich and very powerful,/for a wedding, or a festival, or a communal dinner./You have been present in your time at the slaughter of many men, killed singly, or in the strong encounters of battle;/but beyond all others you would have been sorry at heart/for this scene, how we lay sprawled by the mixing bowl and the loaded/tables, all over the palace, and the whole floor was steaming/with blood; and most pitiful was the voice I heard of Priam’s/daughter Kassandra, killed by treacherous Klytaimestra/over me; but I lifted my hands and with them beat on the ground as I died upon the sword, but the sluttish woman/turned away from me and was so hard that her hands would not/press shut my eyes and mouth though I was going to Hades’./So there is nothing more deadly or vile than a woman/who stores her mind with acts that are of such sort, as this this one/did when she thought of this act of dishonor, and plotted/the murder of her lawful husband. See, I had been thinking/that I would be welcome to my children and the thrills of my household/when I came home, but she with thoughts surpassingly grisly/splashed the shame on herself and the rest of her sex, on women/still to come, even on the one whose acts are virtuous.” Book 11.405-434

Odysseus replies, “Shame it is, how most terrible Zeus of the wide brows/from the beginning has been hateful to the seed of Atreus/through the schemes of women. Many of us died for the sake of Helen,/and when you were far, Klyaimestra plotted treason against you.” Lines 436-439

There is more going on in this (comparatively) brief quote than I can account for here, but a few noteworthy points as they relate to Daughters of Sparta are as follows. First, obviously, the translations themselves are quite different: Through both the translation and Heywood’s extraction of it from its context, much of the nuance has been stripped out of the source text that has come down to us from antiquity, as evident in “good ones” (meaning women) vs. women “whose acts are virtuous.” It may not seem important, but the latter differentiates between women sum total being bad and bad acts that some women may perform. One thing this may reflect is the recognition of coexisting dualities, especially in Homer but also evident across ancient Greek thought. A particular quality, cunning for example, could be deployed for good or bad ends. Cunning itself is not necessarily inherently either good or bad but can become so through its application. Alternately, rather than morally neutral qualities, the modern Western mind especially (though not exclusively) tends to bifurcate, creating discrete categories for good and bad and then assigning qualities accordingly (honesty and cunning respectively, for example).

Aside from translation, within the Homeric world, Agamemnon has a reputation for hoarding all the rewards and honors for himself and attributing all of his bad behavior to the gods’ will. Further, as those who know Trojan war myth (including, presumably, the earliest hearers of the Odyssey) are aware, Odysseus will himself slaughter a dining hall full of Penelope’s suitors. These complicate Agamemnon’s words. Unlike Agamemnon, Odysseus will not stride confidently home expecting honors but sneak back into the palace in humble disguise. Odysseus will not be the dead man sprawled on the floor of the banquet hall. He will be the killer not the killed. He will survive because he will not make the same mistakes as Agamemnon.

All this is to say, Agamemnon’s claims about women in the speech Heywood pulls from are not coming from a reliable narrator. Odysseus’ response to Agamemnon is revelatory. He notes that the “schemes of women” are vehicles through which Zeus’ will is accomplished. If Agamemnon is not to blame for his bad acts because they were willed by the gods (as he claims in the Iliad), then why should he blame Klytemnestra for her bad acts? Would not they, too, be the will of the gods? Again, those who know Trojan war myth will know that the Trojan and Theban wars were, according to Hesiod, how Zeus chose to bring the Age of Heroes to an end. In this context, could Agamemnon blaming not only Klytemnestra but all women be seen as somewhat impious, a denial of how the gods work their will through humans? Agamemnon has also been known to compare himself to Zeus (Iliad 19.95), and his ancestors’ impiety has caused the entire family line to be cursed (as alluded by Odysseus).

This brings up one of my main issues with Daughters of Sparta: By removing the gods from the story entirely as agents, Heywood removes a prime mover within the Homeric narrative. This accords with some modern views, but it denies an important feature (among others) of the myths, which is that they existed to explain the human condition, and central to this condition was a dynamic between immortal power and mortal bodies. What differentiates gods from humans in the mythical world is that the gods are more powerful and eternal. Thus humans, being weaker and mortal, can become instruments through which gods achieve their ends. A powerful wind can change a navy’s plans, for example, putting it on a disastrous course. The cycles of nature dictate farming and harvesting. And so on. In the Iliad, Helen gets pushed around and threatened by Aphrodite, who wishes Paris to be rewarded for having chosen her as the “most beautiful” and engineers events accordingly. Klytemnestra becomes the instrument through which Agamemnon is punished by the gods, for various offenses. Heywood tells us these two women were blamed, but ancient sources are far more nuanced. In the Iliad, Helen blames herself, but the Trojans do not. Not so in Heywood. Her Trojans despise and blame Helen for having brought destruction to their gates.

