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Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore - Stella Duffy

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      29.09.2011 17:52
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      A fictional account of Theodora's amazing story

      Theodora had to earn a living on the stage since she was five, after her father was killed by his own bear. In her teens she also becomes a prostitute. Yet she ended up as Empress. Not surprisingly, she remains one of the more controversial and colourful figures of the Roman Empire.

      In Theodora: Empress, Actress, Whore, Stella Duffy takes some of what is known about Theodora of 6th century Constantinople and turns it into a lively, rollicking historical novel. Theodora is an intelligent young woman who learns and takes on several different roles successfully. This is Duffy's 12th novel but her first foray into historical fiction.

      The story is told as a third person narrative, but it is often so vivid I think I must have been reading Theodora herself telling me it in the first person. Duffy also uses a lot of dialogue, often shown in quotation marks but without using "she said" or "he said" - this technique of writing bits like scenes from a play seems very appropriate for a story about a performer and actress and gives the story more immediacy. At the same time, using the third person, Duffy can report her heroine's feelings and emotions in a way which would seem unrealistic in the first person. The dialogue includes quite a lot of swear words - they are not there to shock, but seem appropriate to the way in which the writer imagines her characters speaking and to the discussions they are having.

      I was shocked by some scenes, particularly at the beginning where 11 year old Theodora is being brutally trained for theatre work - her teacher sounds like a thug and a bully yet she loves him (not in a sexual way) and continues to remember him with affection.

      The author's forthright opinions on women's rights, sexuality and everything else are apparent here. I really enjoyed this, although others may object to the imagining of this real historical woman as a feminist icon. Various scenes show how the system is set up to oppress women and how Theodora resists this.

      "I found the story of Stella Duffy's Theodora compelling and entertaining"

      Despite the novel's provocative title, Theodora's days as a performer and sex worker are mostly over at the start of the story in this book, and it is not another prostitute's memoir turned into a novel and given a historical setting for flavour. There are quite a few sex scenes - sometimes the sex is recreational or romantic, sometimes it is for other purposes.

      Between her life as a child actress and prostitute (or courtesan) and becoming Empress, Theodora travelled to Africa as the mistress of a man who had been sent there as governor. After this relationship ends messily, she had a series of adventures including religious conversion and a friendship/relationship with another woman before returning to Constantinople. I particularly enjoyed the part of the story involving a woman called Macedonia. The religious part of the story is interesting and important, as it was part of what happened next, but I am not sure I fully understood it. There is more to come before the end of the novel as there is the extraordinary story of how a woman from a lowly social class and of a questionable background became Empress.

      I found the story of Stella Duffy's Theodora compelling and entertaining and I would love to spend more time with her if there is a sequel.

      Theodora: Empress, Actress, Whore by Stella Duffy
      Published by Virago, paperback June 2011
      RRP £7.99; Amazon £4.89, or £4.49 on Kindle

      I received a free copy of this book through Virago's First Look reviewer scheme.

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