Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…
So if you haven’t realized over the course of the last two posts where I discuss this book, I’ll tell you now, Flanagan’s book was a tease. It’s a literary, historic fiction that won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and was lauded by the chair of judges, A.C. Grayling with the following words:
“Some years very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”
Hmmm….my quandary – 4 stars on Goodreads or 5? Four – he built my expectations for a romance with a HEA and didn’t deliver – or Five – surely one of the most acclaimed texts of the 21st Century, studied in schools etc, how dare I even consider less than 5 stars?
The thing is, when he went there, he out-romanced romance novels. He gives us romantic melodrama and its mores – the love interest’s husband is blown up in an explosion freeing her to be with him – the jilted fiancé lies about her rival’s death – the young POW he befriends, admires, and ultimately fails to heal is revealed as his long-lost nephew – at the eleventh hour, a mere 40 pages or so before the ending, a whim of fate presents a situation to both lovers whereby they can alter their life path with a touch, but through a lack of communication, with a reliance on presumption, they don’t.
And then there is THAT moment in the bookstore where Doriego and Amy meet. It’s a rare moment in literature these days- even romance genre fiction. You see, that moment doesn’t depend on a physical attraction. The love interest isn’t sparked by fame, or talent or individual preferences for boobs or brawn. It’s sparked by a chemistry that’s almost other worldly and that moment is teased out over paragraphs.
You know the chemistry I mean: when the orchestra comes in just before the closing credits of a movie, when the hero and heroine finally kiss, when you’re made to feel what they feel? When love hits. That moment when you realise the space between you and him/her as an electrified field of resistance, highly agitated yet ineluctable and debilitating in its yearning need for equilibrium. Just a sound, a look, a touch, may send you into frenzy or dissipate the emotion in a folly of fantasy incapable of fulfilment and you rue the fatality of an attraction you cannot contain.
Find me a romance novel where the attraction isn’t about physical appearance. There are a few, but not many. You may find it in fantasy romance but in a novel featuring mere humans it’s a little rare.
Besides THAT moment that anticipates romance early-ish in the novel there is that stretch walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the close of the novel – the antithesis of THAT moment and the antithesis of the romance ride. Flanagan inverts an expected, tried-and-tested romance technique in another Brechtian lesson served complete with broken expectations and denied complacency.
In a romance novel it would be at this point in the plot where the couple have reconciled and begin their life-journey together and while the reader awaits the finality of hearing either one proclaim aloud their love. It is at this point that one or other will be physically and/or emotionally taken away e.g., the heroine is kidnapped by a rival for her love. It’s the final hurdle to the HEA. Instead of giving us a hurdle to leap, in a strange coincidence Flanagan brings these lovers into close contact. They pass each other on the bridge. Silently. They recognise each other after decades. A word, a brush of a gently swinging hand, a stall in their tread, could bring them together. We watch in slow motion, incapable of prodding them out of the trajectory of their hollow lives.
Finally, there is no HEA. Not even for a war hero. Not even for a woman alone again and childless after decades presumably grieving that short lived wartime fling.
Does Flanagan convince that love existing between a couple can uplift each individual – make each person good – and make life fulfilling?
Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be – 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say…
This book could obliquely be summarised as shifting sands. It’s pushed in one direction at the same time being pulled back from another perspective and like a whirly-whirly you may have to fall out of its thrall to see what’s going on.
It begins with the main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, and follows his stream of consciousness until he takes us back to WWII for a brief glimpse of the Middle East before ditching us into the mire of Siam. Here we spend a day with the Australian POWs toiling on Japan’s infamous human rights atrocity, the Siam to Burma railroad – the Death Railroad.
With his beautifully poignant prose, Flanagan talks to us about human relationships – courage, stamina, small mindedness, cruelty, camaraderie, and the interrelatedness of personal plights and emotional/spiritual ones. Here the book loses its single protagonist and enfolds an ensemble of characters into its purview. This is where Flanagan excels. This is what I was expecting from him – catharsis – an overwhelming cleansing with pure admiration for the moral victory rising from enduring excruciating pain, outrage and achieving survival.
The book is written in several sections – this one can stand alone. It brings to mind Homer’s Illiad.
Both books describe episodes in wartime, including personal ones. Here each member of the POW community is placed within the framework of who they were before the war and how they relate to their fellow soldiers and antagonist in their harrowing present. Absent is a sense of God’s presence. The pagan gods of Olympus are part of the fabric of the War for Homer – whereas for Flanagan, if God exists he has forsaken the POWs. Flanagan’s heroes have only a community that has been thrust upon them by the commonality of being POWs together.
