Theodora by Stella Duffy – and a summer of Shetland!

First, yes, it has been a while since I posted a book blog. My only excuse is weeks in Shetland (and a bit of the Edinburgh Fringe) and London. Perhaps more of our adventures to come here; enough for now that I have read quite a lot of books…

When I saw details about the Harrogate History Festival   I spotted how many authors that I have mentioned here/would like to hear speak. Northernvicar  quickly got on the phone from Shetland (excellent phone signal, wi fi and libraries thereabouts) and booked three sessions. Apart from the rather wonderful Rose Tremain and Elizabeth Freemantle, who I have reviewed books by here, I also saw that Stella Duffy was going to take part in a session. Theodora is a book that I have seen around and was rather intrigued by, so I finally tracked down a copy in Newcastle.

It is an amazing book!

It tells the story of Theodora, from her childhood in Constantinople where she emerges as an highly successful actress and much more, through adventures in far flung outposts and desert challenges, to an almost fantastic climb to unlimited fame and influence. This is the newly Christianised, and class aware Roman Empire fighting off the impact of internal schisms and external challenges. So, yes, it is an historical novel. It is however, far more.

The central character, Theodora is a strong, quick thinking woman in a world of challenge and change. Women seemingly can be strong, can make a difference in these times, and Theodora succeeds as she does everything with so much thought, so much determination. She is sometimes wrong, sometimes misguided, but moves on in every sense, making friends and allies who can help. She is such a well drawn character; the reader follows her progress and pain day by day, cheering when she achieves and sympathising with her set backs. This is a society in which women are still valued for their bodies, their appearance and their reputations. Men still take advantage and do frankly terrible things to women, but equally there are those who value women for their intelligence and abilities, and they are the characters who stand out in this novel.

The writing is tremendous. You honestly do not need to have a background in classics or theology to understand this book; Theodora is a timeless character who would survive anywhere at anytime. There is enough background and description to get over a sense of time and place, without getting bogged down in detail. Duffy manages to convey so much in a few sentences of the heat, the bustle of the ports, the anticipation of the audience in the theatre. The clothes are the thing that transform the girl in the slightly tatty costumes, through penitence and trial, to fabulous impact as the woman emerges as valued and strong in her new role. There are the gossiping women, the cruel teachers, the loyal friends. There is satisfaction in the downfall of some, and the sorrow in the sadness of others.

This is an impressive book on so many levels; it reminds me of Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty without the tendency to get slower in the detail. This is a book that keeps moving, keeps engaging the reader. I have got the sequel, The Purple Shroud, and I greatly look forward to reading it, as well as the Harrogate Festival!