Without the gods, Heywood relies on modern psychoanalysis to explain characters’ motivations, behaviors, and feelings in ways that can feel not only reductive but at times a bit silly. One cringe-worthy scene involves Helen spitting on and kicking a rock in the cave of the goddess of Eilithyia, where Menelaos has brought her in hopes of having another child, which Helen does not want. Does it make sense that Helen would spit at and kick the sacred rock of the goddess of childbirth if she were afraid of giving birth? The cringe continues with Helen feeling more and more powerful as her birth control trumps this absent god. While this kind of female empowerment through control of the fertility process may inspire delight in modern readers, it rings false in this setting, if for no other reason than control of the fertility process is not a modern invention. It already existed in the ancient world. Why would Helen not see it as a gift from Eilithyia in answer to her prayers?

Another disconnect between Heywood’s ancient Greece and the one that has come down to us through epic: Her Agamemnon obsesses about winning “glory,” which is accurate broadly speaking. But without the interplay between mortality and immortality that exists in epic, the concept of kleos—what Homeric heroes fight for—loses its meaning. What these heroes were trying to win was not some vague, undifferentiated “glory” but immortality through song (the aforementioned kleos). They want to be remembered and, through memory, to achieve a kind of immortality. Heywood chooses not to engage with the desire to be remembered as a genuine concern of humans. Her Agamemnon gloats that he was able to rally “all of Greece” by giving them “a cause”: “let them tell themselves they’re fighting for Greece, or liberty, or…whatever, and they’ll jump at the chance for some action.” Men just want to run around killing and dying in violent conflicts, apparently. For what reason?

Similarly, the East/West divide that Heywood seems to take for granted appears to have been murkier than she seems to assume. The ancient Greek world was not just on the European landmass, meaning I don’t know that all Greek speakers would have seen themselves or been seen as “western” (as is still true today of some Greeks). The highly fractured and antagonistic city-states within the ancient Greek-speaking world did not always side with each other in conflicts with non-Greek-speaking empires. Rivalries and antagonism surely existed, among Greek speakers and between Greek and non-Greek speakers, but ancient people did not have the same beliefs and biases as do modern nations, though they would surely have had their own.

In the interest of keeping this review shorter than the book, I will mention one last disconnect of significance: the pervasiveness of individualistic thinking that feels out of step with the ancient Greek world. Helen, who Heywood seems to have chosen to represent women who do not want to have children, mopes that she wishes for a husband who “might want her for herself alone, and not for the children she could give him.” This statement reflects an “individual in/vs. society” kind of thinking that feels more Western European post-Enlightenment than ancient Greek. It’s hard to imagine ancient people thinking of themselves in such individualistic terms. Male heirs had a practical purpose that Heywood seems aware of via Klytemnestra’s narrative: to project strength to potential enemies pondering violence against a community. This is not to say that ancient women might not want something other than to be wives and mothers or that every woman would want to have children, but to think of themselves as distinct from the communities they belonged to and exempt from implicit threats…this feels very modern. Helen wanting a different role within her community or wanting more roles to exist within the community would have made more sense than for her to be thinking about her individual relationship with her husband separate from its consequences on her community.

Similarly, at one point, the third person narrator asks, “What did men ever sacrifice for the sake of a woman?” If Heywood feels this way about men and/or this has been her experience of them, I am genuinely saddened, but I cannot say this is my understanding of men, that they act always and only for their own sakes. Again, this feels like a very modern expression of gender-based competition and/or antagonism. My experience as a Greek woman and of Greek women is that men and women have, historically, seen themselves as belonging to and being responsible for each other and have fought for each other in whatever ways they could to preserve, when possible, their families and communities. I do not believe it is fair or helpful to claim otherwise, nor do I believe that acknowledging this means we cannot also acknowledge the existence of gender discrimination and violence.

The cover of Daughters of Sparta advertises: “Two sisters parted. Two women blamed. Two stories reclaimed.” It’s probably fairly obvious at this point how I feel about the trope of contemporary women declaring that they are “reclaiming” ancient Greek women’s stories. Obviously, fiction writers can retell myths any way they choose. Personally, I wish they would not promote these retellings as some sort of reclamation project. I wish we would stop erasing ancient women so that we can claim to have discovered them. The reason we know about their stories is because they were told in antiquity, sometimes in more sensitive and nuanced ways than they are told today.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this book or these issues with retellings in the comments. Respectful debate and/or suggested readings are also welcome!

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood

  1. I love this review and your insights!

    But I feel so torn. On the one hand, I completely agree with you that “reclaimed” is a weird/bad word choice here. For one thing, these are legendary, not (necessarily) historical figures, so what is there to reclaim? We wouldn’t say we’re “reclaiming” the story of “Cinderella”, for instance….

    …. But that leads me to think that maybe the “reclaim” here is just being used to make a statement – it should be “told in an empowering way for modern feminists”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, if that’s what people want to read. But I do think that, as your review points out, “reclaim” can be a cause for confusion and even offensiveness. It’s a shame you’re not on Twitter – I feel like this would be something to try to tweet out to the author or publisher and start a dialogue that could potentially be visible to lots of people.

    And that said, I also see your point about questioning “reclaiming” these stories in any sense of the word, rather than celebrating and learning more about them as they were originally told and in their original cultural context. I think it would be so interesting to have more resources like that!