But the story doesn’t stop here. Rising above the muck of humanity is a story, or trope if you like, he has often told – one of pain, fatality, emotional distance and ultimately the redemptive power of love. He continues the stories of the soldiers he has introduced us to in the POW camp – both the Japanese persecutors and the Australian survivors.
Having experienced the indifference, the superiority and the cruelty of the Japanese officers, as a reader we expect some sort of karmic release after the war. We don’t get one. This book is not about salving the atrocities of war – it iterates the waste, the pointlessness of war and to a slightly limited degree human existence.
A downer? Yes and no. No, in that Flanagan doesn’t say that life has no value. He is saying that love – the right kind of romantic/eros love – the type we stake our hopes upon for a happily ever after – not only gives life value but it can heal and uplift the soul.
Contradictorily, there is no happily ever after in this book: although for a brief moment on the Sydney Harbour Bridge we are teased with its possibility. Dorrigo Evans, the serial cheat doesn’t get a happy ending. It’s perhaps the morally correct ending he deserves – if you believe his fiancé didn’t realise she was lying when she reported to him the death of his lover, Amy. If you believe his fiancé lied, then perhaps she too deserved the life he gave her. Their marriage was for Dorrigo more soul destroying than his experiences in the prison camp – for there his memories and thoughts of Amy sustained him.
In the denouement, if we are looking for justice and retribution via karma, we don’t get it. What we see in Nakamura, the cruel war criminal, is the redemptive power of love and family. Over time, Nakamura realises the love of the woman he chose to marry. He becomes a gentle, moral man who no one, not even himself, can reconcile with the monster he was during the war. He goes on to live a full life surrounded by family, warmth and respect – a better life than the majority of the returning Australian POWs.
Having travelled life’s path with Dorrigo can we say whether he is a good man? He was a war hero. He risked his life for his family, despite being emotionally absent and transferring to them a pattern of broken expectations to live by. He lived by the social expectations of the times – had he flouted social expectations and conventions and not married Ella and not committed his flagrant infidelities would he have been a good man?
More to the point, could he have been a good man had he married the right woman? Flanagan drives this point almost all the way home. But do we believe him? Without a Happily-Ever-After for the main character, how can a message about the redemptive power of love between man and a woman be plausible?
Perhaps Mr Flanagan needed to read a romance or two.
For a further discussion about the romance/love story elements of this book:
Before I read this book, I knew what my Goodreads review would be- 5 stars with the comment, “It’s by Flanagan, what more is there to say?” Having read it, I now know there is a lot more to say. Is it 5 stars for me? It’s ambitious and critically acclaimed, but it’s not what I expected from Flanagan and it was jarring. I had to put myself in the mindset that this is high literature and there is a method in the jarring, Brechtian approach of Flanagan’s romance. Yes, romance, but not as a romance reader would recognise.
Part of my problem sprang from the fact that I had gone on a 2 year romance reading binge before I picked it up. This book I had squirreled away for a perfect time to be swept away in torrents of pathos and catharsis like I had with The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould’s Book of Fish. I expected this book to weigh me down with the inadequacies of its flawed characters and then raise me up with the beauty of their unexpected forgiveness and belated understanding – or mine of the characters I had judged and exiled from the shelter of my sympathies. I expected to shed tears and have my faith reaffirmed in the power of love gently simmering away under the surface of emotional indolence.
What I didn’t expect was a romantic love story – not in any major contribution to the narrative, anyway.
I did not expect the most beautiful prose around that very special moment when love strikes that sweeps away history-yet-to-be-written and affects multiple lives around it. And then I read a bookshop in Adeliade. From hence forward I shall always equate dust motes with champagne, white tablecloths and roses as accoutrements of Romance. Having spent two years binge reading romance novels – contemporary, historic, rom-com, erotic and written over the span of the last 40 years (back to Johanna Lindsay, Judith Mc Naught, Shirley Busbee, Kathleen E Woodiwiss and through the 90s, 00s, 10s to the present) not once was there a moment in any of them like the one in the book shop when Dorrigo Evans first encounters Amy. The only other moment in literature I can compare it to is the one at the ball when Vronsky first sees Anna inAnna Karenina. (Of course you can binge read romance forever without being able to say you’ve covered it. That moment has to be somewhere but I’ve missed it, or perhaps it wasn’t presented as lyrically for it to have stayed with me.)
