Empowered by historical women
Novelist Karen Essex remembers when she first encountered the name Aspasia, a courtesan in ancient Greece, while wading through a copy of Plutarch in graduate school.
“Plutarch suddenly starts talking about Aspasia as Pericles’ mistress,” she said, mentioning the Athenian leader. Aspasia “had the respect of the most intelligent men in an Athens in which women weren’t even citizens and were completely sequestered. It was very titillating, and just a tease, because Plutarch mentions her, and that’s it.”
Where Plutarch kept mum, Essex has filled in the blanks.
Her fourth historical novel, “Stealing Athena,” expounds on the weight of the past, the power of art and the strength of women who exercised free will even when they had the fewest rights. But “Stealing Athena” seems uniquely relevant, as historical novels gain popularity and powerful women are again very much in the public eye.
“Stealing Athena” parallels the lives of Aspasia and Mary Elgin. Aspasia witnesses the Parthenon being built; Mary watches it being taken down by her husband, Lord Elgin, who, in a still contested move, lugged the marbles that now bear his name back to England. Both women flout traditional roles and both suffer for it.
“Women made virtually no progress from ancient Greece to post-Enlightenment England,” Essex said over steak at the restaurant Fraiche.
Essex isn’t so convinced of women’s progress in post-millennial America, either.
“There’s this resurgence now of the discussion about whether women should work or not if they have a child,” Essex said. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been through two graduate programs and I have to feed myself and support my daughter. There’s been a real shortage of men who want to give me money.”
Back to school
Essex made it through an interdisciplinary program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, before which she had been working as a film executive in L.A., where she’d moved to pursue costume design.
After realizing that she’d “forgotten to be a writer,” Essex got a master’s in fine arts from Goddard College in Vermont in 1999 and sold her thesis to Warner Books. Now she splits her time between writing novels and scripts in Studio City.
That thesis became “Kleopatra,” the first in a two-novel series that rounded out the seductress of popular memory, depicting her as an intelligent, fierce ruler rather than a conqueror of powerful men.
Cynn Chadwick, a writer and instructor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, met Essex in graduate school and now teaches Essex’s work to her freshman, precisely for its depiction of powerful women.
“I wanted to look at women in power, not women who are oppressed. We’re all in the patriarchy, so how do we get our power?” she said.
But when asked whether Essex’s work is feminist, Chadwick said, “Do we have to use that word? The stories are about women, for women, by a woman, but they are so much bigger than that. They’re human stories.”
Essex was hesitant to use term too.
“Feminism has gotten a bad rap and is now associated with anger and man-hating and shoulder pads, none of which I endorse, though I did think I looked fabulous in shoulder pads in the ‘80s,” she said. “The label can carry a heavy cost.”
Still, Essex admits that part of her inspiration to write historical fiction came from the omission of women from most histories, except for the stray mention of sexual liaisons. Essex’s daughter, in elementary school as Essex began to write, couldn’t name any powerful women other than Madonna. Essex’s third novel, “Leonardo’s Swans,” is her now-21-year-old daughter’s favorite book.
“Leonardo’s Swans” was also the book that set off Essex’s popularity. It follows a rivalry between sisters who seek to be muses for the legendary artist and has sold more than 40,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. Essex won Italy’s Premio Roma prize for foreign fiction last year.
“Europeans have so much more of a command of art and history; they’re an older culture,” she said, imagining why the book was such a big hit there.
Despite all that, one of the things Essex likes most about L.A. is its lack of history.
“I am from New Orleans, which is a history-drenched culture, and it’s a little bit stifling because you’re so defined by who your family is and where you went to school,” she said. “In about 15 minutes, Angelina Jolie was rehabilitated from this sort of kooky blood-drinking bisexual to a supermom and humanitarian spokeswoman. I’m sure the transformation is sincere, but only in L.A. can that happen.”
Essex’s historical novels join a field increasingly filled with female writers rehabilitating female characters, such as Ashley Crownover’s “Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf” and Susan Fraser King’s “Lady MacBeth,” noted Christopher M. Cevasco, editor and publisher of the historical-fiction-focused Paradox magazine.
“Female figures in history have tended to be viewed as extremes, either the virtuous extreme or the dastardly extreme,” Cevasco said. “They almost tend not to be described as real people. I think Karen succeeds in making her characters come alive as women rather than as caricatures.”
Historical fiction in general is enjoying a boom, as literary authors such as Phillip Roth, with his alternate-historical “The Plot Against America,” and Salman Rushdie with “The Enchantress of Florence” are trying their hands at puppeteering historical characters.
Essex in fact avoids reading most historical fiction, so the invented parts won’t interfere with her research into actual events and people.
For “Stealing Athena,” that research required studying and often directly quoting her characters’ letters, journals and speeches. Few plot points are pure invention; where they are, they seek to fill a gap in recorded history -- for example, Essex had to imagine why Aspasia might have been prosecuted for impiety.
Essex also traveled to the locations where the book takes place, having first found inspiration for the novel when eyeing the Elgin marbles at the British Museum. “The ideas come to me just by looking at a piece of art,” she said. “It’s a magical process really.”
The same marbles inspire Essex’s characters to mystical and spiritual thoughts as well: Aspasia speaks of “a spell . . . cast by the gods over everyone who entered” the Parthenon. Mary says to Elgin after the removal of one of six Caryatids that “it appears as if a family member has been ripped from the clan.”
Mary’s concerns are often voiced today. Italy, Greece and other countries are pursuing allegedly stolen antiquities, American museums recently agreed to stricter acquisitions rules, and the Getty Center has agreed to return dozens of pieces, including a sculpture of Aphrodite dating to the 5th century BC.
Greece has built the New Acropolis Museum specifically to house the Elgin marbles, in a glass gallery from which the Parthenon is visible.
Despite her passion for art, Essex is leaving it mostly behind for her next book, which will focus on women and mysticism, a subject that has fascinated her since she was a child, when, Essex said, her great-grandmother “could raise tables and make the room shake and predict events.”
“I’m the first person to cringe at these New Age, airy-fairy, goofy people, but I do feel like I’m always in touch with some other presence,” Essex said. “It’s hard to argue with it because inspiration comes from somewhere. I just say, ‘Oh, thanks, that was great.’ And I just hope I live long enough to write it all down.”