Toga-ripping yarns

Mary Beard thrills to an account of romance among the Romans

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.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution