An American teacher's modern retelling of Homer's epic myth as a homosexual love affair has become the final winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction. But the competition proved equally fierce among guests at the ceremony as potential new sponsors vied to take over the award given to the best female-composed fiction.
Madeline Miller, a Latin teacher from Cambridge, Massachusetts, took the £30,000 prize for The Song Of Achilles, her debut novel, which recast the Greek warrior as a lover as well as a fighter.
The novel makes explicit the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus, the exiled prince who is befriended by the vengeful warrior and journeys to Troy alongside him. Ms Miller said she was "levitating with excitement" after her victory last night. "It was so astonishing for mejust to be in the shortlist with the other writers."
Speaking about the motivation for her book, she said: "I've always loved the classics since I was a girl. Achilles gripped me. I found his stories so tragic and human."
Ms Miller, who teaches Shakespeare and classics to her pupils, said she hoped that her take on The Iliad "might help to combat some of the homophobia that I see too often".
Joanna Trollope, chair of the Orange Prize Jury, praised a "more-than-worthy winner – original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her". The prize, awarded to the best, most original, most accessible English-language novel by a woman anywhere in the world, will be the last to carry the Orange imprimatur, after the communications company ended its sponsorship after 17 years. Potential new backers were invited to the Royal Festival Hall ceremony and Ms Trollope was confident that a sponsor would soon emerge. She said: "There's been lots of interest and we have two or three potential sponsors flying in today for the award. We'd like to get it tied up before the world goes on holiday. The prize is an absolute plum."
The Orange Prize was created in response to an all-male 1991 Booker shortlist. Although critics argue that there is no longer a need for a literary award restricted to women, the new sponsors will not be allowed to alter its core purpose. "It will still be for female writers only," Ms Trollope said. "But when one door closes, another opens. A new sponsor will enable the prize to go global."
The Orange years had ended on a high, Ms Trollope said. "This was the strongest shortlist we have had for a long time," she said. "They all would have been winners in a weaker year."
The Song of Achilles "has a timeless quality. It has a powerfully told love story at its heart but it's filled with tremendous drama".
The judging panel included The Independent's Natalie Haynes and the newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky.