Women Speaking Up for Themselves: A New Voice for an Epic Retold
Pat Barker discusses her new novel, The Silence of the Girls.
The Iliad is famously a story about the anger of men. The Trojan War itself was, according to myth, caused by the abduction of Helen. The subsequent wounded pride of her husband and his allies launched the “thousand ships” which led the Greek army to the beach under Troy. The Iliad itself is centred on the anger of Achilles, as its opening lines make clear:
Anger be now your song, immortal one, / Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous, / that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss / and crowded brave souls into the undergloom, / leaving so many dead men – carrion / for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.1
In her new re-telling of the epic, Pat Barker chooses to focus instead on the fear, the trauma – and yes, the anger – of the women of The Iliad, and of one woman in particular, Briseis.
Briseis is the trigger for the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon (the war leader of the Greeks). Agamemnon takes her from Achilles when he has to sacrifice his own favoured slave girl. As a result, Achilles refuses to fight under Agamemnon’s command, even when he is offered Briseis back. This forces his dearest friend Patroclus to take his place in the Greek lines. Predictably, Patroclus is killed and The Iliad only ends when Achilles has killed, defiled, and then returned the body of Hector, greatest of the Trojans, to his elderly father.
The Silence of the Girls follows this story from Briseis’ standpoint. Barker says of the novel: “My aim was always to echo The Iliad from a woman’s point of view. In The Iliad Briseis is the subject of a quarrel between two very powerful men, both of whom are eloquent, powerful speakers, but she herself says nothing. My aim was always to break that silence.”
She does so, in a haunting, exquisite novel that explores the depths of grief, fear, confusion and anger that a woman in Briseis’ position may have felt. As Barker says: “Hers is by far the most dramatic story in The Iliad. She goes from queen to slave girl in a single day, and is then forced into a sexual relationship with a man who killed her husband and all four of her brothers… My first reaction [on reading The Iliad, about ten years ago] was outrage at the silence of the girls who are handed out as prizes to the fighters.”
The novel explores these themes without pulling any punches. Briseis goes from a queen in a palace to being a possession whose value is as a symbol of a man’s power over another. Her viewpoint and expectations have to change rapidly to meet her new circumstances: her biggest fear is not being passed around between the commanders, who, no matter how repellent, will ensure that she is fed, housed and clothed, but to have them tire of her and be handed down to the common soldiers, potentially to starve and freeze to death in the gutter.
Yet the women of Barker’s novel are not passive victims. Briseis uses her skill in medicine to gain for herself a place of respect beyond her status as a slave girl and secures the admiration of Patroclus, who in turn persuades Achilles to make provision for her future life. Despite their circumstances, the women in the Greeks’ camp form friendships, develop interests and skills, bond over their common experiences and win small triumphs over their captors. Above all, it is a story of survival and hope in horrific circumstances.
Perhaps that is why the novel resonates so deeply. The Silence of the Girls isn’t the only novel that has gone back to Greek mythology recently – in the last year alone we’ve seen books by Colm Tóibín, Madeline Miller, Stephen Fry and Kamila Shamsie. Barker reflects on this trend: “People generally return to the past when they feel they are nearing the end. You see that in old people at the end of their lives. The closing years of the 20th century saw an upsurge in writing about the First World War – the great catastrophe that marred its beginning. So why this interest in going right back to the dawn of literature? Is it because literary culture is on its last legs? Or is it because there seems to be a gear change in relationships between the sexes? Or is it, perhaps, an interest in telling stories that have resonated with people for 3,000 years – when so many of our own narratives seem both trivial and ephemeral?”
The Silence of the Girls will be published on 30 August 2018 by Hamish Hamilton (UK), and on 11 September 2018 by Doubleday (US).
1. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (London: Everyman, 1992), lines 1-6.
About the contributor: Charlotte Wightwick is a reviewer and article contributor for the HNS and the History Girls’ Cabinet of Curiosities. She’s currently writing a novel about the discovery of the dinosaurs in nineteenth-century England.