Dorrigo’s bookshop encounter is based on a belief in being struck by a love that is not based on physical beauty, nor wit, nor logic, nor any other trope you may read in romance, but on a charisma all of its own – its own entity, energy, power. A chemistry that is built up to, or explained away often in romance novels but rarely, it seems, exists in of itself – the chemistry separate to the psychology.
Flanagan and Tolstoy have different motives with their books. Tolstoy explores love between a man and a woman through various relationships. He demonstrates that a good relationship is a healthy relationship, sanctioned by society, where the individuals become more productive and can contribute more to society by their happy union. He asks the question can romantic love or marital love fulfil an individual’s purpose and his responsibilities to society? When the relationship is based on infatuation and the headiness of erotic love that does not transform and lift the characters to better fulfil their duty to the community – and in Tolstoy’s example – allow them to achieve meaning, as is the case with Anna’s expectations, tragedy ensues.
Knowing from the get-go that the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy is not sanctioned by society and that it is one of cheating a man who has been her harbour and his uncle, bodes ill especially when you consider that this is a historical fiction. I couldn’t help thinking of Tolstoy’s book. Flanagan doesn’t ask can erotic love alone fulfil the human condition as does Tolstoy’s. He asks repeatedly what makes a man good. What does a man need to make him good? The love of a woman, whose man is in the throes of this charisma-entity that we call love?
But this is not a Romance. Certainly not one as defined by romance critic, Jen Prokop from JenReadsRomance, nor romance writer Sarah Maclean, both of the Fated Mated podcast, on their episode, What Makes A Romance Novel a Romance Novel. In this episode I think it’s Jen who says something along the lines that the reader is left with the belief that the couple are better together than they are apart. As Dorrigo’s life plays out we are left with the conviction that had he believed Amy had survived the blast in the hotel, that he wouldn’t have married Ella and that he would have been the good man – the good husband- the good father and not believed himself a fake – the shell of a good man in the shape of a war hero.
Flanagan doesn’t allow us the comfortable ride of romance with an assured Happily Ever After. In fact he chops up the retelling of the relationship between Dorrigo and Amy in real time with future scenes from Dorrigo’s experiences in the Japanese POW camp as they build the Death Railway – a salute to Brecht – if you want to learn something from a story don’t get too emotionally involved in the storyline – alienation effect. My problem is that it’s written so beautifully, it’s hard to disentangle myself from their beautifully doomed affair. It’s an extramarital affair for Amy and that goes against my expectations for romance and makes for a harder read especially when so many romance triggers have been set off. Cutting to the prison camp and then back again heightens the jarring rhythm.
There is another part to this book that is gratifying as expected and that is the day spent with the Australian diggers in the prison camp. The themes of what makes a good man and can the love between a man and his wife transform him, continue in the years after the war is over. These will be covered in Part 2 of this review:
“Mr Collins have you no felicitous regard for your wife? Have you no conscience?”
Maria’s eyes were primed and loaded with self-righteous rancour.
“I have waited for you beyond the bounds of personal comfort, propriety and the dictates of conjugal duty. You loved me, you said. You could not fathom being parted from me, you said. You could not conceive of a life without me, you said. So I came away with you from Nova Scotia, a naïve girl filled with romantic dreams of life with my valiant officer. I crossed the Atlantic for you, forsaking my family, my friends, all of my connections, for the future you promised me here in the motherland. And you abandoned me to sail to Port Jackson.”
David flinched and looked away. He was not one for scenes even if they didn’t have an audience. He was comfortable in the guise of likeable chap – no confrontations – no dramas – nothing that couldn’t be alleviated with his boyish smile and a pint with the old boys or the largesse of his embraces with the ladies. Nothing he tried in the past few days washed with Maria. He had to wait out her tirade. He picked up a frayed and fringed cushion from a discarded settee backed against a trunk along the attic wall.
“10 years David. Who was serving time? The transported came back with shorter sentences. Now you inform me that you have a calling you can’t refuse – a greater calling?”
Maria checked herself and waited for a response. David stopped fiddling with the cushion and hazarded a glance at her. She arched her brow.
“I am not entering the priesthood,“ he said lamely.
“Lieutenant-Governor of Port Phillip,“ she scoffed. “Such an illustrious title for a port that doesn’t exist. A port that will have to be hewn out or rock in a godforsaken wilderness with rudimentary implements by illiterate convicts whose only alternative was the hangman’s noose. Pity I haven’t been given the option.” Could she make him feel any worse? She continues, “There’s another Fleet full of convicts in London that you could have asked to govern. At least I would see you.”
“It’s not forever love.”
