To me, one of the most fascinating things that a writer of historical fiction can do is take a hated historical character, one whom most readers assume is the villain of the piece, and tell the story from his or her point of view, showing how that person’s “villainous” acts were perfectly justifiable according to their own values. My favourite examples of this are of course Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, about Thomas Cromwell, Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III, Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort, and Margaret George’s own stunning The Autobiography of Henry VIII. In some cases, these characters emerge more as heroes than as villains due to reconsideration of the evidence and the biased nature of the popular view of them. (This is certainly true of The Sunne in Splendour’s view of Richard III). In other cases, we simply understand the person better in the context of his or her own times and values, and recognize that while they did things that we would definitely consider repugnant, they had their own reasons and ways of justifying those actions to themselves.
In tackling Roman emperor Nero, Margaret George has picked a character with a particularly unsavoury reputation, and she’s doing a bit of both here — to some extent, she’s trying to rehabilitate him by showing that not all the terrible acts attributed to him are likely to have been things he actually did. There was (as with Richard III) a very concerted effort made by contemporaries and immediate successors to smear his name after his death. But she also shows how some of the things Nero actually did do — such as murdering his mother, Agrippina — while definitely morally troubling (even to Nero himself) also seemed justifiable in the context of his reign.
This is the first of a planned two(?) books on Nero, and I found it a very engaging read. I don’t know if Margaret George will ever do as great a job on any historical character as she did on Henry VIII — the Autobiography is still the pinnacle of her work, to me — but I enjoyed getting into Nero’s world, seeing it from his perspective, as imagined by George. I will definitely be picking up the second volume when it comes out.