Toga-ripping yarns

Mary Beard thrills to an account of romance among the Romans
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The Independent Culture
The True Story of the Novel by

Margaret Anne Doody,

HarperCollins, pounds 15.99

Multiculturalism begins at home." Margaret Anne Doody's neat slogan is aimed at one version of English, parish-pump ethnocentricity: our common assumption that "The Novel" is a quintessentially English invention, one of the happiest products of the marriage between Protestantism and early Capitalism, sometime in the 18th century. This is a nonsensical view, Doody argues, not only because it ignores Spanish and Far Eastern traditions, among others; but also because it is wilfully blind to the origins of western fiction in the Latin and Greek novels of the Roman Empire.

These ancient novels come in many volumes and in many different forms. But the commonest theme is one of love thwarted but ultimately triumphant. A young boy and a young girl, beautiful and passionately in love, win through against all the trials that have kept them apart: false accusations of murder, mistaken death, attacks by bandits, even their own ignorance of the practical details of making love.

Over the last 50 years or so Classicists have been deeply divided about the significance and the quality of these books. The standard line used to be that these were "romances" and did not deserve the prestigious title "novel". They were the ancient equivalent of Mills and Boon, trivial timewasters for the Roman imperial housewife. To think that Achilles Tatius and his lovers' antics had been preserved intact, when more than half of, say, Livy or Tacitus didn't make it through to the Middle Ages!

But the tables have been turning. Recent critics have seen a lot more in these novels: sophisticated literary jokes and theorising on writing and representation; plus a radical vision of sexual partnership, which subverts the masculinist tradition of almost all other ancient literature. The implication is that we must be dealing with a highly educated, probably male readership. These were books, in other words, as much for the study as for the salon.

Doody is a powerful and engaging exponent of this new view, which she lays out in some detail (with enticing plot summaries) in the first 150 pages of this very long, but never dull, book. But more important, The True Story of the Novel is the first critical study to link this Roman phase with the later development of the "novel" as we have come to know it. Doody tracks these texts through the Middle Ages (it was only because some medieval monk bothered to copy them that we can still read them; and it's worth asking, as Doody does, why they should have bothered) and through the printed versions and translations that followed.

Here she is at her best, exposing the literary controversies and "culture wars" that these novels provoked. Jean Racine, for example, was apparently determined to read Heliodorus' Ethiopian Tales, even in the face of the opposition of his teacher, who managed to burn the first two copies Racine got hold of; the third time, Racine memorised the novel before handing it over. As Doody remarks, this story shows just how difficult it was to eradicate these novels "which steal into the very places schoolmasters are trying hardest to guard, the hearts and minds of the young". She does not mention that Heliodorus' work stretches to some ten volumes and what that might tell us about the staying power of young Racine - or the veracity of the story.

Sadly, though, in a book which deals a witty dispatch to much of the nonsense talked about the history of the novel, Doody lets quite a lot of nonsense back in at the margins. She has fallen for one of the daftest theories of the ancient novel of the last 100 years. Not a classicist herself, she has taken good advice and has homed in on the best modern critical work in the subject. Her major blind spot has been to embrace one particular speculation, which has tried to suggest that these novels are works of religious fiction; that they reflect the rites of the so- called "mystery" cults popular in the Roman Empire (notably of Isis, Mithras and Cybele); and that they trace "the process of the soul in the service of a god or goddess".

The evidence for this speculation is almost non-existent. There is just one explicitly "Isiac" novel, Apeleius's Golden Ass, which ends with the hero's initiation into the rites of Isis. But still it leads Doody off on the chase of the Great Goddess not only in ancient fiction, but as a defining feature of all modern fiction too. This turns out to be a very silly trail (particularly silly when it leads her to the dog in Wuthering Heights, who is graced with the divine name of Juno) which just fails to ruin an otherwise elegant, learned and convincing book.