“Am I your love, your only love?”
“What sort of question is that? Were I not parted from you also?”
Maria closed her eyes. “What’s to become of us?”
“It’s for us that I am leaving. We can’t make do with the pittance of a pension I earn here.”
“You left the marines to take up a post in administration as Judge Advocate of the entire colony – all of New South Wales. Why can they not offer you a pension commensurate with the role you played there?”
“I’ve told you before, the marines are under no obligation to pay a pension for a role I performed after I left their service. I left the marines to take the promotion in another service.”
“Had you died a marine at Bunker’s Hill I’d be better endowed now.”
David’s head snapped up. “You would have me dead?”
“You were gone 10 years. I was a widow whose husband yet lived. Amongst stranger’s I was a curiosity, amongst friends, an object of pity. How I weathered the well-wishers I cannot begin to tell you. ‘How very difficult it must be for you dear.“ Maria affected an accent for each statement she remembered.
“Loneliness is best overcome by reading the Good book; pity you did not have a child to take comfort in.’ And of course, there was the many more who did not believe I was married at all – saw me as a fallen woman of sorts. Eventually, I just told people you died when your ship sailed too far and fell off the edge of the world. ‘Twas a pity the vicar would not perform a funeral without a cadaver!”
David paid cursory attention while surreptitiously looking about for the effects that he would have shipped with him. He wondered whether he would need another trunk. He didn’t have time to squabble with Maria. His decision was made for him by fate. He could not stay in England – his pension was meagre for the both of them and he could not find appropriate employment here. By leaving she could receive his pension from his time in the marines and could supplement it with her writing. The Lord knew that she was the one who pulled together the History of the Colony of New South Wales that bore his name.
Maria watched him silently picking his way through stores of unused or forgotten furnishings. He thwacked away dust from an old baroque armchair that had belonged to his grandfather. Standing back he contemplated it, something was missing.
“Have you seen the footstool?”
“And if I had why would you be needing it? There is a perfectly good ensemble in the drawing room.”
“To have a drawing room where I am going is a luxury.” He pulled a chipped porcelain plate painted in Limoges and lined in scratchy gold. “Where I am headed holding a small token of home is like to owning your own sanity- they are daily reminders of the civilization I came from and to which I will return.”
David smiled at Maria with flirtatious eyes.
“I am not a cold piece or porcelain to be kept on the mantelpiece awaiting your return. Am I to believe you have collected no ornaments by your colonial hearth?”
David’s tolerance was waning. He did not have the luxury of time. He crouched by an open trunk.
“David?” Maria implored him as she came to sit beside him on the dusty floor. “Stay. Please. We will make do as we did before. We could write another book. It will be grander than the first. We will sell it to more foreign markets – Germany, Spain, Italy and France – they will be the first of many others.”
“With what materials? Be practical, love.”
“With your grandfather’s papers. He published so many peerages but he still has papers mouldering in stacks up here. We could write the histories of the noble families as he did and promote it as a continuation of his work.”
David considered for a moment. His grandfather had collected archaic papers to do with the histories of many nobles – many more than agreed to grant him patronage to write their histories. Maria took encouragement from his pause and began feverishly searching the attic for Arthur Collins’ archives. Pulling backwards with all of her weight she opened a cupboard door with a loud scrape and a billow of dust.
“I beg your pardon.”
“I will not live my life pandering to the aristocracy, obsequiously drudging away at building monuments to self-aggrandising toffs.”
Maria’s jaw dropped. “I cannot understand you.”
“Besides, the cache is wanting. Down by gratuities that turned doorknobs.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Grandfather would approach a noble family with an interesting letter that would appeal to their sense of personal history and self-importance. They would take the letter from him and then he would wait to see if they would employ him to write their history. They didn’t always proceed but invariably they all kept that tempting letter. In any case, the cream of his documents has been skimmed off. The last of it was lapped up by Lord Sydney when my mother obtained this elevation for me.”
“Elevation? This? You mistake it for the descent across the Styx into antipodean Hades where you have to shield your eyes to see, labour your breath to breathe and cover your skin from the eternal heat that will sear your hide! You are too cruel! Pity me who has been married 20 years but known you less than 10. Pity the child we did not raise. Can you see her, all flounces and pouts and, ’Good Evening, Father.’ Where is she?”
“We tried long enough. My seed fell in barren soil.”
“And you are certain that my part is at fault?” his arrow had struck her throat and slowly descended, dissipating through her chest.
