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Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra

Mary Butts’ clear intention here was to get away from the standard image of Cleopatra as some sort of sex kitten, as portrayed by primarily male writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. The Cleopatra of this novel is a woman who, while well aware that she has to use her charms, does it out of purely disinterested motives, namely to protect the interests of her country against the invading Romans. The portrait we get of her is somewhat removed, in that Butts mixes a relatively straightforward narrative style (Parts I and III) with first person narration by two of her servants (Part II), but keeps her distance in both cases. The result is that, while her portrait is sympathetic, we do not feel any close feeling for Cleopatra. Indeed, if we are to have any feelings for the characters, it is more for Charmian and Iras, her servants who have a narrative section to themselves and whose characters come out more than does the character of Cleopatra.

The main men in this book are uniformly bad or weak or both, with the possible exception of Caesar who comes off as a somewhat loveable rogue. Mark Anthony and Octavian, however, are scurrilous, ruthless power-mongers, with few redeeming features. For Cleopatra, Caesar has some attraction but her prime motivation is to help her cause. She is strongly compared with her sister, Arsinoë, who failed to act and, when she did, acted out of purely selfish motives and pays the price. As a feminist portrayal of Cleopatra, this novel is interesting but as literature it is flat.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Heinemann