May 7 2009 3:37pm

Missing the Late Roman Empire? Gillian Bradshaw’s The Beacon at Alexandria

Gillian Bradshaw has written more accomplished books than The Beacon at Alexandria, but none that I love more. It’s a comfort book for me, fitting into a sweet spot where she does everything just the way I like it. It’s set in a period I’m especially fond of (the period leading up to 376) she gets all the details right but never makes you feel you’re suffering for her research, the protagonist is a woman who disguises herself as a man (well, a eunuch, which is even more interesting) and is just the right kind of unsure and then confident. I even like the romance. But best of all it’s about my favourite subject, civilization and why it’s a good idea. I relax into this book as into a warm bath.

Charis is a young lady of good family in the city of Ephesus. She wants to be a doctor, she reads Hippocrates and practices on sick animals. To avoid a horrible marriage she runs away to Alexandria and studies medicine in disguise. There she becomes entangled with the Archbishop Athanasius. She leaves Alexandria in the disturbances after Athanasius’s death to become an army doctor in Thrace, up on the frontier, and there she becomes entangled with some Goths. The historical events are a tragedy, in the sense that they inevitably go along their course towards no good end. The personal events are not. We have here the story of one person going through her life and learning and loving, against a background of everything going to hell.

Oh, and it’s arguably fantasy. There’s an oracle that comes true, though it’s entirely historical that it did, there’s a divine vision that Archbishop Athanasius has, and a dream-visitation from him after his death. That’s not much, and it has always been published as a straight historical novel, but you can make a case for fantasy if you want to.

It’s an intensely feminist novel. The contrast between what Charis can be as a woman and be as a man is one of the main themes of the work. She lives in fear of exposure and in hope of one day being able to live as what she is, a female doctor. Yet she knows that without the spur of needing to escape she would have kept on compromising and never living her own life. She sees all her options as a woman—marriage to an appropriate stranger—as a cage. We later see a little of it from the male side. The men complain that nicely brought up girls look at their feet and have no conversation—which is precisely what Charis is being trained to do. Even marrying her true love who is going to let her run a hospital, she has a pang over that “let” and needing to trust him so much. I often find feminist heroines in historical periods revoltingly anachronistic, but I don’t have that problem with Charis at all, because we see the process of her growing into it and her disguise becoming second nature. The disguise as a eunuch is interesting too. It makes her asexual. Rather than switching her gender it takes her out of gender altogether. You’d think people would write more about eunuchs, in the periods where they existed. Mary Renault’s brilliant The Persian Boy has a eunuch protagonist, but apart from that I can’t think of much about them. The disguise gives Charis a position on not being able to marry, and it means the disguise doesn’t need to be as entire as it would otherwise be—eunuchs are supposed to be girlish men, she’s a girl in man’s clothes. Women have in reality passed as men, sometimes for many years; James Barry lived as a doctor for decades. It’s nevertheless always a difficult thing to make plausible in fiction.

The period details of medicine are convincing, and Charis’s passion for medicine is very well done. She is just the right degree of obsessed with it. I have wondered if Charis inspired the doctor Jehane in The Lions of Al Rassan or whether it was more recent struggles for women to become doctors that inspired both of them.

This is a book set at a time when the Roman Empire had been in existence for centuries and from within and without it looked as essential and unnoticeable as oxygen. The battle of Adrianople which comes at the end of the novel marks the beginning of the end of that Empire, in the West. The characters of course do not know this, but Bradshaw is achingly aware of it, as almost any reader must be. I don’t know how the naive reader who’s learning history randomly from fiction would find it, I was never that reader for this book. I always read it with the full awareness of the historical context. Bradshaw makes the period very real, the ways in which it is similar to the present and the ways in which it is vastly different. She doesn’t make it nicer than it was, the corruption and bribery of the officials, the horrible position of women, the casual acceptance of slavery, and torture of slaves for information. Yet:

One takes things for granted, assuming that something is a natural state when really it is a hard won privilege. It had never seemed odd to me that only soldiers bore weapons, that the laws were the same everywhere, that people could live by their professions, independently of any local lord, that one could buy goods from places thousands of miles away. But all of that was dependent on the Empire, which supports the structure of the world as Atlas was said to support the sky. All of it was alien to the Goths. I had hated the imperial authorities at times, for their corruption, their brutality, their greedy claim on all power in the world. But now that there was a challenge to the imperial government of Thrace, I found myself wholly a Roman.