David levelled his glace at her and nodded before looking away. He didn’t have the time or inclination for this inquisition. He wished she would go downstairs and leave him at peace to complete his task. If he offended her, he trusted that he would be able to make it up to her once this humour of hers had run its course.
Maria was not satisfied. “Because the seed has borne fruit in another farrow.”
“Being base is beneath you.” His patience dissolved, his temper flared.
“Is it?” She searched his face for some indication that the talk she’d heard was false. All the while since he’d returned she hadn’t dared broached the topic with him. At first she didn’t want to believe it. When she mulled it over, she had made excuses for him that rested on the distance between them and the five year duration of his absence and his helplessness to return. She even told herself that he needed comfort and that it was for the best. But now, subjected to his insensitivity, she knew she had been wronged.
“Have you never realised why your sister Anne refuses to write you? You have asked your mother and brother her motives but you have never asked me.”
His nostrils flared as he held his breath and his patience in the same intake or air.
“After news arrived of your safe arrival in the colony Anne received a caller. A woman. Neither Anne nor I could be certain of her age afterwards, her voice was young but her skin was wearied by care and a harsh sun. She wrapped on the door, enquiring if she was at the house of the sister of the Judge Advocate of New South Wales. As fate would have it, Anne was attending one of the little ones and I received her in the parlour. When I told her that I was your wife and could therefore be in a better position to aide her, her face contorted and she sucked in her bottom lip. She insisted she talk to Anne. I tried to draw her out but all she would say was that she would wait for ‘Mistress Anne’. When Anne joined us, the woman insisted that they spoke alone. Anne sent me up to check on the children. I made a pretence of leaving but returned to listen at the keyhole.
They spoke in low tones. I could not hear well. At the end of the interview. Anne gave her coin and said that there was nothing else for her – that you hadn’t returned and mayn’t ever and that you were there and she was here and should make her life with no further claims on your family. The woman said that she was not the only one who had turned your head, that you didn’t discriminate and didn’t hide your liaisons in the Colony. There were whisperings that you had a family with a native woman” Maria waited for David to react. To deny it. To lie to her. She needed a denial. She needed him to acknowledge that a confession would be an affirmation that she had wasted away her youth waiting for him. “Is it true? Have you taken another woman to wife?” she demanded.
David lost all colour.
“That would make me a bigamist and you married to one. Is that what you want?”
Maria was silenced
“You should listen to Anne’s advice. Make your life as best you see fit, for I will not promise when I shall return.”
Anne spun in front of the looking glass and felt positively… excited, mischievous, nervous, apprehensive, aroused in crashing waves. Rolling them all together, her stomach became so queasy she was certain the result was sinful.
The anticipation for what she was about to do and how she was going about achieving it was liberating… whenever she convinced herself that she would succeed. When she doubted, she felt like a small malleable, weakling devoid of the sophistication of Elizabeth’s court. How ridiculous was that? Could anyone other than her Majesty be closer to the apex of English society in the year of our Lord fifteen seventy five? She was no less than those the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. This would be her first court intrigue – executed at home, in her own bed.
Sinful! What a ridiculous feeling. She was a married woman. She had the ring to prove it. And the license. Letters of congratulations had arrived from royal courts in Europe sending solicitations to her father on the match he had arranged for her with the earl. No, there was nothing sinful about what she was about to do. But it could be… no, it couldn’t be…could it? Could it be slightly scandalous?
Well, it shouldn’t be. He was the one who was seeking solace in the bed of another. Yes, they did marry young. Sooner than her father had led her to believe she would be betrothed. Her courses hadn’t come yet, she scowled into the mirror. He‘d have no excuses if they had. She adjusted the seat of her bosom in her corset. She was a late bloomer. Her figure was finally blossoming over her bodice and disappearing into her farthingale. Her body was, after such a tedious wait, ready, but he hadn’t seemed to notice. He still saw her as a child.
His little sister? When Edward said he’d wait for her to mature she had expected him to abstain. She didn’t realise that he would find someone to occupy himself with until then. And she had put up with the interloper. The very beautiful, lissom interloper with ne’er a penny in her glory chest to fill Edward’s empty coffers.
Was Edward more attracted to her father’s coffers than he was to her? Anne swallowed the lump in her throat. Truth be told, they did grow up together. He was a ward of the state and her father raised him with her brother and Earl Roger. Earl Roger seemed to have noticed the change in her. The way he looked at her across the supper table a sennight past; the way his eyes had glazed over; the way the parting of his lips had animated his eyebrows, had coloured her cheeks. She had to turn her face to hide her giggles.
