The Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw
Houghton Mifflin, 1st printing, 1987
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: In the year of the plague, a young man comes to Constantinople, seeking an audience with the Empress. He is allowed in for one reason, and that reason is that he claims to be her son. Years before she married Justinian, Theodora was an actress and sometime prostitute; one of her protectors, Diodoros of Bostra, raised the son she bore him. An upon his deathbed, he confessed John of Bostra’s origins to him. At loose ends, John has come to Constantinople seeking the truth–and he finds it. Theodora welcomes him in secret, granting him clothes, lodging, finding him an excellent job under Narses, Justinian’s head chamberlain. The one catch is that though she sponsors him, Theodora must keep John a secret in order to protect both herself and him. She presents him as a cousin from the respectable side of her father’s family, and the lie passes–for a time. As John works under Narses first in the palace, and then in the field in Thrace, he proves himself intelligent, hardworking, and extremely capable, catching the attention of both the Emperor and rival factions. An older man, Justinian wonders about a young man rising so quickly under his wife’s sponsorship, and John’s future is threatened.
This was one of the books I received from California (a friend was getting ready to move to NJ, and offered to send me whatever I wanted for the cost of shipping. Score!). As I went over her list of books, I looked up titles with which I was unfamiliar on Amazon, and The Bearkeeper’s Daughter sounded intriguing. After finishing it, I must say that I’m amused by the reviews on Amazon complaining that it should be called The Bearkeeper’s Grandson or something like, insisting that it was not actually about Theodora. What a crock.
What Bradshaw has done in The Bearkeeper’s Daughter is to bring a completely foreign world alive through the eyes of an outsider, that being John. Theodora is not just a major component of sixth century Byzantium, but the driving force in John’s life, from his origins as a bastard, taunted by his stepmother and legitimate half-brothers, to his rise under Theodora’s benevolent yet ambitious hand. Bradshaw brings the worldly, clever, passionate Theodora alive in John’s eyes, flaws and all. John, too, is multidimensional, at once perceptive and sensitive, even self-effacing, but also snobbish. As he climbs via his own competence and skill, his confidence gradually increases, as does his self-knowledge. Secondary characters are fully fleshed as well; it is refreshing to read fully realized characters in historical fiction, rather than tropes.
Loosely based on an episode in Procopius’ Secret History, history provides a fascinating but discreet background, allowing John’s story to take center stage. The prose is clear and lucid, the pace quick and compelling. I read a page or two, then put it down to read a few other books (damn you, Emily Giffin!), but when I picked it back up, I sailed right through it. This is excellent, serious historical fiction without a bunch of soap opera crap muddying it up. Definitely recommended, and I will undoubtedly seek out more of Bradshaw’s work.
Cover: Mosaic of Theodora and Justinian from Ravenna. Nice historical touch, though the colors on my copy are a bit dull; restoration of color would have been nice. I like shit flashy!
The picture in the mosaic had been better than he realized: kneeling before her, he saw the empress first, then the woman. The imperial diadem, a band of purple silk stitched with gold and jewels, completely covered her hair and dripped pearls down to her shoulders. Her purple cloak was thickly edged with gold and jewels and fastened with an emerald clasp. Even the long tunic beneath it seemed to be made half of gold. She half sat, half reclined on an elevated couch of purple and ivory–an attitude of indolent grace. But she was leaning forward to study him, and one thin hand held the arm of the couch so tightly that the manicured fingernails had gone white. She saw him notice it, and her lips went white too; the eyes glittered as they moved to the eunuchs who stood motionless behind him, then back. The letter he had given the eunuch lay on the couch beside her.
18 July – 26 July