A Week in Books: Tales of Britain's first Iron Lady

Click to follow

A slightly alarming poster in Tube stations exhorts travellers to read a book about "Britain's first Iron Lady". Some of us are still trying to get over the last one, thank you very much. All the same, commuters would be well-advised to take up the invitation. Manda Scott's series of novels about Boudica - queen of the Iceni, scourge of the Roman legions and grand-nan of every terrifying Essex Girl - is not merely shaping up to become one of the boldest of recent adventures in historical fiction: Scott's richly textured, robustly plotted yarns show that Roman history keeps its ability to hold up a distant, if distorting, mirror to our own, neo-imperial era.

Last autumn, Robert Harris's chart-topping Pompeii portrayed a professional class of engineers and scholars overwhelmed by the disaster that struck their affluent domain out of a clear, late-summer sky. Harris, who promises more tales of ancient Rome, produced a novel that the Man Booker chairman John Carey admitted to enjoying more than the works that reached his prize short-list. Scott, I think, deserves as much respect, as she approaches the first-century zenith of the Roman Empire from an utterly different angle.

Unlike Harris, writing about the well-documented imperial heartland, Scott's locale looms up through the "white fog" of myth. Its only near-solid shape lies in the historian Tacitus's biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, who governed Britannia more than a decade after Boudica's revolt AD60. Yet he invented as much as he reported. Scholars suspect that when (to take a celebrated example) Tacitus makes a Caledonian chieftain spit at the invaders that "they make a wilderness and call it peace", he's composing a fiction that voices his own old-Republican values. So the novelist of Roman Britain has an almost infinite licence to imagine.

In Dreaming the Eagle (Bantam, £6.99), the first in her trilogy, Scott celebrates the mystic matriarchy of the British tribes with lush lyricism and story-weaving panache. Her bedrock of eco-feminism (with births evoked in as much loving, gory detail as battles) makes that "iron lady" tag especially inapt. From this green perspective, Roman patriarchy and materialism menaced a wise social order. Cometh the hour; cometh the woman: Breaca the warrior, known as the "Boudica", or Bringer of Victories.

Dreaming the Bull (Bantam, £12.99), Scott's sequel, shows Breaca inspiring guerrilla resistance to the rapacious legions from her island fastness in Mona (Anglesey) during the reign of Claudius, AD47 to 54. In this book, much of the psychological and political meat (and it's strong, sophisticated fare) comes not from the sidelined Breaca but her turncoat half-brother Bán - aka Julius Valerius, officer of the First Thracian cavalry.

The double-minded Bán makes an engrossing study of a young man torn between family and career, loyalty and betrayal. Scenes in Rome, where Breaca's captured lover Caradoc pleads the tribes' case, allow Scott to darken Robert Graves's portrait of the emperor (a "rather pleasant whitewash", she snorts). The bloody climax of the redhead's revolt still awaits, in a final volume. Scott will surely put to flight all memories of the hapless ITV version written by Andrew Davies for Alex Kingston.

Scott, like some of her predecessors, lets British readers envisage their island as an ancient home of liberty, a bulwark against globalising tyranny. The rival tradition - with Harris as its new, progressive incarnation - starts in sympathy with the heavy task of running the empire: the outlook of engineers, not gladiators. Both Roman standards can now boast virtuoso bearers. Fans of Scott and Harris might also enjoy an excursion into the Roman Britain of the great children's writer, Rosemary Sutcliff (in The Eagle of the Ninth). Sutcliff's work hints at the chance of synthesis, even harmony, in the aftermath of this "clash of civilisations". And that, of course, is what actually happened on these shores.

Comments