According to popular ancient rumour, the Greek poetess Sappho ended her life by throwing herself off a cliff, in unrequited love for a gorgeous ferryman called Phaon.
According to popular ancient rumour, the Greek poetess Sappho ended her life by throwing herself off a cliff, in unrequited love for a gorgeous ferryman called Phaon. Ancient misogynists must have found this a comforting tale. First it suggested the woman who had dared to trespass on the male world of Greek literary creativity had been mad all along. Second, it reclaimed Sappho for male heterosexual control: despite the undeniable evidence in her poems of homoerotic passion for other women, here she was enthralled by a man.
It is a story that has appealed to dominant Western culture across the centuries. We have a neat etching of the scene, as Sappho hesitates just before her leap, made by the young Queen Victoria in the 1840s - the figure of the poetess bears a disconcerting resemblance to the queen. Erica Jong's version of the tale in her new historical fantasy takes a different, and predictably subversive, direction.
Her Sappho is not suffering from unrequited passion: it has been requited more than enough. She is not particularly besotted with Phaon. The man who provokes the leap is her fellow poet Alcaeus, father of her daughter. And it is hardly to give away a plot so obviously set up for a happy ending to add that Alcaeus is serendipitously on hand in a boat beneath the cliff to rescue her.
Almost nothing is known for certain about the real Sappho, apart from information gleaned from surviving fragments of her poetry (mostly on scraps of papyrus from Egypt) and from imaginative ancient accounts about her life. In fact, one late 20th-century dictionary of Lesbian Peoples (by Wittig and Zeig) famously devoted a whole page to Sappho - but left it blank.
Jong responds to this challenge with characteristic verve. The narrative is a first-person account of Sappho's life as it flashes through her mind before that not-to-be-fatal leap. This turns out to be an engaging combination of typical Jong themes - energetic sex, mothers-and-daughters, more energetic sex - woven into a colourful background drawn from the ancient stories. Jong's poetess is boringly married, just as a medieval encyclopaedia reports, to a man called Cercylas of Andros (I suspect that Jong would have made more of this had she realised that his Greek name roughly translates as "Mr Dick of the Isle of Man"). But her overriding passion is for Alcaeus, and most of the book is taken up with her odyssey around the Mediterranean in search of him and their daughter, a journey interspersed with plenty of casual sex with both men and women.
Some of this is very funny indeed. The account of Sappho's meeting with the Amazons - even if slightly wobbly in its feminism - is especially craftily drawn. The standard ancient accounts of this mythical race of warrior women make them a barbarous challenge to the rule of men. Jong turns them into a humourless quasi-religious group of feminist separatists, who have wonderfully parodic ideas about the irrationality of the male sex ("fumes, which rise from their testicles, muddle their brains, poor things"). They claim to have invented pessaries to filter out male seed and ensure no boys are born. It does not take Sappho long to discover that they are murdering baby boys (just as ancient authors said they did).
Jong is not a great stylist and the prose often jars. So does her romantic assumption that the ancient world was a sexual paradise where bisexuality flourished without prejudice. All the same, Sappho's Leap makes a racy and enjoyable read. What is surprising perhaps is that, 30 years after Fear of Flying and its trademark "zipless fuck", Jong has not made a raunchy Sappho her subject before.
Mary Beard's 'The Parthenon' is published by Profile