The Just City (Excerpt)

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge,  ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her. Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only Jo Walton could tell. The Just City is available January 13th from Tor Books—check out an excerpt below!

 

 

1
Apollo

She turned into a tree. It was a Mystery. It must have been. Nothing else made sense, because I didn’t understand it. I hate not understanding something. I put myself through all of this because I didn’t understand why she turned into a tree—why she chose to turn into a tree. Her name was Daphne, and so is the tree she became, my sacred laurel with which poets and victors crown themselves.

I asked my sister Artemis first. “Why did you turn Daphne into a tree?” She just looked at me with her eyes full of moonlight. She’s my full-blooded sister, which you’d think would count for something, but we couldn’t be more different. She was ice-cold, with one arched brow, reclining on a chilly silver moonscape.

“She implored me. She wanted it so much. And you were right there. I had to do something drastic.”

“Her son would have been a hero, or even a god.”

“You really don’t understand about virginity,” she said, uncurling and extending an ice-cold leg. Virginity is one of Artemis’s big things, along with bows, hunting and the moon.

“She hadn’t made a vow of virginity. She hadn’t dedicated herself to you. She wasn’t a priestess. I would never—”

“You really are missing something. It might be Hera you should be talking to,” Artemis said, looking at me over her shoulder.

“Hera hates me! She hates both of us.”

“I know.” Artemis was poised now, ready to be off. “But what you don’t understand falls within her domain. Ask Athene.” And she was off, like an arrow from a bow or a white deer from a covert, bounding across the dusty plains of the moon and swooping down somewhere in the only slightly less dusty plains of Scythia. She hasn’t forgiven me for the moon missions being called the Apollo Program when they should have been called after her.

My domain is wide, both in power and knowledge. I am patron of inspiration, creativity, poetry and music. I am also in charge of the sun, and light. And I am lord of healing, mice, dolphins, and sundry other specialties I’ve gathered up, some of which I’ve devolved to sons and others, but all of which I continue to keep half an eye on. But one of my most important aspects, to myself anyway, has always been knowledge. And that’s where I overlap with owl-carrying Athene, who is goddess of wisdom and knowledge and learning. If I am intuition, the leap of logic, she is the plodding slog that fills in all the steps along the way. When it comes to knowledge, together we’re a great team. I am, like my sister Artemis, a hunter. It’s the chase that thrills me, the chase after knowledge as much as the chase after an animal or a nymph. (Why had she preferred becoming a tree?) For Athene it’s different. She loves the afternoon in the library searching through footnotes and linking up two tiny pieces of inference. I am all about the “Eureka” and she is all about displacing and measuring actual weights of gold and silver.

I admire her. I really do. She’s a half-sister. All of us Olympians are pretty much related. She’s another virgin goddess, but unlike Artemis she doesn’t make a fetish of her virginity. I always thought she was just too busy working on wisdom to get involved with all that love and sex stuff. Maybe she’d get around to it in a few millennia, if it seemed interesting at that point. Or maybe she wouldn’t. She’s very self-contained. Artemis is always bathing naked in forest pools and then punishing hunters who happen to see her. Athene isn’t like that at all. I’m not sure she’s ever been naked, or even thought about it. And nobody would think about it when they’re around her. When you’re around Athene what you think about is new ways of thinking about fascinating bits of knowledge you happen to have, and how you might be able to fit them together to make exciting new knowledge. And that’s so interesting that the whole sex thing seems like a bit of relatively insignificant trivia. So there were a whole host of reasons I was reluctant to bring up the Daphne incident with her.

But I really was burning with the need to know why Daphne turned into a tree in preference to mating with me.

I went to see Athene, who was exactly where I expected her to be and doing exactly what I expected her to be doing. She fights when she needs to, of course, and she’s absolutely deadly when she does—she has the spear and the gorgon shield and she knows everything about strategy. But most of the time she’s in libraries, either mortal libraries or Olympian ones. She lives in a library. It looks like the Parthenon in Athens on the outside, and on the inside it looks like… a giant book cave. That’s the only way to describe it.