It was her time now.
Yes, she was an attractive girl – no, woman. Definitely woman. Married woman – to the premier earl in all of England – the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. But what good was it if she couldn’t take her place by his side confident that she was the premier woman in his life? What good was calling herself the Countess of Oxford when they hadn’t even consummated their marriage yet? There was more scandal in that, than in what she was about to do.
She’d been planning this over the last couple of months. She watched his Trollope – the way she moved, the way she dressed, the way she laughed, the way she did her hair. She had even swallowed her pride and watched him make love to her through the crack in the service door. She learnt the Trollope’s ways and sought out her scent, imprisoning it in a vial around her neck. She perfumed her breast with it and dabbed wine around her chin. She knew the Trollope’s ways her purr and call of pleasure. Tonight she would be an actress like a muse in one of the Queen’s masques. Tonight, she would be the Trollope but there would be no stage.
Tonight after he had finished entertaining his fellows from town, when he had ascended the staircase to the upper floor, while he waited in the hall for his Trollope to turn the key and push forward into his bedchamber, her manservant would be waiting for them and so would she. Her man would gag the Trollope’s mouth and hold her back while the rightful denizens of the chamber tripped onto the bed. He would be too drunk to notice the switch in the darkness.
She spun once more before the glass. She wore her kirtle over her shift, its folds skirted the floor, without her farthingale to suspend it. She had her stomacher tied tightly and low over her bodice – so her propped up bosom was a fitful diversion for his attention. She pulled her hair back off her forehead and circled it with a strand of pearls, allowing long tendrils to fall over each cheek. She was ready. Would he be so intoxicated that he wouldn’t realise the switch? Had she learnt enough in her clandestine peeping to switch his allegiance and keep his attention in the morning?
The morning…oops! She prayed for the inspiration for what to say. She may well need divine intervention.
This has been my fictional take on the Earl of Oxford and the Bed Trick, an episode in history lampooned in Elizabethan theatre.
I’m not telling historically accurate stories but stories that are anchored in historical events that I’ve gone and added motivations to the characters that I can relate to – and am banking on you relating to them too – with an emphasis on romance. For some of the stories history has left us a lot in the way of documents and I’ve stayed close to sources, for others like this slice of Byzantine history I’ve let my imagination run away with me. I will have to unpack my interpretation of the history behind it in another post, as this one is a lengthy one.
As the acrid stench of drying urine cut through the pervasive odour of dank water, her senses heightened. How could anyone stand it? She followed almost blindly the hulking frame of her personal guard, the eunuch Nikitas. Her soft leather soles padded the flagstones beneath. Her gut contracted. Was the ice-cold wave shooting up from underfoot a natural sensation from the subterranean rock or was she treading in festering water? Her feet didn’t make a sound.
The glow of the eunuch’s torch spread its soft light as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Cages lined the corridor on either side of them. Moans reverberated softly backward and forward over the stone walls. New odours assailed her the deeper she progressed: vomit, bile, rotting flesh and mould.
Unlike her own, the eunuch’s boots crashed with every footfall heralding their progress through the corridor of horrors. In the small hours of the morning she hadn’t expected anyone in the prison to be awake but then she hadn’t expected so much darkness. Did the incarcerated realise that the night wasn’t over? That it was time they were abed? She could feel their gaze trying to discern who the eunuch was chaperoning.
What was she doing here?
Her long cape and hood covered her silken gown and her carefully attended coiffure – her rose painted lips, her slightly rouged cheeks, her kohl-lined glittering eyes and carefully dyed hair. No longer a young woman, and by no means a virgin – she had given birth to six children, two of them in the palace’s purple chamber- her figure was slim and her skin was smooth if a little more soft than firm. She was still an attractive woman but never one prone to displays that would undermine her role in society – not as Constantine X’s wife – not as the Holy Patriarch’s niece.
Her modesty was lauded by all. It came at a price.
Evdokia had soaked longer in her bath that day, thankful now that the water had been infused with more fragrance than usual. She thought of the prisoner she was visiting. Her heart beat a little faster.
Once his eyes had sought hers.
Once she was convinced he thought her beautiful.
That was years ago, would he remember the girl who was smitten by him and not the Empress? They had few stolen moments over the years. Did they mean to him, what they meant to her? Would he even remember? She would have to remind him. It would give her strength, fortitude, to do what she must – to risk so much.
Now that the Emperor was dead she was finally free not only to be self-directed but to direct the Empire, herself.
Yes, there were complications.
