At the moment there is a temptation to compare everything against 50 Shades but that would be ridiculous here because it would be like comparing a bottle of Sainsbury’s cheapest own brand against a vintage bottle of New Zealand’s finest Sauvignon Blanc if one were to compare that book with Stella Duffy’s The Purple Shroud.
The Purple Shroud is the sequel to Theodora, but is written in such a way that you could read this first and then go back to the first book as a prequel without difficulty. Whereas Theodora told the story of a girl and young woman who whose life was a whirlwind of adventure and misadventure this volume has a different pace and feel, matching the changes in her life as she lives as Empress rather than actress and whore. To understand how somebody from these origins reached the highest reaches of the Empire you need to read the first book.
Whilst technically being a piece of historical fiction (and the second word is vitally important to understand) it is also a very contemporary novel. For example the description of the riots that occur early in her and her husbands reign are explored in a way which make you think back to the UK just one year ago – as well as back to the Byzantine Empire of the past.
Another contemporary theme which is sensitively explored is that of sex workers and the reasons they may or may-not accept chances to escape from the exploitation they experience.
There are sexual scenes but these are beautifully written in a way which gives the briefest detail but the maximum opportunity for the imagination to think about them. (Ok this is where I do compare it to 50 Shades and say this book illustrates exactly where the more popular paperback gets it wrong in my view).
Continuing on from the first book of Duffy’s pair there are a couple of sub-plots looking at the nature of motherhood and maternal feelings and at the different understandings of religious orthodoxy. Whilst a relatively minor element of both books in many ways the way they are dealt with has a refreshing realism.
In many ways it is the historical context which gives a greater freedom for these issues to be explored in a way which is light yet poignant. This social commentary is the aspect some, with a privileged education, who have criticised this fictional work for not having the accuracy of a PhD thesis in Classics seem to have ignored. Yet in my view it is one of the key strengths of the books. These are not books to be briefly consumed with mind in neutral, they are pages to be savoured and thought about as you read an engaging and fascinating story.
As you can tell I have enjoyed The Purple Shroud, just as I enjoyed Theodora – there is something in these books I have connected with. I am not entirely sure what it is but it is there. It is the intangible aspect/power of the historical Theodora which Duffy spoke about in her talk at Greenbelt last year.