There’s one short stumpy pillar just inside, where the owl sits napping with its head curled around under its wing. Generally the spear and shield and helmet are leaning against that pillar. There’s also a desk, where she sits, which is absolutely covered with scrolls and codices and keyboards and wires and screens. There’s exactly one beam of sunlight that comes in between two of the outside pillars and falls in exactly the right place on the desk to illuminate whatever she’s using at the moment. The rest of the room is just books. There are bookcases around the walls, and there are piles of books on the floor, and there are nets of scrolls hanging from the ceiling. The worst of it is that everything is organized—alphabetized, filed, sorted, even labelled, but nothing is squared off and it all looks like the most awful mess. I never go in there without wanting to straighten it all out. It bothers me. If I’m going to see her, often I ask her to meet somewhere comfortable to both of us, like the Great Library, or the Laurentian Library, or Widener.

As I said, we make a good team—but we generally make a team as equals. I don’t tend to go to her as a suppliant. I don’t tend to go to anyone as a suppliant, except Father when it’s absolutely unavoidable. It’s rare for me to need to. And with Athene, on this particular subject, it made me deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless I went to her library-home and stood in the beam of light until she realized it had widened to the whole desk and looked up.

“Joy to you, Far-Shooter,” she said when she saw me. “News?”

“A question,” I said, sitting down on the marble steps outside, so I wouldn’t have to either hover in the air or risk treading on a book.

“A question?” she asked, coming out to join me. She lowered herself to the step, and we sat side by side looking out over Greece spread out before us—the hills, the plains, the well-built cities, the islands floating on the wine-dark sea, the triremes plying between them. We couldn’t actually see the triremes from this distance unless we focused, but I assure you they were there. We can go wherever we want, whenever we want, but why would we stray far from the classical world, when the classical world is so splendid?

“There was a nymph—” I began.

Athene turned up her nose. “If this is all, I’m going back in to work.”

“No, please. This is something I don’t understand.”

She looked at me. “Please?” she said. “Well, go on.”

As I said, I don’t often come in supplication, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know the words. “Her name was Daphne. I pursued her. And just as I caught her and was about to mate with her, she turned into a tree.”

“She turned into a tree? Are you sure she wasn’t a dryad all along?”

“Perfectly sure. She was a nymph, a nereid if you want to be technical about it. Her father was a river. She prayed to Artemis, and Artemis turned her into a tree. I asked Artemis why, and she said it was because Daphne wanted it so desperately. Why did she want to become a tree to avoid me? How could she care that much? She hadn’t made a vow of virginity. Artemis told me to ask Hera and then said maybe you would know.”

Grey-eyed Athene looked at me keenly as I mentioned Hera. “I thought I didn’t know, but if she mentioned Hera then maybe I do. What’s at the core of what Hera cares about?”

“Father,” I said.

Athene snorted. “And?”

“Marriage, obviously,” I said. I hate those Socratic dialogues where everything gets drawn out at the pace of an excessively logical snail.

“I think the issue you may be missing with Daphne, with all of this, is to do with consensuality. She hadn’t vowed virginity, she might have chosen to give her virginity up one day. But she hadn’t made that choice.”

“I’d chosen her.”

“But she hadn’t chosen you in return. It wasn’t mutual. You decided to pursue her. You didn’t ask, and she certainly didn’t agree. It wasn’t consensual. And, as it happens, she didn’t want you. So she turned into a tree.” Athene shrugged.

“But it’s a game,” I said. I knew she wouldn’t understand. “The nymphs run away and we chase after.”

“It may be a game not everyone wants to play,” Athene suggested.

I stared out over the distant islands, rising like a pod of dolphins from the waves. I could name them all, and name their ports, but I chose for the moment to see them as nothing but blue on blue cloud shapes. “Volition,” I said, slowly, thinking it through.

“Exactly.”

“Equal significance?” I asked.

“Mm-hmm.”

“Interesting. I didn’t know that.”

“Well then, that’s what you learned from Daphne.” Athene started to get up.

“I’m thinking about becoming a mortal for a while,” I said, as the implications began to sink in.

She sat down again. “Really? You know it would make you very vulnerable.”

“I know. But there are things I could learn much more quickly by doing that. Interesting things. Things about equal significance and volition.”

“Have you thought about when?” she asked.

“Now. Oh, you mean when? When in time? No, I hadn’t really thought about that.” It was an exciting thought. “Some time with good art and plenty of sunshine, it would drive me crazy otherwise. Periclean Athens? Cicero’s Rome? Lorenzo di Medici’s Florence?”

