This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.
“X was not a willing housewife. X remained unmoved by squalling infants, would not wear skirts that swaddled the stride, had no desire to be pursued by the hot breath of young men, failed to enjoy domestic chores, and possessed none of the decorous modesty of maidenhood. Whatever X was, Contarano wrote, it was to be avoided at all costs.”
After Sappho is a reimagining of the lives of a chorus of Sapphic women, many well remembered in their spheres, who lived through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Set mostly in Europe, the warp and weft of the vignettes around which the book is structured focus on the way these women chose to interact and behave. Their lives are presented here as odysseys, performances, with more ordinary aspects rarely warranting a mention. The stories being told are fierce and succinct yet rippling with beautifully observed detail – the voices of the women crying out to be heard.
While seeking to silence such women, it is refreshing to find the men around whom they must exist remain mostly irrelevant within these pages, thereby turning the tables on how men and women are more usually treated. However, it is the rooms full of male law makers who remain the antagonists. Italy in particular was active in attempting to stamp out what its rulers regarded as a perversion, enacting legislation to protect their rights of subjugation, and bloodlines.
“a father … may expunge the crime of rape of his daughter by marrying her off to the man who has raped her, without a dowry. This is called a ‘marriage of reparation’, because it satisfies both men involved.”
Although undoubtedly feminist in tone, the exposition is playful. The women included herein weave in and out of each others’ orbits, coming together at: artistic salons, retreats, and travels around the continent. They revere the ancients, eschewing more modern rules and customs. Several of the women live as husband and wife, dressing as they please and seeking to further their education.
“Eva did not read the books extolling feminine virtues because she was poring over Virgil, Catullus, Ovid.”
There are occasional references to the works of the poet, Sappho. Mention is made of how the fables told to children have girls eaten and lost, or how women in literature are betrayed, raped and murdered. Sappho may have suffered heartbreaks but she wrote of living her own life rather than one imposed on her.
It is this that the women seek, to live and love as they please. Such behaviour goes against what many men can accept as it means they are sidelined. The author, however, avoids polemic. Men are at most bit players in this rendering.
“Virginia Woolf wondered later if perhaps we should have asked the men of Europe why we went to war. Frankly it hadn’t occurred to us that they might produce a coherent answer.”
The Great War, as it was called, marked a turning point. Although not acknowledged to the same extent, many women joined the men in the line of conflict, driving ambulances and treating the wounded. At home they took on jobs in the absence of male workers. They did not revel in the propaganda.
“Was there any beacon still shining amid this mustering of violent fears, this herding of people into common hatred?”
Some things did not change when the war ended. Men still attempted to censor and limit the lives women were permitted to lead. Literature was now more openly exploring narratives previously unacknowledged. The rooms of men agreed that such books should be banned lest women read them and get ideas.
“Noel Pemberton Billing was such a deplorable reader that he could only comprehend books he had invented himself.”
The author puts herself in amongst this chorus of women, offering a first-hand account of their lives, loves and interests. They are an arty lot, including: writers, artists, actresses, dancers. Some marry and have children. Many are wealthy, granting them wider choices. They desire freedoms granted through the accident of birth to the other half of the population.
Each vignette is typically less than a page in length. With such a large cast it takes time to get to know each character presented. Having got off to a storming start, interest waned a little until names and habits became familiar. The perusal was then, once again, fully immersive.
What makes this such a fun and satisfying read is the tone taken. Serious issues are explored but with an entertainingly ironic wit and verve.
Any Cop?: A book unlike any I have previously read in resonance and structure. A fine reminder that women need not conform and submit just because some men want them to.
“…we were not lost souls. We had been fighting for decades, sometimes desperately, for the rights to our own lives”
After Sappho – well reviewed Jackie. Sounds like an interesting read. Will look out for it
Thank you. It has recently been longlisted for the Booker Prize.