By Eleanor Bowskill, Hannah McWhinnie, Lily Baldanza and Victoria Bromley
In her stunning debut novel, Costanza Casati follows one of the most notorious queens of the ancient world, Clytemnestra, and the events which shaped her into the vengeful heroine she is recognised as today. Combining themes of love, rage, power and prophecies, the novel explores ancient womanhood from a Spartan perspective whilst showcasing Casati’s commitment to historical detail. The result is a bold, gritty and unforgettable tale of a queen who fiercely dealt out death to those who wronged her.
Casati grew up in Italy, where she attended a Liceo Classico, an Italian “high school where classics are compulsory.” Here she studied both Ancient Greek and Latin at a very young age and was exposed to the tales which would inspire her novel. Aware that not all readers would be familiar with Greek mythology, Casati “didn’t want to write a text that narrowed down the audience.” Therefore, she researched “tiny little lines from different texts,” either from Ancient Greek plays or philosophers, and wove them into her narrative. This made the novel feel “fresh and entertaining” for those familiar with ancient texts, whilst keeping it “very accessible for people who don’t know anything about these stories.”
Clytemnestra’s presence in ancient texts such as Homer’s Odyssey and the tragic playwright Aeschylus’ Agamemnon made Casati believe that she was “the stand-out character of the Greek myth,” because despite being an ancient character, “she is a very modern woman.” Clytemnestra’s first mention in the Western literary tradition is in the Odyssey, where the spirit of her husband, Agamemnon, describes her as “deadly,” “bestial” and “monstrous,” but Casati argues that in other ancient texts, it is clear that “she was an extraordinary heroine.” This is most visible in Aeschylus’ tragedy Agamemnon, which became the “starting point” for the novel. Casati explains that “Clytemnestra is actually the main character in the play, despite the title,” and that her powerful and “incredibly clever” character is unforgettable in how she is someone “not necessarily loved for her power,” but is “feared and respected first and foremost.” Casati highlights that her favourite thing about Clytemnestra in Agamemnon “is that she is very confident” and “completely unapologetic in the face of society’s disapproval.” By exploring these notable aspects of Clytemnestra’s character within her novel, Casati believes that her novel could be read “not as a retelling of the Agamemnon, but rather as an origin story for that play.”
As the genre of mythological retelling continues to grow, Casati faced several challenges in making Clytemnestra uniquely her own. The biggest challenge was recreating well-known characters such as Helen, Odysseus and Penelope, in a way that was recognisable “but also showed different aspects of their personalities.” Another was “writing about characters who are not well known at all,” such as Clytemnestra’s younger sister, Timandra, whose lack of literary representation provided Casati with the “joyous challenge” of “making these characters up.” The most important factor in making this myth her own, however, was in making Clytemnestra’s character. Whilst many mythological retellings aim to reclaim the voice of misaligned or silenced ancient women, “Clytemnestra already had a voice in the ancient sources.” To Casati, “writing this novel was really about reclaiming her reputation” by reminding readers of why Clytemnestra wanted to kill her husband. In “showing how powerful she already was,” Casati explains that her retelling is essentially “about how women fought their own wars.”
Sharing her thoughts on the rise of mythological retelling, Casati explains that “when we’re rewriting the stories, we’re paying homage to the concept of myth as the Greeks intended it.” The word-of-mouth tradition of ancient storytelling meant that every story was changed with each retelling. “What we’re doing that is different is that we are putting women at the centre of the narrative.” Analysing the Ancient Greek word for myth, mythos, Casati explains that this word also means “fact,” “fiction” and “speech,” especially public or authoritative speech. For hundreds of years, these myths have been translated and told by men, often in a misogynist manner. Therefore, Casati believes that whether people like her approach or someone else’s, it is “important to read these stories.” The genre’s popularity only affirms her statement that “what women are doing now is so powerful, because it’s as if we’re reclaiming something that was stolen from us!”
