Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Evolution Day - From Stephanie Dray

Yes. I know. Today is known to most of us as Thanksgiving Day! But did you also know that yesterday was the anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin's book The Origin of the Species? I apologize for being a day behind - this holiday cold is kicking my butt!

Today, I am hosting Stephanie Dray - author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, (starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter) - on the blog, where she shares with us an evolution all of her own.

Today is Evolution Day, but I won’t be reflecting upon the origin of species. Instead, I shall discuss the concept of evolution in the context of my debut novel, Lily of the Nile.

I’m often asked what inspired me to write about Cleopatra’s daughter and the easy answer is that her story moved me. As a little girl, Selene suffered through the suicide of her parents and the murder of her brothers. She marched through Rome as a chained prisoner and endured the humiliation intended for her mother. But in the end, this little girl evolved from a humiliated captive into the most powerful client queen in the Roman Empire.

Now that was an evolution.

I tried to imagine the strength of character Selene, the lone survivor of the Ptolemaic dynasty, must have possessed to forge an alliance with Augustus, the same man who destroyed her family. It would be easy to think that her captors had brainwashed her to disdain her mother and forget her siblings--but the historical evidence of her reign tells us she never forgot her past and found ways to honor her family and her goddess without falling afoul of Augustus.

Selene’s life is a bittersweet story of triumph over tragedy and her astonishing transformation can be an inspiration to us all. She made the ideal heroine because good fiction should always have a character who is evolving. The inner journey is just as important, perhaps even more important, than the external plot.

People evolve, but societies evolve and change too. I was drawn to write about this period of history because it was a turning point for the whole of Western civilization.

Though students of the classics have been taught for years that Rome treated its women better than most other cultures in the ancient world, this is true only in the aggregate. The best place to be born a woman in the ancient world was undoubtedly Ptolemaic Egypt where Selene was born and raised. Certainly, Selene grew up with stories of her ancestresses, powerful Ptolemaic queens who wielded considerable power and influence, though all of them would be eclipsed by Selene’s mother, Cleopatra VII. It was not only the royal women whose status was elevated; Egyptian women had significant legal rights. Female scholars are known to have studied at the Musaeum in Alexandria (which included the Great Library). Some exceptional women in ancient Egypt enjoyed careers as scribes and physicians. There in Cleopatra’s Alexandria, Egyptian liberality met with the flowering of Hellenism under the growing influence of female-centric Isis worship to expand opportunities for women.

As a young girl, Selene might have imagined what that opportunity meant for her, only to watch the Romans snatch it away. It is difficult to guess how the world might be different if Cleopatra and Antony had won the war against Octavian, but they are almost certain not to have instituted the “back to family values” propaganda campaign that Augustus used to transform Western culture. In short, it was from this crucial period of time that we evolved--or perhaps devolved--to embrace many of the misogynistic attitudes still with us today.

All of this should not be taken to mean that Lily of the Nile is some sort of scholarly exploration. In my own evolution as a writer, I’ve come to embrace that my first duty is to write a story that will entertain you, move you, and stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Thanks for having me here today and Happy Evolution Day!


Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

She is currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Contest for Young Women, the deadline for which is March 1, 2011, but join her newsletter now for updates and a chance to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile and additional prizes.

We will be hosting a giveaway here at TNBBC for Lily of the Nile sometime at the end of December - so keep your eyes peeled!

I want to thank Stephanie for preparing this post, and wish all of you a very happy Thanksgiving full of turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy!

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