The thing about historical fiction is that often it’s more fiction than historical. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in Margaret George’s Helen of Troy, a faux autobiographical novel narrated by Helen of Troy, who almost definitely didn’t actually exist. Margaret George is well known for her pseudo autobiographies: The Autobiography of Henry VIII was a bestseller, and her Memoirs of Cleopatra was a favorite of mine in high school. But by the time I read Helen of Troy, I felt too skeptical to truly accept Helen of Troy as a woman with twenty-first century motives and desires. Sure, it’s nice to read about her as a real person and not as a trophy wife or a shameful woman (a la The Iliad and literally every interpretation of her since antiquity) but I came away from reading the book feeling as if no light had been shed on the what Helen of Troy represents, only what she would have been like if Sparta were a city in contemporary America.
I won’t deny that the narrative and characterization are refreshing in terms of the immortal Helen of Troy: she’s an intelligent young lady who manages to take the reins in her seemingly predetermined princess’s life. When the time comes to select a husband, Helen asserts her independence and requests that she be allowed to choose the man she will marry, a departure from the canonical account and the historical Spartan tradition of a parent-arranged marriage. In her marriage to Menelaus, she cannot find happiness because he fails to please her sexually, a very modern notion. Helen also hates her beauty and wishes it away, deeming it an unnecessary burden upon her freedom and happiness. Most importantly, the decision to leave Troy with Paris is entirely hers; though the narrative incorporates Aphrodite cursing Helen with insatiable sexual desire for Paris, the goddess of love does not force Helen’s hand. Rather, Helen debates and despairs and ultimately decides her course of action.
What we’re left with is a portrayal of Helen of Troy as smart, capable, compassionate, and most importantly, a sympathetic character readers are meant to understand as a normal woman, albeit the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen of Troy’s first-person narration relates the events of the Trojan War in their entirety and manages to make clear her motives, desires, frustrations, and regrets, as well as the way she relates to and understands her beauty. What emerges is a complex, tangible Helen that perhaps does too much explaining. Because readers may be more inclined to assume her guilt, George goes to great lengths to mitigate Helen’s blame and emphasize her humanity. She’s an apologist in moments throughout the novel, cursing her beauty and her decisions, to the point where it becomes exhausting and makes Helen seem a bit whiny. George does well with responding to a historical tradition that deprives Helen of a voice and turns her into an ideal or an archetype. However, George’s Helen is modern one whose treatment of the “problematic” nature of beauty represents a contemporary society in which the significance of beauty takes a backseat to intelligence and competence.
George wants to say: it’s okay that Helen was so dangerous and beautiful, because she was smart and independent, too. But what if she wasn’t? What does Helen’s dangerous beauty mean, really? Margaret Atwood thinks she has the answers.
If you haven’t read the poem “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” literally stop everything you’re doing and read it. I’ll wait 😉 It’ll change ya life.
In “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” Atwood creates a modern-day Helen with the same parentage and fearsome beauty her ancient counterpart possessed, but instead of a queen of Sparta she is an exotic dancer. Atwood’s Helen comes closest to highlighting the nature of beauty: that it is perceived as dangerous and therefore must be controlled or mitigated. This Helen is unabashed by her profession as a countertop-dancer, even though she is aware that using her sex appeal is disgusting to most women. Those women tell her she “should be ashamed” of herself, that she should “get some self-respect and a day job.”
This Helen knows she is being exploited by using her beauty, but she is also aware that denying her beauty is also exploitation. Atwood’s Helen believes that working as a cashier “selling gloves” is more demeaning than being a stripper, because at least as a dancer, she sells something powerful and “nebulous”—desire. Either way she is oppressed, so she’ll “take the money” anyway. Helen in this form is hyper-aware of her power over men and that the desire she arouses inspires just as much loathing: “Such hatred leaps in them, my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary hopeless love.” Most importantly, she understands that everyone who gazes upon her wishes to control her, or else define her so that they may diminish her power. Helen purrs, “the rest of them would like to watch me/and feel nothing. Reduce me to components/as in a clock factory or abattoir./Crush out the mystery./Wall me up alive/in my own body./They’d like to see through me.”
Yet she defies every effort to capture or cage her. At the close of the poem Helen declares her divinity: “Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!/Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,/I hover six inches in the air/in my blazing swan-egg of light./You think I’m not a goddess?/Try me./This is a torch song./Touch me and you’ll burn.”
In the context of contemporary feminism, Helen is both fascinating and problematic. Third-wave feminism differs from its previous manifestations because it acknowledges, and in some cases embraces, the idea that beauty is powerful. Whether it should be used, or some would say abused, remains a controversial question. Verifying the power of female beauty is problematic because some perceive Helen’s seductive power as less congenial than the violent method of taking control her sister, Clytemnestra, exhibited by killing her philandering and murdering husband. Control through “femininity” treads dangerous ground by making a man’s gaze necessary to a woman’s power, and by dismissing her other strengths like intellect or self-dependence.
In this social environment, Helen of Troy has been abused. It is too easy to dismiss her as the self-hating woman, or exonerate her on the grounds of divine intervention in order to fit her into a neat, easily-understood package. Attempts in antiquity and recently have tried and failed to define her mystique, reducing Helen either to a face without a brain or a brain without a face. In Margaret George’s case, she tries to discount the power of Helen’s beauty by creating a character with agency who desperately wishes to look normal. Only in Atwood’s poem do readers see a complex analysis of precisely what makes Helen of Troy so seductive, complex, powerful, and ultimately immortal.