    On the other hand – and in all honesty, this may be in part because I am a modern feminist, albeit an open-minded one – I personally wouldn’t have found it surprising or strange that Helen didn’t want children or to be a part of the collective whole. Even the most community-minded person can sometimes just want to be free of responsibilities, and to sing their own song, I feel. To me, that sentiment is universal and touching (although I do agree with you that insulting a goddess and spitting on a rock does seem unrealistic).

    I also like that Agamemnon blames the gods for his/men’s actions, but thinks women are entirely responsible for them. Ugh. That also feels to me like a sentiment that rings down through the ages and has kept women oppressed in so many cultures and so many contexts.

    That said, there is also oppression AMONG women, or among other groups, etc. But I couldn’t help chuckling when reading that and thinking #menaintshit.

    Not that that is always true. There are lots of awesome men in Greek mythology and legend, of course, as there have been throughout history and are today. It just made me laugh though. People are people, when it comes right down to it and as you say.

    As for the quote that set things off on the wrong foot for you, it made me wonder if it was chosen more as a creative/Muse-related moment, rather than with a lot of real reflection or thought for the context? I know that as a fiction writer, I’ve got snippets of quotations, poetry, etc, that give me pause and make me want to write stories, even if I’m not entirely aware of their full context. I would personally try to look up a quotation and understand it fully before putting it in a published book, but just trying to suggest why maybe that quote was chosen.

    Wow – thanks for all of this food for thought and sorry this comment is so long!

    1. I love a long, thought-provoking comment, as yours is. Thank you, Alysa!

      I definitely agree that Helen could very well have been someone who did not want to have children, and we have stories from antiquity about this as well (Artemis comes to mind immediately). But I feel like Heywood, because she was so focused on modern women’s empowerment, missed an opportunity to show us not only the limitations but also the challenges that created these restricted roles for women. For example, in the absence of science-based options (fertility clinics, surrogates) and assuming a practical need for male heirs, what options could a Helen have, who wants love and companionship but does not want to have children?

      Personally, I think it’s really interesting to think about needs and possibilities and how the ancients navigated those, both well and badly. I can appreciate the desire to tell stories that empower modern feminists, but then what is the reason to tell a story from a past and culture that the author does not want to take the time to understand in a nuanced way? And to be honest, there’s a lot more I could say, where she imposes a lot of attitudes that are clearly about modern not ancient life. There is so much cringe. I think if you’re going to enter a culture that is not your own, you have to be willing to see beyond your own resentments and anger and have the willingness and ability to see nuance and respect things that are different from you.

      One final thing, I hear you also about the quote being inspiration, but I still think it’s unethical for her to misrepresent it in this way. Readers who have not read or studied the Odyssey will have an entirely wrong impression of what is happening in that quote, and this can lead to reactionary backlash out of ignorance. Her author’s note does not account for the discrepancy between what she quotes and what the whole is, and that is unacceptable.

      1. I totally agree with both things you say here, especially the question as to why a person would want to write about another culture/time without exploring and understanding it. That seems to be pretty de rigueur for historical fiction writers, at least serious ones. But from your reviews and things you’ve told me, it seems to be more lax when it comes to ancient eras. It’s a shame, as you say, that we can’t get stories that work within the actual cultural context, because they would also clearly be compelling. It would be really interesting to learn what inspired this author – and so many others – to “modernize” classical stories or to adapt them to our time. Do they think it’s the only way to make modern audiences connect with or relate to them? Is it some personal desire or quest? Very interesting….

        And I understand your upset about the quote at the beginning, wholeheartedly. I think that it was a careless choice, especially because, as you say, she doesn’t include any explanation for it in her author’s note. I think it was done without a lot of reflection, unfortunately.

        The only thing we can hope is that readers who really enjoy this story will still want to read and get to know the original sources better. I love that about historical fiction – even stories that aren’t super-accurate can still be gateways for people to discover and learn about the real history or literature behind them. I have a friend who became OBSESSED with all things Leonardo da Vinci after seeing him in the role of a Renaissance fairy godmother in the delightful movie “Ever After”, for instance. So that shows there’s a cause for hope!

        But I can still understand your being upset. I hope that there will be people writing things that respect the real history and culture behind them. Do you know if Greek-language works do a lot of myth/legend retelling, and, if so, in what tone/with what purpose?

      2. That’s a great question about Greek retellings. The Greek versions I’ve read are straight retellings, i.e. adapting the Iliad or Odyssey in modern Greek for young readers. It’d be interesting to read other versions. I will have to look into that! And yes, I agree that the greatest potential benefit of books like Daughters of Sparta is that they will spark interest in the originals. Though she does such a thorough job of trashing the ancient myths and stripping them of any hint of nuance and complexity that it almost feels like too much to hope for.

      3. I thought I was the only person that loved everything single thing about Ever After. It is probably my favorite movie besides Gladiator. Leonardo walking up to the cinder girl in his wooden shoes as she floated in the lake was genius! I loved the Gypsy too, he reminded me a lot of the Gypsy in that movie about the Camino de Santiago with Martin Sheen, he looked just like him. He had an awesome laugh

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