The Women’s Prize for Fiction: “Circe” and “The Silence of the Girls”

When The Song of Achilles was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012, I was unconvinced, citing its “curiously uncomfortable balancing of Homer with Home and Away“. In doing so, I was perhaps among the “Fusty – and almost always male – critics [who] lamented the historical inaccuracies, the liberties taken with the text, the cliches” whom Alex Preston side-eyed in his review of Madeline Miller’s follow-up, Circe:

They missed the point that Miller was seeking to popularise stories that were first popular three millennia ago, employing the tools of the novelist to reveal new internal landscapes in these familiar tales. In her Circe, Miller has made a collage out of a variety of source materials – from Ovid to Homer to another lost epic, the Telegony – but the guiding instinct here is to re-present the classics from the perspective of the women involved in them, and to do so in a way that makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance. If you read this book expecting a masterpiece to rival the originals, you’ll be disappointed; Circe is, instead, a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting.

In making the 2019 shortlist of the Orange’s successor, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Miller finds herself up against a novel which might precisely fit Preston’s model for Circe‘s opposite. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is, like Circe and The Song of Achilles before it, a reimagining of Greek myth – in its case, of the story of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the woman fought over to such catastrophic consequence by the general of the Greeks at Troy, Agamemnon, and his greatest warrior, Achilles. The Silence of the Girls is a much more avowedly literary affair than Circe; it more or less announces itself as an intended masterpiece that does not quail before the poetry of Homer. It exhibits contemporary relevance, to be sure, but it does so in its peculiar focus on the violence that suffuses both it and its source, rather than in its diction or attitude. Some have argued that Barker leans too heavily on the First World War – the setting for her career high, the Regeneration Trilogy – but Homer, too, likely depicted the Siege of Troy in terms more appropriate to his own time than the Bronze Age in which the events he depicts supposedly took place. Anachronism isn’t always a sin – if it achieves something.

If you were to assume, then, that I prefer Barker’s novel to Miller’s, you would alas be correct. Here’s a passage from early in Barker’s novel, when Briseis observes her city’s fresh conquerors – and her new captors – at close quarters:

What I remember most – apart from the awful, straining, wide-eyed terror of the first few days – is the curious mixture of riches and squalor. Achilles dined off gold plate, rested his feet in the evenings on a footstool inlaid with ivory, slept under bedcovers embroidered with gold and silver thread. Every morning, as he combed and braided his hair – and no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield – he checked the effect in a bronze mirror that must have been worth a king’s ransom. For all I know, it may have been a king’s ransom. And yet, if he needed a shit after dinner, he took a square of coarse cloth from a pile in the corner of the hall and set off to a latrine that stank to high heaven and was covered in a pelt of black buzzing flies. [Barker, p. 36]

And then here’s Miller, at a similarly early point in her own novel, describing the punishment of the rebellious Titan, Prometheus, by a servant of the Olympian overlord, Zeus, before a throng of terrified second-tier gods:

The Fury did not bother with a lecture. She was a goddess of torment and understood the eloquence of violence. The sound of the whip was a crack like oaken branches breaking. Prometheus’ shoulders jerked and a gash opened in his side long as my arm. All around me indrawn breaths hissed like water on hot rocks. The Fury lifted her lash again. Crack. A bloodied strip tore from his back. She began to carve in earnest, each blow falling on the next, peeling his flesh away in long lines that crossed and recrossed his skin. The only sound was the snap of the whop and Prometheus’ muffled, explosive breaths. The tendons stood out on his neck. Someone pushed at my back, trying for a better view. [Miller, p. 15]

I would contend that the first of these passages is supple and allusive, and the second insistent and demotic. I’d also suggest that Miller’s prose is repetitive and lingers on spectacle, where Barker’s is more expansive and yet simultaneously laconic. The Silence of the Girls reads lightly and yet sticks; Circe can be experienced as treacle-like at times, and perhaps consequently can often fail to move.

These comparisons I make only because a shortlist is a kind of competition, and demands that one situate texts side-by-side for the purpose of comparing their qualities. In truth, the two novels are doing such different things with their material that their disparate prose styles make more sense in context. Barker is writing a war story from the perspective of the civilians: Briseis becomes part of the Greek train that travels with and serves Agamemnon’s army, witnessing all manner of brutality and slaughter in the process. Miller’s novel is essentially a fantasy, taking seriously the existence of gods and monsters, and bestowing upon its eponymous sorceress real powers of magic and enchantment. Barker focuses tightly on a relatively defined set of events – those of the Trojan war and its surrounding conflicts; Miller’s novel takes place over centuries if not millennia, and mortal lifetimes pass by in the course of just a page or two. You would expect novels so separately constituted to adopt different styles, and in this context it is harder to judge Miller for some of her sicklier moments (“I had walked the earth for a hundred generations, yet I was still a child to myself” [Miller, p. 136]).

