I picked up The Memoirs of Cleopatra when I was a ripe twelve years old. When I was younger I was addicted to that gold-edged “Royal Diaries” series of children’s books, and had developed a taste for historical fiction. I don’t know why I thought I could read a nearly one thousand-page book, but read it I did (I think it took me about a month, which I think is pretty impressive. I probably couldn’t repeat the feat today!). When I slid this book off my shelf to review it, I had a moment of muscle memory, almost, remembering how I used to carry it around with me wherever I went.
I’ve said before how much historical fiction novels influenced my education and interests when I was a young teen, and this one was no different. After I read it, Hellenistic culture held a mystique for me. I grew obsessed with the fantasy of the Library of Alexandria, and entranced with Egyptian culture and its spirituality. Ten years later, I’m still beguiled by Egypt, and fascinated with Cleopatra. Even now, reading bits of the book here and there, I find myself hurtling into the story again, addicted to the atmosphere of Alexandria and to Cleopatra’s magnetic narration. This is her story, fictionalized and rooted in apocryphal anecdote, but vivid and real between these pages.
The amount of detail in this book blew me away. Ancient Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt appear in all their grandiosity with a vividness that borders on inception (sometimes I felt like I was dreaming all of this. Within a dream. Within a dream 😉 ). Truly, the attention to minute detail lends this novel more than your average measure of accuracy. It’s transporting, addictive. I remember reading it slowly, trying to absorb every sentence (probably when I was supposed to be doing homework). From this novel I gleaned a very rudimentary knowledge of Roman politics and the state of the world in the fifty or so years B.C. It’s just so much easier to learn this stuff from a novel than from stuffy textbooks and teachers.
This novel excels most in the voice. I’ve since read and reviewed other George novels that read like juvenile parodies of historical characters but Cleopatra is sophisticated throughout. Cleopatra as a character develops from a scared twenty-year-old willing to sleep with Caesar to negotiate a political position for Egypt, to a willful, wily woman both strong and proud, sensitive and deceitful.
This enchanting tome is a Hellenistic bildungsroman of sorts, and it’s a casual history fan’s dream, because it incorporates apocryphal stories about Cleopatra that have since become legend, like the way she dissolved one of her pearl earrings in vinegar [or wine] and her famous suicide by an asp’s poisonous bite. The inclusion of these legends adds to the aesthetic of the story; whether or not they are accurate is debatable (and many would say doubtful), but historical accuracy takes a backseat in this novel to producing an image of Cleopatra that fits with historical truth and myths as well as with a 21st-century audience. I think the overall effect is successful.
The banquet, with its costly gifts, had been an enormous expense, but as an investment, it was worth it…But it had not cost a million sesterces, as the company believed. Vinegar cannot dissolve pearls. As an apt pupil in Alexandria, that fount of science, I knew that…No, the pearl was safe inside me, and could be recovered easily enough. But for those who were not fortunate enough to have been educated in science in our Museion, well–they had believed it. (460)
This passage is a prime example of how George plays with myths and persona to create a Cleopatra that is believable to a modern audience and yet a product of her own time. She takes the story of the pearl in vinegar–which modern science indeed does know is impossible–and tweaks it for a modern audience, all the while preserving the “authenticity” of the myth (if a myth may be allowed to be authentic). This passage also shows Cleopatra’s penchant toward manipulation and her considerable brainpower. She even fools Antony with relish.
I think the only aspect of this novel that suffers is trying to replicate some of the stranger customs, like the tradition of Ptolemaic princesses marrying their brothers. George writes for the casual history fan and even those who have no prior knowledge, so the effect is often one of explanation. It’s understandable, in order to make the story digestible to those who are ignorant of these practices, and it is in fact how I learned about them. Still, this is not a history book. It’s pure historical fiction, and some flaws are necessary to engage readers.
“When fate offers you no choice you must appear to relish it.”
“Goddesses do not grow old.”
“Things do not happen, we must make them happen.” — Cleopatra
Cleopatra’s voice is what separates this novel from others I have read by George. In this novel, unlike Elizabeth I or Helen of Troy, George’s literary style and narrative voice is less pervasive, allowing Cleopatra’s quite strong personality to take charge. This novel is simply more believable as a memoir than either of the two I’ve read, buttressed as it is by exhausting detail and mature, developed themes. At very few times does the narration fall into the sentimentality I’ve come to expect from George. Cleopatra is often ruthless, always manipulative, yet ultimately a well-rounded, sometimes vulnerable, and consistently brave character. If this is the image of Cleopatra that our culture accepts as truth, it’s a fine truth to believe in.
George, M. The Memoirs of Cleopatra. (1997) New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.