Athene laughed. “You’re so predictable sometimes. You might as well have said ‘anywhere with pillars.’ ”

I laughed too, surprised. “Yes, that about covers it. Why, do you have a suggestion?”

“Yes. I have the perfect place. Honestly. Perfect.”

“Where?” I was suspicious.

“You don’t know it. It’s… new. It’s an experiment. But it has pillars, and it has art—well, it has very Apollonian art, all light and no darkness.”

“Puh-lease.” (That wasn’t supplication, it was sarcasm. The last time I used the word it was supplication, so I thought I’d better clarify. But this was sarcasm, with which I am more familiar.) “Look, if you’re about to suggest I go to some high-tech hellhole where they’ve never heard of me because it’ll be a ‘learning experience,’ forget it. That’s not what I want at all. I am Apollo. I am important.” I pouted. “Besides, if they think the gods are forgotten, why are they writing about us? Have you read those books? There’s nothing more clichéd. Nothing.”

“I haven’t read them and they sound awful, and the only thing I want to get from high-tech societies is their robots,” she said.

“Robots?” I asked, surprised.

“Would you rather have slaves?”

“Point,” I said. Athene and I have always felt deeply uneasy about slaves. Always. “So what do you want them for?”

Athene settled back on her elbows. “Well, some people are trying to set up Plato’s Republic.”

“No!” I stared down at her. She looked smug.

“They prayed to me. I’m helping.”

“Where are they doing it?”

“Kallisti.” She gestured towards where Thera was at the moment we were sitting in. “Thera before it erupted.”

“They’re doing it before the Republic was written?”

“I said I was helping.”

“Does Father know?”

“He knows everything. But I haven’t exactly drawn it to his attention. And of course, that side of Kallisti all fell into the sea when it erupted, so there won’t be anything to show long-term.” She grinned.

“Clever,” I acknowledged. “Also, doing Plato’s Republic on Atlantis is… recursive. In a way that’s very like you.”

She preened. “Like I said, it’s an experiment.”

“It’s supposed to be a thought experiment. Who are these people that are doing it?” I was intrigued.

“Well, one of them is Krito, you know, Sokrates’s friend. And another is Sokrates himself, whom Krito and I dragged out of Athens just before his execution. If Sokrates can’t make it work, who can? And then there are some later philosophers— Platonists, Plotinus and so on, and some from Rome, like Cicero and Boethius, and from the Renaissance, Ficino and Pico… and some from even later, actually.”

I was suspicious, and a little jealous. “And all of these random people in different times decided to pray to you for help setting up Plato’s Republic?”

“Yes!” she sounded wounded that I doubted her. “They absolutely did. Every single one of them.”

“I have to go there,” I said. I wanted to try being a mortal. And this was so fascinating, the most interesting thing I’d heard about in aeons. Plato’s Republic had been discussed over centuries, but it had never actually been tried. “Where are you getting the children?”

“Orphans, slaves, abandoned children. And volunteers,” she said, looking at me. “I almost envy you.”

“Come too?” I suggested. “Once you have it set up, what would stop you?”

“I’m tempted,” she said, looking tempted, the expression she has when she has a new book she very much wants to read right now instead of fulfilling some duty.

“Oh do. It’ll be so interesting. Think what we could learn! And it wouldn’t take long. A century or so, that’s all. And it’ll have libraries. You’ll feel right at home.”

“It’ll certainly have libraries. What will be in them is another question. There’s some dispute about that at the moment.” She stared off at the clouds and the islands. “Being a mortal makes you vulnerable. Open. Love. Fear. I’m not sure about that.”

“I thought you wanted to know everything?”

“Yes,” she said, still staring out.

We didn’t have the least idea in the world what we were letting ourselves in for.

 

2
Simmea

I was born in Amasta, a farming village near Alexandria, but I grew up in the Just City. My parents called me Lucia, after the saint, but Ficino renamed me Simmea, after the philosopher. Saint Lucy and Simmias of Thebes, aid and defend me now!