Her claim to rule rested on her sons’ being too young and in Michael’s case untrained and disinterested. Once he was mature enough, she would have to rescind her authority. However the boy was poised to step into the Emperor’s shoes, he would rather read books. The Empire didn’t need another civil servant to pander to its obsequious factions, it needed a general. Someone to lead the army – to keep the Patzinaks at bay, to face off with the Normans, to stop the invading Persians[i] and contain the rival factions in Constantinople who would throw the Empire into another civil war.
What the Empire needed was someone capable of ruling from Constantinople, keeping the cosmopolitan wolves well fed and patrolling the boarders at the same time. Someone capable of inspiring the respect of the citizen and the soldier – whose presence and military prowess would force their enemies to think twice before coveting the throne. The Roman Empire needed a ruler with a woman’s cunning in the capital and a warrior’s heart in the field. Could she deliver?
When Nikitas stopped abruptly before a wooden door, Evdokia placed a hand on his shoulder to prevent him from opening it. What was she doing ferreting out the traitor?
She breathed in through her mouth – trying to limit the putrid air while steadying her nerves. She wasn’t having second thoughts. She knew what she would do. She had made her choice, she had to believe in it. There was no time for procrastination. In the unlikely scenario that he would deny her, her political rivals machinations were positioning a consort for her who would move with the slightest agitation of the strings they held. One whose first priorities was the Doucas clan and not the greater good of the Empire,
Romanus Diogenes, Duke of Serdica, wouldn’t deny her. He couldn’t – she held his life in her hands.
Still, she had to steel herself. The Duke was more to her than a political pawn in public life.
With a nod of her head, Nikitas motioned the guard posted at the door to open it. A whoosh of air threw back the hood from her head, nearly extinguishing the torch Nikitas held.
“Why?” A growl escaped the void.
Evdokia couldn’t place it.
Something scurried across her feet. She saw nothing in the dark. She hoped he didn’t see her flinch.
“I could ask you the same question,” she threw belatedly into the void.
Nikitas followed her in.
“Because I love the Empire.” Evdokia turned her head to find the voice.
“If you loved the Empire, you could have waited!” She snapped and turned to scan the cell.
“Present yourself!” Nikita demanded.
The warm glow of his torch diminished with the level of oxygen in the cell. There were no air grates or windows with just the one, solitary door. What comforts should a try-hard regicide expect? Sufficient air was not a priority for a man facing death.
Holding the torch out from him, Nikitas walked about the room. When he turned back to Evdokia, Romanus was towering above her, his eyes locked with hers. She was as beautiful as Romanus remembered her.
“It is customary to kiss the Empress’ feet when in her audience,“ Nikitas exclaimed as he swept the Duke’s feet from under him in one pass of his own.
Romanus crashed to the ground. Pain barrelled through him. Bracing himself on the palms of his hands, Romanus glared at the eunuch. If his ribs weren’t broken the eunuch would be on the floor with him for that.
“Pay homage to your Empress,“ the eunuch demanded as he booted Romanus’ shoulders into the grimy floor.
“Enough, Nikita. Hand me your torch and wait outside.” When Nikita left, Evdokia called after him, “Close the door. There is no danger here.”
When she turned back, Romanus was standing. Their faces locked over the flame between them. They assessed each other, each waiting for the other to say something.
His face had hardened with years in the saddle. His hair was stippled with grey, his skin was bronzed. A delta of lines streamed out from the corner of his eyes. Regardless of his treachery, she still saw a handsome man. His voice toyed with her cherished memories, it hadn’t changed.
“You would kill me?” He asked softly.
“You would kill my son?”
“I hold no animosity towards Michael. He is respectful. A good scholar, I hear – well suited to the University. Wholly unprepared and unsuited for the throne. He hasn’t the temperament for politics nor war.”
“So you would remove him to install yourself.”
“I would remove him,“ he responded choosing to ignore the other. “There are dozens of monasteries that would welcome a man of his connections and scholarly aptitude.”
“Before or after you mutilated his face?” Evdokia shuddered with the memory of slit noses on faces of subjects she could no longer cherish. Those who thought above themselves and pushed their claim to the throne.
“I would not harm him.”
“Then you are a fool. How would you secure the crown with Constantine’s legitimate heir alive?” She paraded her knowledge of the way of the world before him.
“Michael doesn’t want it. He could be talked into yielding. Don’t you know your own son?”
“That’s now. Michael doesn’t want it, now. He needs a guiding hand. He needs time to learn.”
“His mother wants it more. But will she be able to reign alone? The boy isn’t ready to rule but his mother can only rule for him if she has the support of the factions. Can she control them?”
