Blogging about that ancient Greek wordsmith Sappho the other day reminded me how good novels, just like the play “Sappho in 9 Fragments”, only ever reveal fragments of a person’s true identity. Ancient Greek performers wore masks and perhaps Sappho’s lovely maiden friends performed some of Sappho’s poetry in masks, scampering about in endless folds of soft tunics, frightening the sheep – and males – on the Island of Lesbos. Who and what people really are, is normally hidden to us, unless they choose to reveal their true identity. A poet may think he or she is wearing their heart on their sleeve when they write a piece of poetry, but in reality the reader can never fully grasp what the poet felt.
Something else occurred to me in connection with Sappho and that is how few fragments history has left us of great women. We know they existed and we even know some of their names, but that most ferocious of all time-travelling termites (the Latin term I believe is Evil Swine-y-cus), has succeeded to all but erase them from history.
Greek men would hop about excitedly because they had just invented democracy, but in their eagerness to pat each other on the back they forgot to extend free speech, free vote and free EVERYTHING to women. A few centuries later those horrid Romans turned up and the sorry saga of omission continued, for ancient Romans were just as good at leaving women out of history as their Greek counterparts.
In all fairness, occasionally we get to hear of a Roman woman of high rank, but it’s usually in connection with some demented emperor who’s killed his wife to marry another, ate his daughters or made sheep’s eyes at his mother. We see fragments of Cleopatra, but only through the eyes of Evil Swine-y-cus.
With a few exceptions like Hildegard von Bingen we hear little from medieval women, for Europe was infested with nasty-minded monk-boys who couldn’t bear the thought that a girl could run an abbey and market town better than they could. So they set about to vilify women and erase every trace of them through the ages.
Now and again we get fragments of what historic women felt and dreamed, for thankfully thousands of ancient Egyptian stone tablets found under the rubble of workers’ huts have begun to reveal what every-day life was like for women. Some glimpses of what Roman women’s conditions were like can also be gleaned from tablets found at some of Britain’s old Roman forts. Soldiers would write home to their mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends, and a few tablet replies survived the annual cull Evil Swine-y-cus has performed ever since Neanderthal girls started leaving graffiti on cave walls.
Another curious thing about fragments is that they urge us to find out more. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about know-it-all and show-off extraordinaire Julius Ceasar, who was a prolific scribbler, always bragging about his achievements, filling stone tablet after stone tablet with his conquests.
But Cleopatra, boudica, Sappho or female pirates Elizabeth Patrickson and Jacquotte Delahaye are a different matter. I could happily spend days online or in the library to forage for a few morsels about their lives, no matter how vague the historic fragments may be.
The same “must-read-on” effect is achieved in novels where a location is revealed in short glimpses; it draws us in, just like the protagonist we want to know where we are, what our surroundings look like and whether or not they pose a threat to us. The heroine strikes a match and discovers she’s in a cave; the match goes out and she strikes another, this time discovering a tunnel, with the 3rd match she’s facing a sleepy bear and so forth. Fragmentation of location raises the tension and forces the reader to turn the page. It’s an excellent device that works in any setting.
Let your heroine walk through a crowded restaurant or cafe, one by one she recognises faces, they either greet her or studiously ignore her…until she sees the one face she’s been searching for all along. With every new table or nook in the restaurant comes a new encounter that reveals fragments of where our heroine is headed or where she has come from to arrive at this point in the story.
What also works very well is when a plot is revealed through different people’s point of view. The most famous example of this is perhaps Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” which is told in letters. Although this style of writing is firmly embedded in the 19th century and hardly ever used today, it is nonetheless a very good dramatic device to raise the tension of your novel. Each letter writer sees events in a slightly different way – giving us a fragment from their own perspective – and this eventually gives the reader a full picture of what has happened in a linear timeline. Fragments of impending doom or a heroine’s ultimate fate shine through here and there, but all the players and the reader won’t know the real extent of the terror about to happen until it is unleashed.
So once more with feeling:
“Sappho in 9 Fragments” by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, directed by Jessica Ruano and starring Victoria Grove will do its historically best to draw in every happy little sheep that turns up at Arch1 Live Music Venue on 7th May. Let the 21st century Sappho enchant you and you’ll catch a fragmented glimpse of the real Sappho and her mates on Lesbos.
(more info at www.sappho9fragments.com )
(source of pictures: Wikipedia)