On the other hand, both novels are explicitly feminist retellings of Homeric material. Circe has been marketed as a retelling of the Odyssey, but in truth the part of the novel that deals with the events of Books 10 and 11 of Homer’s epic are a very small part of its length. Before then, it has dealt with Prometheus and Scylla, Minos and Daedalus; afterwards it dwells far more on Telemachus and Telegonus than it did on Odysseus and Poseidon. Nevertheless, it centres a female interiority within stories until recently rarely told from anything but a male point of view. The first episode we read of in Circe is the moment at which Oceanas turned to Helios and indicated a woman who had caught the latter’s eye: “My daughter Perse. She is yours if you want her” [Miller, p. 2]. This is how cheaply female life is valued in Circe’s world.

And in Briseis’s, too. At one point, Barker has her meet Helen, about whose enthusiasm for the loom it is said “that whenever Helen cut a thread in her weaving, a man died on the battlefield. She was responsible for every death” [Barker, p. 129]. Misogyny both marginalises and makes women so significant as to be morally responsible for male failings. Barker’s problem, however, is that she cannot prevent Achilles taking over her novel: his story is too expansive, too other-worldly, to be restrained within Briseis’s narrative. Later on in the novel, Barker finds herself writing chapters from his perspective, from the viewpoint of the rapist, the pillager: “He wants to go home – or what passes for home now Patroclus isn’t in it” we read [Barker, p. 228], just after Achilles’ great friend is killed on the battlefield while wearing the Greek hero’s armour, in a doomed attempt to rally troops Achilles had refused to lead. Barker seeks, then, to illicit our sympathies for Briseis’ abuser. This makes for a morally complex book, but also a lop-sided one: the first half of The Silence of the Girls is by far the most compelling, its intense allegiance with the female victims of war giving way in the second half to a more conventional heroic narrative.

Circe is a good deal more fixed on its female characters – the perspective never wavers, is always Circe’s own intimate first-person. She turns against her father when he calls her “trash” [p. 54]; enforces territorial restriction of rule upon Aeëtes, her arrogant brother whom she thanklessly brought up from an infant (“in Colchis you may work your will. But this is Aiaia” [p. 153]); she sympathises with the observant Penelope, whose ability to perceive an unjust world as it is becomes “an ugly weight upon your back” [p. 286]. Indeed, Circe is described at one point as “a god with a mortal voice” [p. 82], and her mixture of power and empathy becomes the backbone of a novel which suffers regularly from the longeurs dictated by its dilatory, episodic plot – a sort of greatest hits of Greek myth with little forward momentum. Even so, again it is men who come to define the close of the novel: Telemachus and Telegonus must come into their own, be given agency by their equally over-protective mothers – Odysseus’s two great loves, Penelope and Circe – more or less as the narrative climax of the book. “Telemachus has been a good son, longer than he should have been,” Penelope sighs pages from the end. “Now he must be his own” [p. 330]. It is ultimately the sons, not the mothers, who defy their beginnings to choose their own fates.

Both books, then, work to undermine themselves. But where Circe has little other than its tale of the under-privileged casting off the over-weening (and it is a part of the novel’s project, perhaps, not to limit this agency to women), The Silence of the Girls features so much warp and weft – the nihilist heroism of Achilles, the ersatz societies of stolen women, the bitterly won moral sense of Briseis herself – that, like ancient ruins resisting the ravages of time, parts of it remain, beautifully, standing. Circe is more traditional in the forms of its mythical retellings than either Barker’s novel or Miller’s debut – its only changes to the tales we know are always to make Circe seem more righteous, less culpable. Barker’s Briseis is instead rendered fully rounded, rescued from the flattened portrayal of Homer without having to conform to a whole new set of impossible standards.

Circe’s only and original sin is the transformation of the nymph Scylla into a monster, as punishment for stealing Circe’s beloved Glaucos from her (“I did it for pride and vain delusion” [p. 102]); all her other transformations of mortals – into various animals that meekly populate her island of exile – are seen to be acts of self-defence. Briseis, meanwhile, is a much more conflicted and conflicting being – and in this way she emerges more fully from the shadow cast by the men of her story: “Yes, there were times when I watched a young man die and remembered my prayers for vengeance. Did I regret those prayers? No” [p. 89]. This nuance, this uncertainty, better suits the intertextuality inherent in the kind of project both Barker and Miller undertake here. In this way, I’d argue, The Silence of the Girls is simply the richer text. Though I confess I’m bothered that this may just mean I’m fusty.