Margaret George is one of my Goddesses of Historical Fiction (the other being Sharon Kay Penman. Philippa Gregory is vying for entrance to the pantheon, but the jury is still out). I fell in love with George’s first blockbuster historical novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII, and have read every one since. Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene … and now, Helen of Troy.
I have to confess that while I’ve enjoyed every one of these novels, none has had the emotional impact of the Henry VIII one, lines and images from which still linger in my mind (although it may be that that’s the only one I’ve reread. But then: why? Because it’s the best). Seems funny to me that a female author’s most intimate and intense portrayal of a historical character should be the one male character she wrote about, but that’s just the way I read them.
That being said, there’s no such thing as a bad Margaret George novel, in my opinion, and Helen of Troy is certainly a good one. It was also an educational read for me, as my background in all things Greek is woefully lacking. I often tell my students what I myself was told in first-year university: if you want to understand English literature, you need a solid grounding in two things: the Bible, and Greek mythology. Due to the peculiarities of an Adventist education, I am superbly well-versed in the first, and virtually ignorant of the second.
In fact, I have to admit that prior to reading this novel, not only had I not read the Iliad and the Odyssey; most of my knowledge about the Trojan War came from watching the justifiably panned movie Troy, with Brad Pitt pouting through the role of Achilles. (If by chance you have missed this movie, or seen it and want something to laugh at, please skip straight to Troy in 15 Minutes, one of the funniest things ever posted on the internet).
Okay. Deep breath. Back to Margaret George and her not-quite-historical subject, Helen of Troy. Not knowing the story was actually an advantage for me, because I did come to the novel with a certain freshness and openness. And it is a good story, told from Helen’s point of view and very readable and engaging. George’s decision to have her characters act and speak in a rather lofty and mythic style distances them somewhat from the reader, sadly, and for me it prevented me from feeling truly close to the characters or really sharing their sorrows. The passage of time in the novel is odd, too — a problem George admits grappling with in the Afterword, but one which I didn’t feel was handled satisfactorily. I never had the sense of time passing, of the characters growing older, as they must have done.
Despite the feeling that I wanted more from this novel than it gave me, I did thoroughly enjoy reading it, and will be waiting for the next Margaret George historical novel. I wonder who she’s going to tackle next?