When I came to the Just City I was eleven years old. I came there from the slave market of Smyrna, where I was purchased for that purpose by some of the masters. It is hard to say for sure whether this event was fortunate or unfortunate. Certainly having my chains struck off and being taken to the Just City to be educated in music and gymnastics and philosophy was by far the best fate I might have hoped for once I stood in that slave market. But I had heard the men who raided our village saying they were especially seeking children of about ten years of age. The masters visited the market at the same time every year to buy children, and they had created a demand. Without that demand I might have grown up in the Delta and lived the life the gods had laid out before me. True, I would never have learned philosophy, and perhaps I would have died bearing children to some peasant farmer. But who can say that might not have been the path to happiness? We cannot change what has happened. We go on from where we stand. Not even Necessity knows all ends.

I was eleven. I had rarely left the farm. Then the pirates came. My father and brothers were killed immediately. My mother was raped before my eyes and then led off to a different ship. I have never known what happened to her. I spent weeks chained and vomiting on the ship they threw me onto. I was given the minimum of bad food and water to keep me alive, and suffered many indignities. I saw a woman who tried to escape raped and then flogged to death. I threw buckets of seawater over the bloodstains on the deck and my strongest emotion was relief at breathing clean air and seeing daylight. When we arrived at Smyrna I was dragged onto the deck with some other children. It was dawn, and the slope of the shore rising out of the water was dark against the pink sky. At the top some old columns rose. Even then I saw how beautiful it was and my heart rose a little. We had been brought up on deck to have buckets of water thrown over us to clean us off for arrival. The water was bone-chillingly cold. I was still standing on the deck as we came into the harbour.

“Here we are, Smyrna,” one of the slavers said to another, taking no more notice of us than if we were dogs. “And that was the temple of Apollo.” He gestured at the columns I had seen, and more fallen pillars that lay near them.

“Artemis,” one of the others corrected him. “Lots of ships here. I hope we’re in time.”

From the harbour they brought us all naked and chained into the market, where there were men and women and children of every country that bordered on the Middle Sea. We were divided up by use—women in one place, educated men in another, strong men who might serve to row galleys in another. Between the groups were wooden rails with space for the buyers to walk about and look at us.

I was chained with a group of children, all aged between about eight and twelve, of all skin colours from Hyperborean fair to Nubian dark. My grandmother was a Libyan and the rest of my family all Copts, so I was slightly darker than the median shade of our group. There were boys and girls mixed indiscriminately. The only thing we had in common besides age was language—we all spoke Greek in some form. One or two of the others near me had been on my ship, but most of them were strangers. I was starting to realize how very lost I was. I had neither home nor family. I was never going to wake up and find that everything was back as it had been. I began to cry and a slaver backhanded me across the face. “None of that. They never take the snivelling ones.”

It was a hot day and tiny flies rose all around and plagued us. With our hands bound before us at waist level we could not prevent them from getting into our eyes and noses and mouths. It was a tiny misery among many great miseries. I almost forgot it when the boy chained immediately behind me began to poke at me with his bound hands. I could not reach him except by kicking backwards, which he could see and I could not. I landed one hard kick on his shin but after that he dodged, almost pulling the whole line of us over. He taunted me as he did this, calling me fumble-foot and clumsy-cow. I held my silence, as I always had with my brothers, waiting for the right moment and the right word. I could have poked the girl in front of me, who was one of the pale ones, but saw no purpose in it.

When the masters came we knew at once that they were something special. They were dressed like merchants, but the slavers bowed before them. The masters acted towards the slavers as if they despised them, and the slavers deferred to them. It was clear in their body language, even before I could hear them. The slavers brought the masters straight towards our group. The masters were looking at us and paying no attention to the adult slaves bound in the other parts of the market. I stared boldly back at them. One of them wore a red hat with a flat top and little dents at the sides, which I noticed at once, before I noticed his eyes, which were so surprisingly penetrating that once I had seen them I could look at nothing else. He saw me looking and smiled.

The masters spoke to each of us in Greek, asking questions. Several of them spoke strangely, with an odd lisping accent that slurred some of the consonants. The master with the red cap came to me, perhaps because I had caught his eye. “What is your name, little one?” He spoke good Italianate Greek.

“Lucia the daughter of Yanni,” I replied.

“That won’t do,” he muttered. “And how old are you?”

“Ten years old,” I said, as the slavers had instructed us all to say.

“Good. And you have good Greek. Did you speak it at home?”

“Yes, always.” This was nothing but the truth.

