After working my way through that vast Colleen McCullough Masters of Rome series that I reviewed last month, I still didn’t feel like I had quite enough of that world, especially the Antony and Cleopatra story. So I went back to reread a novel I’d enjoyed some years ago, Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra. When I first read it, while I liked it, I didn’t feel like I knew much about the period in which it was set and some things flew right over my head. Now, after HBO and Colleen McCullough have completed my education on the Roman world, I found myself enjoying this novel even more with a better appreciation for its context.
Margaret George has long been right up there with Sharon Kay Penman as one of my favourite writers of historical fiction — the people who really do it right. And after reading Colleen McCullough all summer, enjoying what I learned from her but also struggling with her flaws as a storyteller, diving into a Margaret George version of the same story was liking diving into a cool pond on a hot day. I found myself immediately engrossed and emotionally involved, and thought “Ahhhh … yessss…this is how it’s done.”
The trick with historical fiction based on real characters and events is, of course, not what you tell but how you tell it. We all know that Antony fought Octavian for control of Caesar’s Rome and its Empire, that he allied himself with the Queen of Egypt and that their story ended tragically, with both Antony and Cleopatra committing suicide and Octavian/Augustus rising to uncontested power and becoming the first Roman Emperor.
What’s interesting is how you choose to tell the story — what kind of people you make the historical characters into, and what motives you give them for the actions we all know they committed. Also, of course, which version of historical events you choose, since apart from those broad-brush strokes of history there are lots of fine details that historians either don’t know or can’t agree on, leaving novelists free to choose what they’ll tell. Two novelists could write completely different versions of why Antony pursued Cleopatra’s ships at Actium and both be “right” in the fictional sense, but you couldn’t write a version where Antony and Cleopatra survive and live happily ever after, unless you call it “alternative history” or something.
The makers of HBO’s Rome basically told the story as Octavian and his propagandists told it: Cleopatra used a weak and susceptible Antony as her tool, kept him drunk or drugged while she schemed against Octavian, and destroyed not only Antony but herself and Egypt in the process. McCullough’s Antony and Cleopatra aren’t the caricatures Octavian portrayed them as, but they aren’t particularly nice people either: Cleopatra, while she was genuinely in love with Caesar, is shamelessly using Antony to achieve her real goal, which is an imperial throne for her son by Caesar. Margaret George’s version is different again: her Antony and Cleopatra are both good people who are genuinely, hopelessly in love with each other, making some flawed decisions and caught up in events beyond their control.
The beauty of historical fiction is that any and all of these can be valid retellings of a “true” story from the pages of history. What Margaret George does so brilliantly is makes us care. Conventional wisdom would say that the more flawed versions of the characters (which would be McCullough’s) are the more “real” and believable people, but the magic is really in how you weave the words, and while I’m constantly in the process of learning to do it as a novelist, I sure can recognize when it’s well done. In The Memoirs of Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt is a completely believable person, and her struggles, her loves, and her tragedy are totally engrossing. Reading this was the perfect cap to my Roman holiday reading.
A side note on Margaret George: two of her first three novels, this one and The Autobiography of Henry VIII, are among my favourite historical novels ever, and Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles I remember as being very good and moving too. Her last two, Mary Called Magdalene and Helen of Troy, are good reads as well, but they didn’t have anything like the same emotional impact for me and I always felt a bit distant from the characters. I hoped she wasn’t losing her touch, or I wasn’t losing my taste for her writing. Rereading Cleopatra assured me it wasn’t the latter, but I had another thought. Perhaps with Mary Magdalene and Helen of Troy, the mythic elements of the story made it impossible for the characters to be as fully human as those in her others stories. You’ve got Jesus and a bunch of people who we now think of as saints on one hand, and all those Greek gods and heroes on the other … I think the subject matter made it harder for her to work her usual magic. I’ll be very interested in her next novel, which is supposed be about Elizabeth I in the later years of her reign, and I hope to recapture some of the the thrill of reading Margaret George for the first time.