There are some historical women whose lives have been written about in fiction many times but I think it’s safe to say that Sappho, the Greek lyric poet, doesn’t seem to be one of them. This novel, first published in 1974, is the first I’ve come across that tells her story and much as I do enjoy reading about Tudor queens and medieval princesses, it’s always refreshing to have the opportunity to read about somebody different!
Very little is known for certain about Sappho’s life. We do know that she was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, possibly between 630 and 612BC, and grew up in the port town of Mitylene. We know the probable names of some of her family members and we know that she was exiled from Mitylene twice. Beyond this, most of the information we have about Sappho is unreliable or based on the remaining fragments of her poetry, which may or may not have been autobiographical. It’s enough to build a novel around, though, and in Burning Sappho Martha Rofheart uses the known facts as a starting point to give a possible interpretation of what Sappho’s life could have been like.
We don’t have much factual information about the other characters who appear in the novel either – and I have to admit, I hadn’t even heard of most of them and didn’t know whether they were real or fictional, so Google proved very useful there! Some of the most notable characters include Gorgo, a girl from Sparta who angers Sappho by befriending Andromeda, the Nubian slave purchased by Sappho’s father; Alkaios, a fellow poet and the man Sappho loves; Pittakos, who rules Mitylene after the downfall of the Tyrant, Melanchros; and the famous courtesan Doricha, known as Rhodopis. I was also pleased to see Aesop make a few appearances – one character I had at least heard of!
The novel is divided into five sections; there are two narrated by Sappho herself and one each from the points of view of Alkaios, Doricha/Rhodopis and the sea trader, Kerkylas of Andros. There’s not a lot of difference between the voices of the narrators so it took a while to adjust to each change of perspective, but otherwise I thought the structure worked well. I preferred Sappho’s own narration, but hearing from other people who were close to her helped me to form a more balanced view of her as a person. There seems to be a lot of debate surrounding Sappho’s sexuality (the word lesbian is derived from the name of Sappho’s home, Lesbos), but Rofheart portrays her as having relationships with both men and women. In particular, she is shown to be in love with a girl called Atthis, whose name is mentioned in some of her love poetry.
I always admire people who write fiction set in ancient periods; I think it must be very difficult, when we have such limited knowledge of how people lived in those times. On reading Martha Rofheart’s Author’s Note and list of acknowledgments at the end of the book, I can appreciate the efforts she went to in researching her novel – for example, she states that as the geographical landscape has changed so much over the centuries, she has based her descriptions of the Greek islands on how they appeared in ancient writings rather than modern day ones. However, I still felt that there was something a little bit too ‘modern’ about this book – maybe it was the attitudes of some of the characters and the language they used. It wasn’t a huge problem, but the best way I can explain it is that I was always conscious that I was reading a story written in the 1970s, rather than being completely swept away to another time and place.
Still, I thought this was a fascinating novel and an educational one too. I knew absolutely nothing about this period before I started to read so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the historical accuracy or the choices Rofheart makes, but even if not everything happened as she describes it, I feel that I’ve learned a lot about the history of Lesbos. Although the focus is usually on Sappho and her music, she lived through a time of political turmoil; one of the most memorable scenes in the book describes the overthrow of Melanchros the Tyrant (which is sparked, in Rofheart’s version of events, by Sappho’s performance of a song she has written in protest against the custom of child sacrifice).
Burning Sappho (also published as My Name is Sappho) was an enjoyable read. Although it wasn’t quite as immersive as I would have liked, I thought it was much better than Lionheart, the other Martha Rofheart book I’ve read. She has written several other historical novels, all set in different periods, and I’m looking forward to working my way through them. As for Sappho, I can only find details of one or two other novels about her, but there seems to be plenty of non-fiction, including collections of her surviving writings. Now that I’ve been introduced to this fascinating woman, I’m interested in reading more about her!
Note: The spellings of names and places used in this review are as they appear in the novel and may vary between different sources.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.