“His mother is the reason we are not in civil war!”
“For how long can Penelope embroider harmony when the world knows Odysseas is dead? I hear the Patriarch’s brother is a willing bridegroom. But you’ll need a tried General to keep the peace. Of course, the Doucas clan is military and abundant with willing suitors. The Doucas’. How happy are your in-laws with me under lock and key? Have they not yet arranged another husband for you?”
“Haven’t you realised yet that you can never have the throne for yourself. You may inspire the army but you cannot rule Constantinople.”
He snorted and prodded, “Can you?”
“Constantinople is mine.” She hoped she was as convincing as she sounded. If she were so certain of her place in the capital she would only have personal reasons for this visit.
“And the army, the tagmata, are they yours too? I didn’t realise you sat a horse so well.”
“You know I can’t!” she snapped back.
His face so composed until now, broadened into a small smile. He’d won the point and he was going to relish it.
His smile, so familiar in memory, so yearned for, so distant in reality, broke her barriers. “I may not sit a horse so well, but it hasn’t stopped me trying to ride a jackass.”
“Marry me.” She spoke the words with ease – neither a command nor a question.
He was dumbfounded. “You forget my wife.”
“Divorce her. For the good of the Empire.” He turned away in shock unable to believe the offer. “She will be well looked after, I promise you,” Evdokia refocussed his attention on his wife. He hesitated. “Word has it, it wasn’t a love match.”
“Will ours be?” With his question, she knew she had him. She relaxed her restraint.
“There was a time when you filled my dreams, “ she said.
“You saw me in the dark, “he said and took the torch from her hands.
“Behind closed lids.”
“Like closed doors?” he said walking around her, taking her cloak in the circle of his path. He held the torch aloft and indulged himself in looking at her. She came with all the trappings of the palace and an empire in the offering. She shone, glamorous in her golden silk and embroidered gems. She was out of place here. It was no place for a woman and certainly not the Empress, yet he had brought her here in his mind. With all the reminiscing and regrets of a man who is expecting death he would have been satisfied just to see her smile at him again.
Evdokia stood still. Could she still hold his fascination at her age? Could he feel for her the way that his yawning absence from her life left her yearning for him?
He looked at her in all her glory, her regalia, all luminescent – all fire and light and forgiveness. She came to humble herself before a lowly rat. He was too brash in his youth to negotiate the labyrinthine protocols and contingencies of offering for a lady above his station, a woman raised to inhabit the purple rooms of the palace as a consort. A woman older than him. A woman he wanted nevertheless. A woman who wanted him. A woman he now stood before in the grimy, blood splattered rags that once were his uniform.
In this moment he wanted them both to forget all the trappings and stand before each other in the equality of the darkness – a man and a woman- nothing more. He extinguished the torch.
“You draw my breath, “ he said as he exhaled. “Do you remember that day in the palace gardens when your marriage was still being negotiated?”
“I saw you in the Hall.”
“And afterwards in the garden.”
“No, you have me mistaken. You were with another.”
“I was. But you were there too, on the porch, watching.”
Evdokia paled and was glad for the darkness.
“You were so curious. You blushed every time I looked at you. Regardless of the crowd in the hall that day my eyes found yours each time I turned to look at you. I wanted you, but you were beyond my grasp. You saw me leave the hall and you walked out onto the porch. I was stealing kisses and caresses from another but it was you I wanted. Through half closed lids I saw you spying. I wanted you to feel what you were missing. So I spoke of the desire I was experiencing with another, step by step so that you would want what I was giving away. So that you would know you were losing me”
Evdokia sucked in her breath. Romanus brushed his lips against hers.
“It started with a kiss,” he continued, prodding her lips.
Her head felt light. She reached for his arm to steady her stance. Coyly, she kissed him back. Gratified, he continued to narrate the seduction of the past, his hands and his lips demonstrating his memory. Evdokia quaked with the erotic allure. She had one marriage of political expediency and was looking forward to her next as one of her own making. The contract this time would not negate her desires as a woman and it would serve the Empire. She would rule from the polis while he policed the boarders.
She was gratified. His lips and his hands travelled down her body, belatedly reaching her feet. When he bent to kiss them his obeisance was to her as a woman and monarch.
For the blogpost: Historical notes on The Empress and the Prison Rat, click here.
[i] Michael Psellus in translation refers to the invading Seljuk Turks as Persians in the Penguin Classics translation by E.R.A. Sewter,Fourteen Byzantine Rulers.