Annabel Lyon says that she knew, almost immediately upon beginning to write The Golden Mean, that she would be writing the other half of its story.
But what of the women, the households, the kitchens, the slaves, the magical beliefs?
And, so, Pythias. Who is trapped between those two worlds, with a choice to make.
“For me, she’s the first modern woman, in many ways, as Artistotle was one of the first modern men.”*
But Annabel Lyon quickly realized the limitations of this character, whose freedom was restrained as long as there was a male figure present to care for her.
“For my imagination to really catch fire, I had to bump the old man off and take advantage of the unsettled political situation to send Pythias out into the world alone.”**
At first, however, when readers meet Pythias, she is safe at home.
“We spend the day in the kitchen with the slaves. In the evening we’ll put on our finery and sit in Herpyllis’s room, eating smaller dishes of what the men are having, and afterwards weaving. Their voices will drone through the walls, muffled, occasionally bubbling up in argument or laughter. Herpyllis will try to gossip, and I’ll shush her so I can listen.”
In many ways, this feels like it could be a novel about any ancient girl, and readers with a particular interest in herstory will be drawn to this tale.
“She follows me to the butterfly room and helps me with the unpinning, unwinding, unbinding, releasing of hair, washing of face, unlacing of tight sandals designed to emphasize the tininess of my not-so-tiny feet.”
And, yet, Annabel Lyon did not imagine this character into being; The Sweet Girl is a historical novel, Pythias an actual person.
Readers need not, however, have any familiarity with the time period to find the novel engaging. The author provides all the essential information in a natural and informal manner.
“Daddy says Callisthenes needed a spur but Theophrastos needs a bridle.”
That “Daddy” may catch you offguard. Some of the language feels anachronistic, but I appreciate the author’s position** which she describes in Imagining Ancient Women:
“…for true ethical understanding — in order to feel true Aristotelian compassion with long-dead characters, and to gain real ethical insights thereby — writers must let go of the bugaboo of anachronism and embrace the present in the past”.**
This does work towards dissolving the barriers perceived by readers who are not comfortable with the idea of reading fiction set in this time period.
“The characters curse like twenty-first-century Canadians, speak in sentence fragments, stammer, use sarcasm, and make jokes. I didn’t want to write a historical novel; rather, I wanted to write a contemporary novel that happened to be set twenty-three hundred years ago. I wanted the reader to feel as though she could be in the room with my characters, have conversations with them.”**
The author was not always so comfortable with bridging the gaps required for this fiction, however; considering the differences between her own life and that of ancient women in depicting Pythias on the page, she found her “[u]tterly, dangerously foreign”. “I can put myself into the mind of Aristotle with much greater ease, ironically, than I can put myself into the mind of his daughter.”**
This was her initial response, but then she began to draw on her own experiences as a woman.
“Marriage, childbirth, motherhood: these are touchstones, things that haven’t essentially changed (give or take an epidural or two) over the millennia. Love, desire, pain, motherhood, the body: these endure.”**
When readers meet Pythias, she is a daughter. She is, obviously, considered an exceptional girl, accorded a particular status as Aristotle’s daughter, which she would not otherwise have enjoyed.
“That night he calls me to his study and we dissect his specimens. He lets me slit the underbelly of an orange starfish he kept damp, and therefore alive, so I can see the contraction of the muscles, the death-wince.”
She challenges the reader’s expectations and those of other characters.
As Akakios says to Aristotle: “But how could such a great man produce an ordinary child? The tallest mountains have the tallest shadows. She’s not representative of her sex. She’s the exception that proves the rule.”
And Pythias is exceptional in many ways, as she grows beyond the role of daughter (though to speak of much more would reveal spoilers). She stretches and reaches beyond the expected, beyond what she has known and what she has trusted.
“Another thought I allow to float away. Noticing an officer noticing a slave, and liking that about him, disliking myself for liking that – it’s all too complicated. I open my mind’s hand and release the thought like a birdie. Fly away, don’t bother me.”
Though much does occur in this novel, The Sweet Girl is rooted in character, perhaps as much for its author as for its readers.
“I worry I’ve still been too kind to Pythias: she’s young, healthy, utterly middle-class. I haven’t yet built into my outline the possibility of making her a slave; perhaps that’s something I need to rethink. Nor have I really taken into account the utter squalor and stench and grubbiness of the ancient world…”**
And, yet, readers who are fondest of authors who are fond of their characters and err on the side of being too kind to them will appreciate the character of Pythias, sympathize with the unkindnesses that she does suffer, and revel in the ways in which she is truly exceptional.
- Interview with Annabel Lyon on CBC’s North by Northwest (which also considers her chapbook Imagining Ancient Women)
** Annabel Lyon’s Creating Ancient Women (The University of Alberta Press, 2011)