He smiled again. “Excellent. And you look strong. Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“I had three older brothers, but they are all dead.”

“I am sorry.” He sounded as if he truly was. “What’s seven times seven?”

“Forty-nine.”

“And seven times forty-nine?”

“Three hundred and forty-three.”

“Very good!” He looked pleased. “Can you read?”

I raised my chin in the universal sign for negation, and saw at once that he did not understand. “No.”

He frowned. “They so seldom teach girls. Are you quick to learn?”

“My mother always said so.”

He sketched a symbol in the dust. “This is an alpha, ah. What words begin with alpha?”

I began to list all the words I could think of that began with alpha, among them, either because he himself put it into my mind or because I had heard it from the slaver as we came in, the name of the old god Apollo. Just as I said it the slaver came up. “This is a good girl,” he said. “No trouble. Still a virgin, she is.”

This was technically true, for virgins fetch more at the market. Yet that very man had emptied himself into my mouth the night before on the ship. My jaw was still sore from it as he spoke. The master with the red hat turned on the slaver as if he guessed that. “I should think so, at ten years of age!” he snapped. “We will take her.”

I was unchained and taken aside. About half the group were selected, among them the extremely fair girl and the boy who had been poking at me. I was glad to see a red mark on his shin from the one good kick I had given him.

The masters paid what the slavers asked, unquestioningly. I could see how delighted the slavers were, although of course they tried to hide it. They had made more for each of us children than they would have for a beautiful young woman or a strong man. We were roped together and led down to a ship.

I had grown up on the shifting shore of the Delta, seeing ships only far out to sea, before the pirates had come in to attack us. Since then I had seen only their slave ship. I could tell that this ship was different, but not in what way. It had no banks of oars and no great square sail, but two masts and a series of stepped sails. I later learned that she was a schooner, and sailed by wind and tide alone. Her name was Goodness.

On the deck of the ship a woman was sitting with her legs crossed, a book in her hand. One of the masters unbound the ropes from our hands and legs as we came aboard and we were led up to her in pairs. The woman seemed to be writing down the names of the children, after which they were led to a hatchway and disappeared. My own master, he of the red hat, led me up to her with my tormentor. “These two have saints’ names,” he said. “Will you name them, Sophia?”

She looked up, and I saw that her eyes were grey. “Not I. You should know better than to ask, Marsilio. You name them.”

“Very well, then. They were chained together. Write them down as Kebes, the boy, and Simmea, the girl.” He smiled at me again as he named us. “These are good names, names that will stand you well in the city. Forget your old names, as you should forget your childhoods and your time in misery. You are going to a good place. You are all brothers and sisters here, all reborn to new lives.”

“And your name, master?” Kebes asked.

“He is Ficino, the Translator,” the woman answered for him. “He is one of the masters of the Just City.”

Then one of the others shepherded us to the hatch, and we climbed down a ladder into a big open space. The hold was nothing like the hold of the slaver. It was surprisingly well lit by strange glowing beams that lay along the curving slope of the ship. By their light I could see that it was full of children, all strangers. I had never seen so many ten-year-olds in one place, and apart from the market, never so many people. There must have been more than a hundred. Some were sleeping, some were sitting in groups talking or playing games, others were standing alone. None of them took much notice of the new arrivals. There were so many strangers suddenly that those who had been chained by me seemed like friends by comparison. Kebes was the only one whose name I knew. I stayed beside him as we went in among the others. “Do you think the masters mean well by us?” I asked him.

“I hate them,” he replied. “I hate all of them, all masters whoever they are, whatever they mean. I shall never forgive them, never submit to them. They think they bought me, think they changed my name, but nobody can buy me or change me against my will.”

I looked at him, surprised. Like a dog who had been beaten, I had been ready to love and trust the first kind word I received. He was different. He looked fierce and proud, like a hunting hawk who cannot be tamed. “Why did you poke me?” I asked.

“I will not submit.”

“I wasn’t the one who bound you. I was bound beside you.” “I couldn’t get at the ones who bound me, and you were bound beside me where you were the only one I could reach.” He looked a little guilty. “It was a small rebellion, but the only one I could achieve at that moment. And besides, you got me back.” He pointed at the fading mark on his leg. “We’re equal. Tell me your name?”