It was clear from the outset that female rage would become a prevalent theme throughout the novel. Casati retells the stories of pain and heartbreak upheld within the myth and follows the warrior, mother and queen as she navigates patriarchal structures implicit within Ancient Greece. Fuelled by a sense of vengeance and determination to hold onto power, a prospect traditionally reserved for her male counterparts, Clytemnestra is often referred to using language otherwise reserved for male characters and is led to adopt the masculine behaviours which best match these descriptions. As for the source of these attitudes, Casati points to the few paintings of Clytemnestra that we have access to. It is notable that painters such as John Collier and Frederick Clayton insisted on the fact that Clytemnestra “even looked masculine.” For Casati, this suggests that, on a societal level, “we don’t have a template for how powerful women need to look, so we assume that they need to look like men.”
More widely, Casati is interested in the idea that we are 'uncomfortable' with powerful women, and with angry women in particular. We have fallen victim to the belief that women must be 'likeable' above all else. This is what Casati enjoyed the most when writing about Clytemnestra, she “does not care” for the opinions of others, which, in turn, encourages the reader to root for her.
In some respects, the Ancient Greek perspective diverges from that of a modern audience. In particular, concepts such as motherhood, love and vengeance have distinct definitions. The latter is intertwined with notions of justice and obligation. For example, the estrangement between Clytemnestra and Electra exceeds all negative expectations for reciprocal mother-daughter relationships. Casati explained, “In the myth, when Clytemnestra kills her husband, her daughter must do something to avenge him, this is not a choice.” Most retellings present this dynamic as daughter-hating-mother, but these ignore the moral imperative Electra faced.
It was not just the theme of motherhood which captivated Casati, but the unspoken competition between sisters fleshed out through film and television. She wanted to apply this framework to Helen and Clytemnestra, as the thought of a 'normal relationship' felt dull or static in comparison. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante was her biggest source of inspiration. The novel follows two young girls growing up on the outskirts of Naples, whose bond is not restricted to respect and love but spawns darker, suppressed emotions too. For Casati, “It’s about obsession and jealousy, it’s about passion. It’s about so many different things” and she wanted to reflect this duality in her own writing.
The novel is, at times, quite brutal. Indeed, brutality is an integral feature of the narrative itself. In Costanaza’s words, “It’s a story about a woman killing her husband, a daughter’s sacrifice for the gods,” so it needed to be “raw and steeped in injustice” without lacking hope altogether. Since being taught to fight and wrestle at a young age, Clytemnestra becomes accustomed to violence throughout her life. Within the specific storyline, this meant that “she doesn’t just survive” but always “fights back.” For Casati, it was “empowering” to write about a woman “who never submits, who is never destroyed” despite her difficult circumstances.
Yet, it is important to remember that Helen and Clytemnestra were Spartan women. Casati pointed out that, although their status afforded them an education and physical training, this privilege ensured the sisters could produce “healthy children” for their future husbands. In comparison to their Athenian counterparts, for example, Spartans had an “incredible” amount of freedom. Casati explained, “They were not just trained in fighting hunting wrestling, but they were also educated in poetry, music and so many other things.” In this respect, it was “essential” for Casati to explore their Spartan backgrounds.
Throughout the novel, Helen is said to have been the most desired princess, the face that launched a thousand ships. She seems equipped with a distinct emotional awareness, empathetic and gentle. However, she is artful and cunning too, and there are numerous examples of her devious side. Casati points to The Trojan Women when Menelaus is told to kill his wife because she “brings a plague” wherever she goes. Once he informs Helen that he has been ordered to kill her she responds with a speech analogous to a kind of “legal defence” to which he is left speechless. For Casati, it was important to “show a Helen that was beautiful,” but who “saw her beauty as a curse.” In Sparta “beauty is not valued, but strength and obedience” and Helen wants to “be like her sister” in this sense.
Casati recalled reading a collection of great myths by a “very famous Italian author” when she was fifteen years old. In the book, Helen was described as “vain” and “a whore,” words which “traumatised” Casati as a young girl. She suspected that “authors like this” were likely the reason for our negative image of Helen as modern readers. If we consult the ancient sources, she was once hailed as a “goddess” and far from this stereotype of “the bad wife.” Casati “tried her best” to avoid this trap and instead emphasised her admiration for the character.