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Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls

The great epics of literature tend to be written by men and are mainly about men. Yes, I am well aware of The Tale of the Genji and Sappho, of women from Brunhilda to Cleopatra and of all the women that appear in Greek legends, from goddesses such as Diana and Aphrodite, the Muses and the Erinnyes, and Helen of Troy, Penelope and Clytemnestra. Yet all too often these tales are written about men and women are often seen not so much as individuals but in their relationship to men – as wives, mothers, daughters, lovers, slaves and so on, while the men get on with the important business which, all too often, means fighting other men or, less so, carrying out great tasks.

Homer is very much a case in point. We do not know who Homer was. We do not know what sex Homer was. We do not know if Homer was one person or several people, with perhaps an original, possibly illiterate poet whose work was later transcribed and amended by one or more scribes. Most experts favour the latter theory and most experts think he/they was/were male. Andrew Dalby thinks Homer was a woman, though his views are not accepted by most scholars. Despite the fact that, in the Odyssey in particular, where Ulysses’ fate is often decided by a woman (Athena, Calypso, Nausicaa), in the Iliad the book is definitely a man’s book, not least because much of it is about men fighting and killing (albeit over a woman). In short, we almost entirely get the man’s point of view.

Pat Barker is best known for her World War I novels which do feature women but, because they are about war, tend to feature men much more. Her early works do feature women and the problems they have living in a bleak Northern English city. However, I am not sure that Barker would really be described as a feminist writer. However, in this book she takes The Iliad and looks at it from the women’s perspective, particularly the suffering the women have to endure during the Trojan War.

She starts off with a quote from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain which, more or less, sums up The Iliad: And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.

Our heroine is Briseis. Before the Greeks attacked Troy, they fought and conquered Lyrnessus. Lyrnessus was a small settlement near Troy. Its exact location has not been determined. It was rule by King Mynes who was married to Briseis. The book starts with the attack of the Greeks on Lyrnessus. The Greeks have no difficulty in capturing the town and, once they do, they slaughter the men, loot the town and rape and enslave the women. We see all of this from Briseis’ point of view. She is captured by Achilles. She is his trophy.

Agamemnon is the king of the Greeks and hence commander in chief of the Greek army. He is not a very nice man. He had sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to get a fair wind for Troy. (He will later pay the price for this as his wife, Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, is understandably not very happy about this. All this will happen well after the events in this book). His trophy is Chryseis, who is very beautiful but seems to be about twelve years old.

Briseis, as Achilles’ slave, has various roles. In particular, of course, he uses her for rough sex. The Greek warriors do not seem big on the romantic approach to sex. She also prepares his meals, serves him and his friends and so on. While she does not suffer too much (if you do not consider being raped nightly too much), it is clearly a large step down from being a queen. However, she does observe the treatment of other women who suffer much more: used for sexual purposes by many men, beaten and often starved.

Chryses (who may be Briseis’ uncle) comes to the Greek camp to ransom his daughter. Agamemnon rejects him. Chryses is a priest of Apollo and he prays to Apollo for help. Things had been going well for the Greeks but then a plague strikes the camp. The rats die and then the men do. (Of course, it falls to the women to care for the sick men.) It is clear to everyone that Agamemnon’s refusal to ransom Chryseis is the reason as Apollo is offended by the insult to one of his priests. Finally and reluctantly, Agamemnon ransoms Chryseis. However, Agamemnon now does not have a trophy woman and he demands Briseis as his prize. Achilles has to hand her over but he is so insulted that he now refuses to fight any more, a big loss to the Greeks as he is by far their best fighter.

Briseis, of course, has no choice in the matter and becomes Agamemnon’s concubine. He has sex with her once but in a Bill-Clintonesque move, he will later deny having had sex with her as, using Barker’s delicate terminology, he uses the back door.

With Achilles out of the way, the Trojans gain the ascendant. (Note that neither of the two famous legends involved here – the Wooden Horse of Troy and Achilles’ death from a poisoned arrow in his ankle, his only vulnerable spot, occur in the Iliad but come from other sources, so they do not figure in this book, except for a passing mention about Achilles’ death.)

When Troy is finally captured, we learn of the Greeks’ plans from Briseis. Every man and boy killed – and that would include my brother-in- law – pregnant women to be speared in the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy, and for the other women, gang rape, beatings, mutilation, slavery. A few women – or rather a few very young girls, mainly of royal or aristocratic birth – would be shared out among the kings. Briseis had been returned to Achilles before his death but is now, after his death, passed to someone else.

Barker (re)tells the story of the Iliad well, not least because we see what happens from the point of view of Briseis. While she describes the fighting, some of which she sees and some of which she learns about, as the dead and wounded are brought back to the camp. For a man, all of it would be seen either as a glorious victory (if you are on the winning side) or a terrible tragedy (if you are on the losing side). For Briseis, it is all horrible. While being grief-stricken at the loss of her family and friends, both in Lyrnessus and Troy, she does not exult when the Greeks are being beaten, even though she clearly supports the Trojans (her sister is married to one and is in Troy). She has a certain sympathy for the Greeks suffering from wounds or from the plague. She comments on Achilles’ many scars with a degree of concern.

However, above all, we see the role of women compared to the role of men. The women are, of course, wives, mothers, sisters and so on. However, once they are defeated and captured, they cease to be human but become chattels. They are there for sex, of course, but also to wait on the men, to nurse them when ill or wounded, to prepare their food and drink, to comfort them and to wash the dead. In short, the men need the women. Even the great Achilles goes running to Mummy for comfort (she is on one of the ships).

We also see that the men are vulgar, aggressive, drunkards, violent (and not just towards the enemy) and abusive. Few have any redeeming features. Barker makes a strong comparison with the women, the women as victims, but also the women as nurses, as mothers, as carers, as comforters. While Barker is referring to the 11th-12th centuries B.C. (the era when the Trojan War might have taken place), she may well also be pointing out that men have not made much improvement in the three thousand years since. The book takes its title from a comment Barker makes near the end: Silence becomes a woman …, a view, she is clearly saying, many men subscribe to.

There is no doubt that this is really a fascinating novel. If you are familiar with the Iliad, it will be interesting to see the events of the book seen from an entirely different perspective. If you are not particular familiar with Iliad, you will learn of the events Homer describes but not in the way Homer describes them.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Hamish Hamilton