“Simmea, the master Ficino said.” I saw his lip curl as if he despised me. “Oh, all right. Lucia.”

“Well Lucia, though I shall call you Simmea and you may call me Kebes where the masters can hear, my name is Matthias. And I will never forgive them. I may wait for my revenge, but I will get it when they do not expect it.”

We had not even reached the city. The ship was barely out of the harbour of Smyrna. Already the seeds of rebellion were growing.

 

3
Maia

I was born in Knaresborough in Yorkshire in 1841, the third child and second daughter of the local rector. My parents christened me Ethel.

My father, the Rev. John Beecham, M.A., was a scholar who had been at Oxford and cared as much or more for the classics than he did for God. My mother was a worldly woman, the daughter of a baron, and therefore entitled to call herself “the honourable,” which she did on all occasions. She loved nothing so much as pretty clothes and decorations. Her recreations were embroidery and visiting friends, and her charity consisted of doing good works in the parish. My elder sister, Margaret, known as Meg, was so entirely my mother’s daughter as to be almost another edition of her in miniature. My father had hoped to have the same for himself in my brother, Edward, who was born the year before me. Unfortunately, Edward’s temperament was not at all like my father’s. He was an active, energetic boy, but sadly unsuited to scholarship. My father frequently grew impatient with him. From the first I can remember, I was consoling Edward and helping him con his lessons.

I do not remember learning to read. Perhaps my mother taught me, as she had certainly taught Meg. I have been able to read for as far back as my memory stretches, so perhaps it is true what Plato says, that we bring some memories from our past lives. If so, then all I remembered was reading. Certainly I remember clearly that when I first saw the Greek alphabet, when I was six and poor Edward was seven, it came to me immediately, more like recollecting something forgotten than learning something new. The shapes of the Greek letters were like old friends, and I only needed to be told their names once. But for Edward it was torture. I remember coaching him in it over and over. He would get hopelessly lost, poor boy. That was when we began to work together in earnest. He would always bring me his lessons as soon as he left Father, and we would go over them together until he understood them. In this way we both progressed together in Latin and Greek. Soon I was reading ahead of him in his books. I had already read everything in the house in English.

Mother and Father did not take much notice of me in early childhood. I was brought down daily to greet my parents in the afternoon for an hour after tea, and often that was the only time I saw them. Meg was four years older than Edward and five years older than me. Mother taught Meg herself and took her about with her. She had a splendid wardrobe which suited her very well. She was a fetching child, good natured, always smiling and laughing, with golden curls and pink cheeks. My hair was paler, and lifeless in comparison, it would never take a curl. Nor did I ever try to charm the company. I retreated into myself until my mother thought me dull and sullen. When Meg was already old enough to begin to play the piano and to sew prettily, Edward and I were still under the care of our nurse.

Edward had his lessons with Father every morning. I stayed in the nursery and read everything I could lay my hands on. Then in the afternoons, after I had helped Edward understand his morning’s lessons, we took healthful walks on the moors. This went on happily enough until Edward was twelve and Father began to talk of sending him away to school. Edward dreaded it, and begged to be allowed to stay at home. “But your work is so much better,” Edward reported that Father had said. “Your last Latin composition had only one mistake, and your last Greek had none.” Edward then burst out crying and admitted to Father that they were both my work. Father forgave him but was bewildered. “Little Ethel? But how does she know enough to do it?” He called me in and tested me on unseen passages of Greek and Latin, which I translated with pride and without difficulty.

Thereafter Father taught both of us together, and if anything he paid more attention to my progress than to Edward’s, because I could follow his mind, which Edward could not. The next year Edward went off to school, scraping through his exam. Father continued to teach me. By the time Edward went to Oxford it was almost as if Father and I were colleagues, both scholars together, spending all day poring over a text and discussing it. Father said I had the wits of a man, and it was a shame I could not go to Oxford too, as I would get more benefit from it. I said that I did not want to leave him, but that perhaps Edward could bring us some more books. Father had a great desire to re-read Plato, which he did not own and had not read since he was himself at Oxford.