This despite the Goths allowing women doctors. Bradshaw is quite fair to the Goths—giving them the virtues of their flaws, culturally, and individually. But it’s the corrupt civilization of the Empire that she loves, and that I love too. Most of Bradshaw’s work has been set there—the Arthurian books and Island of Ghosts in Britain, Cleopatra’s Heir in Egypt, Render Unto Caesar in Rome, The Sand Reckoner in Sicily. She writes about it from inside and outside, in many different periods, from its beginnings to its endings, but almost always the Roman Empire, flawed, imperfect, but representing peace and civilization. The “beacon” at Alexandria is the lighthouse, but it’s also the library, learning, the shining possibility of education.

If you ever feel homesick for the Late Roman Empire, or if you’ve never been there and want to visit, you can do a lot worse of this story of a girl disguised as a eunuch becoming a doctor and having adventures.

[da ve]
1. slickhop
Anne Rice wrote from a eunuch's POV in Cry from Heaven. It was interesting because it had a really similar tone to her vampire books. I can't think of any others.

I can think of folks who've been castrated in war in a few places. The Deed of Paksenarrion for one.

I really enjoyed Persian Boy as well. Will check this book out.
Torie Atkinson
2. Torie
This sounds right up my alley. I will be sure to check it out!

The Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson have a eunuch as a major POV character. That's the only instance that pops to mind.
Elio García
3. Egarcia
Elaine Isaak's The Singer's Crown series has a eunuch protagonist. Mary Gentle's Ilario has a eunuch as a significant secondary protagonist, as well.

And castrated in war, I believe a character in the Runelords series rather gruesomely has his scrotum torn off by a villain... not really sure what happened to him other than that, other than that he survived and went on some sort of quest in the subsequent novel(s).

Oh, and more recently, the deeply misanthropic Glokta in Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy was castrated as part of severe, prolonged torture at enemy hands. He's a major POV character in the series.

Bradshaw's book sounds fascinating.
4. steve-o
Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Years of Rice and Salt" features a eunuch POV character as well. Bradshaw's book sounds like a great read, thanks for the writeup!
5. sunjah
The Beacon at Alexandria is a sentimental favorite for me too, in ways which resonate deeply. As a medical person I must agree that the descriptions of period medicine are plausible, if a bit idealized with regard to the heroine. The medical *people* and situations were very believable.

I never thought of it as fantasy before. Arguable is a good word for it. The Wolf Hunt is more obviously fantastical, while Dangerous Notes (another favorite) is more sfnal.

I came to Bradshaw's work through the Arthurian books, but have liked some of her other works more.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Sunjah: I started with the Arthurian books too, and have been reading her steadily since then, though I notice I've missed a few in the last couple of years.
7. intertext
Thank you for that! The Beacon at Alexandria is one of my all time favourite comfort reads, too, and so few other people have even heard of it, let alone read it. I like it for all the same reasons you do.
8. HelenS
I love Gillian Bradshaw, and I too love _The Beacon at Alexandria_ the most of all her books. She's written some modern thrillers that are interesting intellectually, but don't really grab me as stories at all -- but one of them had the coolest rant ever about ethical issues concerning abortion. It kept doing these wild 270-degree turns (I say "it" because I remember the argument rather than the person). Great fun.
9. Jinian
Alison Goodman's Tiptree-shortlisted Eon has a girl-playing-eunuch, too!
David Lev
10. davidlev
Varys and the Unsullied from A Song of Ice and Fire are eunuchs (in the case of the Unsullied, a whole army of 'em). Interesting because these are some damn scary and threatening castrated people
11. filkferengi
Kate Ross' last mystery, _Devil In Music_, has a castrati as one of the main characters.
Liza .
12. aedifica
I opened this review in a tab for later and, well, now is "later," right? Anyway, thanks for the review, Jo--you had me from "Athanasius" (I remember him from my Early Christian Fathers class) but the rest sounds very good too!
13. Foxessa
The fascinating-to-all, sad, gender-fluid, cfigure of 'the Fool,' in Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy isn't a eunuch, though at different times it is suggested and believed that s/he is.
Peter D. Tillman
14. PeteTillman

Just finished tBoA. Fine book, excellent review. I should read more of her stuff.

Thanks for the tip!

Cheers -- Pete Tillman

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