Non-Fiction, Reviews

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I was particularly excited to read this biography of Agrippina the Younger for a couple of reasons: I had only vaguely heard of her and was keen to know more about a real Roman woman, and I also pledged to support this book on its publisher’s website. As you may know, Unbound is a crowd-funding publisher where readers can pledge towards a particular book, and in exchange you get a copy of it and your name printed inside. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book and pledged as soon as I read about it – and was very pleased to finally receive my copy of the paperback a couple of weeks ago. I started reading straight away.

Now, I knew that Agrippina was not going to be an ‘academic’ book, despite the author Emma Southon being a Dr, because I knew she has left academia. And I knew that Unbound are an unconventional publisher, and they might not be as rigid as some of the bigger presses when it comes to the books they publish. But somehow I was entirely unprepared for the style of this book.

I totally get that Southon wanted to write a more ‘popular’ style of book on the Romans, and I think that is a good thing, especially as she actively seeks to demolish old-fashioned ideas about them, and makes a point of highlighting how women were treated in the Roman period and in the historical record. Throughout the book Southon demonstrates how hard it is to put together a biography of someone about whom we have very few sources of information left. This is very admirable and very interesting, and initially I liked that Southon was clearly rejecting the stiff academic style of historical biography, and that she makes a point of trying to make her characters seem more human and relatable, especially when trying to understand what happened and why.

However – perhaps it’s just me, but I found the writing almost too casual and chatty, and I found this hard to get along with. As Southon points out, a lot of the characters in her story had the same or very similar names, and everyone in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was related in complicated ways, and it can be hard to keep track. But I found the chatty and casual style made it even harder to keep track of this, because the conversational tone meant that it was a bit stream-of-consciousness and meandering.

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Agrippina the Younger (image: britannica.com)

Despite my issues with the style – and the over-the-top swearing and gratuitous graphic phrasing – the story of Agrippina’s life is undoubtedly fascinating and engaging. Her position in the dynasty meant that her life was full of high drama, including exile to an island, a few possible murder plots, affairs, death, divorce, political intrigue, revenge… and that’s just in the first couple of chapters. I loved reading about such a courageous and defiant woman who lived in an age when women had basically no rights and, as Southon points out, did not matter unless they were attached to a man. It was fascinating to see how Agrippina’s position and status changed along with the men in her life, and how interconnected and fragile the structure of Roman high society was. Everyone’s lives were intertwined and very involved, and everyone was constantly vying for power and status. Women had so little of both these things, so they often seemed the most desperate. Southon succeeds in depicting the women in this story as fully-formed people as well as possible, given the limited source material. She also succeeds at acknowledging both the flaws and importance of these sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.

Agrippina is a very engaging read, and I am very glad that Unbound made it possible for this book to be published. The world always needs more books about the women of the ancient world, especially such influential and intriguing women like Agrippina. This biography helpfully includes a list of further reading, which I will definitely be mining for inspiration. It has also reminded me that I need to do much more Classical reading! I work on the subject in my job, so I often forget just how much I love reading about the Classical world outside of work. Agrippina is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about women in the Roman world in a less formal way, and I’m sure a lot of people will love this book.

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Published in 2018 by Unbound. I received my copy as part of the crowdfunding scheme.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Vintage Didion, by Joan Didion (2004)

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(image: goodreads.com)

This little book is one of the Vintage Readers that were released in the early 2000s. As pointed out on the back cover, this is a small collection of Joan Didion’s essays that are a good introduction to her work. The essays cover politics, crime, the war in El Salvador, crime and corruption in Miami, the culture of New York (including a fascinating essay on the Central Park Jogger case and its impact), and, at the end, an essay from 2002 on the after effects of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’. It’s a wide range of subjects, but they work well together, given that in each essay Didion explores or analyses something ‘bad’, something that made a real cultural and social impact in some way. I particularly enjoyed the essays on New York, and ‘Clinton Agonistes’, from the book Political Fictions (2002), which covers the Monica Lewinsky scandal, its media coverage, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the cultural impact of the whole situation. In this essay Didion reminds us of the absurdity of most news coverage, particularly when it comes to politics and sex (together and separately), and how the reactions of those in the public eye, both in and outside of politics, has such an influence on the general population. Reading this essay in 2017, you can really see the lasting impact of the scandal, and its influence on how America deals with the personal lives of those in power to this day.

Previously it hasn’t mattered to me if I have read Didion’s articles that were written years before I was born, about things I’ve never experienced – I’ve still enjoyed them and found them interesting. This time, however, I felt more disconnected from the subject matter, and felt that I would have benefitted from some background knowledge, especially about El Salvador and Miami, two places I know nothing about. I engaged more with the New York essays, as well as the one about Clinton, as I had more of a frame of reference for those, and had heard of the Central Park Jogger case. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Didion’s writing, her long and complicated sentences, as well as her acerbic charm and scathing criticisms. Every time I read her work I feel like I learn something and expand my horizons a little.

The Vintage Readers are intended to serve as introductions or overviews of writers, and I think this works well for Didion. I think it would have made sense to include some more of her writing on California, however, as this is where she really excels. Perhaps something from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, like her writing about Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960s. But, having said that, if you’re more interested in politics and the later 20th century, this book would certainly be a good introduction to Joan Didion.

I’m glad I picked up Vintage Didion at Skoob back in 2015, and I’m glad I read it. It has inspired me to read more of Didion’s books, and I have in fact just bought a copy of her most recent book, South and West: From a Notebook. What are your favourite Didion essays and books?

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Published by Vintage in 2004.

Purchase from Blackwell’s. Not available from Wordery or Foyles, but they have all her other books here and here.

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