The year after, 1859, my father died, quite suddenly, of a chill that went to his lungs. Edward was in his second year at Oxford. Our lives changed overnight. The rectory, of course, had to be given up. Meg, who was twenty-three, had been betrothed for some time to the son of the local squire. It now seemed best to everyone that they be married immediately and set up housekeeping. My mother, almost as a matter of course, went to live with her. The day after the wedding I was sent off to my godmother, my father’s sister, Aunt Fanny, in London. Aunt Fanny had made an advantageous marriage and was now Lady Dakin. She could better afford to support me than Meg’s new husband.

Edward frowned at all this, but was powerless. My father’s estate, such as it was, went to him. It was barely enough for him to live on and remain at Oxford. He promised me that when once he had graduated and found a living that would support us both, he would take me into his house as his housekeeper. He painted a rosy picture of the two of us living happily in some country rectory, him out hunting and me in the study writing his sermons. It seemed the best future I could aspire to.

Aunt Fanny was very kind and gave me a London season with her youngest daughter, my cousin Anne. It was not the kind of entertainment that was to my taste, causing me to continually twist about on myself with shyness, thrust out among so many strangers. I was not a success with the young men to whom I was presented.

Aunt Fanny and Anne constantly urged me to make the best of myself and to wear lilac and grey after three months, but I insisted on wearing mourning black for my father for a whole year. Indeed, I missed him bitterly every day. Also I missed my books. I had been allowed to bring only certain books of Father’s, and I felt parched for anything new. At the end of the London season, with neither of us married and being no doubt desperate as to what to do with two girls, Aunt Fanny carried us off on a tour to Italy. We had a guide and a carriage and we stayed in pensiones or in the houses of friends. It was all very grand, and at least it afforded me new things to see and think about. Sometimes I could even tell the others the stories of the places we were visiting, which always left them a little taken aback and caused the guide to despise me.

Then in Florence I fell in love, as so many have before me, not with any personage but with the art of the Renaissance. In the Pitti Palace I saw a fresco that showed the destruction of the ancient world—Pegasus being set upon by harpies!—and the refugee Muses coming to Florence and being welcomed by Lorenzo de Medici. I was so overcome I had to borrow a handkerchief from Anne to mop my eyes. Aunt Fanny shook her head. Young ladies were supposed to admire art, but not so extravagantly.

Indeed, poor Aunt Fanny had no idea what to do with me. In the Uffizi, she found the Botticelli Madonnas “papist.” I realized as soon as I saw them how bleak was the notion of God without any softening female spirit. I believed in God, of course, and in salvation through Christ. I had always been a devout churchgoer. I prayed nightly. I believed in Providence and tried to see its hand even through the difficulties of my life—which I reminded myself were not so very much to suffer in comparison with the lives so many led. I might have been utterly destitute and forced to beg, or to prostitute myself. I knew I was lucky. Yet I felt myself trammelled. Since Father died I had never had the conversation of an equal, never indeed had any conversation that was not at best quotidian. I wanted to talk to somebody about the female nurturing element in God, about the lives of the angels visible in the background of Botticelli’s Madonnas, and even more about the Primavera. Anne, when I asked her what she thought, said she found the Primavera disturbing. We stood in front of the Birth of Venus as the guide mouthed nonsense. We moved on to another room and to Raphael, who had painted men I felt I could have talked to. I was so lonely I could have talked to their painted selves, had I been unobserved. I missed my father so much.

In the San Lorenzo market the next day, while Aunt Fanny and Anne were cooing over some leather gloves, I stealthily moved to the next stall, which was piled high with books. Some were in Italian, but many were in Greek and Latin, among them several worn volumes of Plato. Even the sight of his name on the faded leather seemed to bring my father closer. The prices seemed reasonable; perhaps there was little demand for books in Greek. I counted my little store of cash, gift of my generous aunt who imagined I wanted to buy trifles. Instead I bought as many books as I could carry and the money would reach to. Of course I could not carry them inconspicuously, so my cousin and my aunt saw the pile as soon as I caught up with them. I saw dismay in Aunt Fanny’s eyes, but she did her best to smile. “How like your father you are, dear Ethel,” she said. “My own dear brother John. He would also spend all he had on books whenever he got the chance. But you must not let men think you are a bluestocking. There is nothing that they so dislike!”

The next day we left for Rome. I had decided to make my books last and read only one book a week, but instead I gorged myself on them. In Rome I saw the Colosseum and the ruins of palaces on the Palatine Hill. I read Plato.

Like everyone who reads Plato, I longed to stop Socrates and put in my own arguments. Even without being able to do that, reading Plato felt like being part of the conversation for which I had been so starved. I read the Symposium and the Protagoras, and then I began the Republic. The Republic is about Plato’s ideas of justice—not in terms of criminal law, but rather how to maximize happiness by living a life that is just both internally and externally. He talks about both a city and a soul, comparing the two, setting out his idea of both human nature and how people should live, with the soul a microcosm of the city. His ideal city, as with the ideal soul, balanced the three parts of human nature: reason, passion, and appetites. By arranging the city justly, it would also maximize justice within the souls of the inhabitants.

Plato’s ideas about all these things were fascinating and thought-provoking, and I read on, longing to talk about them with somebody else who cared. Then, in Book Five, I found the passage where he talks about the education of women, indeed about the equality of women. I read it over and over again. I could hardly believe it. Plato would have allowed me into the conversation from which my sex excluded me. He would have let me be a guardian, limited only by my own ability to achieve excellence.

I went over to the window and looked down on the busy Roman street. A workman was going past, carrying a ladder. He whistled at a young woman on a doorstep who called something back to him in Italian. I was a woman, a young lady, and this constrained me in everything. My choices were so unbearably narrow. If I wanted a life of the mind I could work at nothing but as a governess, or a teacher in a girls’ school, teaching not the classics but the proper accomplishments of a young lady— sketching, watercolors, French and Italian, playing the piano. Possibly I could write books; I was hazily aware that some women did support themselves in that way. But I had no taste for fiction, and writing philosophy would hardly be acceptable. I could marry, if I could find a man like my father—but Father himself had not chosen a woman like me, but one like my mother. Aunt Fanny was not wrong when she said that men dislike bluestockings. I could perhaps keep house for Edward as he had suggested, and write his sermons, but what would then become of me if he were to marry?

In Plato’s Republic, as never in all of history, my sex would have been no impediment. I could have been an equal to anyone. I could have exercised freely, and learned philosophy. I wished fiercely that it existed and that I had been born there. He had written two thousand three hundred years ago, and never in all that time had anyone paid any attention. How many women had led stupid wasted unnecessary lives because nobody listened to Plato? I was furious with all the world except Plato and my father.

I went back to my seat and took up the book again, reading on faster and faster, no longer wanting to disagree with Socrates, saying yes in my heart, yes to everything; yes, censor Homer, limit the forms of music, why not; yes, take children into battle; yes, by all means exercise naked if you think it better; yes, indeed, begin with ten-year-olds—how I would have loved it at ten. Yes, please, please, dearest Plato, teach the best of both sexes to become philosopher kings who discover and understand the Truth behind this world. I turned up the gas lamp and read most of the night.

The next morning Aunt Fanny complained that I looked fatigued, and said that I should not exhaust myself. I protested that I was very well, and an outing would revive me. The guide took us to see the Trevi Fountain, a huge extravaganza which Anne admired, and then on to the Pantheon, a round temple to all the gods, built by Marcus Agrippa and since reclaimed as a Christian church. The dome leads the eye up inexorably to a circle of clear sky. I looked at all the Catholic clutter of crucifixes and icons down below and saw it as impious in this place which led the heart to God without any need of it. Surely the philosopher kings would have divined God in the Truth. Surely nobody could come in here without apprehending Him, even the pagans who had built the place. Surely behind the façade of the mythology they understood, perhaps without knowing what they understood. They had no saints and prophets. Their gods were the best way for them to comprehend the divine.

My thoughts turned to the Greek gods, and to the idea of the female principle within God that had struck me in Florence. Without in the least intending it I found myself praying to Athene, the female patroness of learning and wisdom. “Oh Pallas Athene, please take me away from this, let me live in Plato’s Republic, let me work to find a way to make it real.”

I am sure that the next instant I would have realized what I was doing, and been shocked at myself and fallen to my knees and begged Jesus to forgive me. But that next instant never came. I was standing in the Pantheon looking up and praying to Athene, and then without any transition I was on Kallisti, in a pillared chamber full of men and women from many different centuries, all as bewildered as I was, with grey-eyed Athene herself standing unmistakably before us.

 

Excerpted from The Just City © Jo Walton, 2015

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