The Women of Troy is the second novel in Pat Barker’s trilogy-in-progress about the Trojan War. Its predecessor, The Silence of the Girls (2018), was set in the Greeks’ shoreside camp before their artfully planned penetration of Troy hidden in the belly of a “gift”: a wooden horse. In the bleaker sequel, the city has fallen, and Andromache, the wife of Hector, Cassandra, a virgin priestess raped in Athena’s temple, and Hecuba, Priam’s widowed queen, are forced to dwell in the squalid camp as their conquerors’ concubines and servingwomen, while the Greeks wait with increasing desperation for the sea wind to change in their favor so they can sail for home. Barker adds to the group of captured Trojan women the idealistic young Amina, who is determined to bury the body of King Priam, which now lies dishonored on the beach.

Like The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy is chiefly narrated by the widowed Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus (an ally of Troy), one of the handful of women to whom Homer briefly allows a voice—and an eloquent one. Toward the end of the Iliad, she laments the death of Patroclus, who had promised to compel Achilles to marry her after his slaughter of her husband and brothers. Briseis, described by Homer as being “like to golden Aphrodite,” is granted an uncharacteristically generous twenty-four lines in which to express her affection for Patroclus, the one Greek who treated her with unfailing respect: “Therefore I have no fill of mourning your death, who were kind to me always.” In the Iliad Achilles loves his promised war prize Briseis, “spear-won though she be,” but he dies unmarried near the end of The Silence of the Girls, after a short and violent life in what Barker strikingly describes as “a shadowless glare of light.” When we meet Briseis again in The Women of Troy, she is pregnant by the Greeks’ dead hero.

The Silence of the Girls presented Briseis as a second Helen, a beautiful young woman who becomes a pawn in the deadly power game between Agamemnon and Achilles outside the walls of Troy. “I was Helen now,” she says without irony when Agamemnon takes her away from Achilles and imprisons her in one of the weaving sheds where the Greeks’ female captives often choke on airborne threads of cotton and flax. (Yorkshire-born Barker may have been remembering the short-lived factory workers glimpsed by a shocked Ottoline Morrell during her husband’s political canvassing in the northern cotton town of Burnley.)

Confined within the walls of Troy, Barker’s supremely aloof and privileged Helen turns weaving into a royal pastime, depicting the ten-year siege of Priam’s city on a series of exquisite tapestries. Briseis, by contrast, presents herself as an engaged participant, a conscientious reporter on the war. “I wanted to bear witness,” she explains after watching the courageous death of Polyxena, a young Trojan princess whose life was demanded by Achilles just before his own death from an arrow shot by her brother, Paris.

While acknowledging how hard it must have been for King Priam to beg for Hector’s corpse by kissing the hands of Achilles, his firstborn son’s killer—one of the Iliad’s most celebrated episodes—Briseis reminds us of what she and her fellow prisoners have had to endure in silence: “I thought: And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.” Unspoken but emphatic is Barker’s grim message to our own times: little has changed. Women victims of war still silently do what they must in order to survive.

Barker has described herself as a storyteller who relishes the challenge of a Jamesian donnée, what she calls “a little something you can turn into a story.” Like all good storytellers, she also acknowledges the need for a space in which to imagine: “You need a gap. You need mystery.” For The Silence of the Girls, Barker located that space in the Iliad’s account of the captured queen of Lyrnessus, a character so faintly drawn by Homer that Chaucer felt at liberty to combine Briseis with Chryseis (a priest’s daughter enslaved by the besiegers of Troy) to create the “Criseyde” of his Troilus and Criseyde.

The apparent aim of Barker’s Troy trilogy is to preserve the timelessness of Homer’s epic chronicle of linked dramatic episodes in a fresh telling that gives a powerful voice to women and illuminates the past while speaking to the present. It’s a fascinating enterprise, not least because her long career began in the 1980s with three novels—Union Street (1982), Blow Your House Down (1984), and The Century’s Daughter (1986)—that gave a strong and often brutally funny new voice to an invisible society: the downtrodden working-class women of the industrial towns in the north of England. Now, almost forty years later, she clearly intends to do the same for the “silenced” women of the Trojan War.

Advertisement

Evidence that Barker has been planning this project for a long time emerges from the first of her war trilogies, Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995), which focused on men’s experiences in World War I and brought her international fame. The men about whom she wrote were contemporaries of the young Etonian officers who went out to Gallipoli in 1915 knowing from their schoolbooks that Achilles, Homer’s greatest military hero, had died just thirty miles away, slain by an arrow shot into his heel, which was his only vulnerable spot. “Stand in the trench, Achilles,/flame-capped, and shout for me,” wrote Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who died at Cambrai in 1917, two years after attending Rupert Brooke’s burial rites on Skyros, the island where Achilles, in the fruitless hope of escaping his destiny, allegedly took refuge before the Trojan War.

The poems of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon—both were prominent characters in that trilogy—reveal that they, too, were well aware of the parallel between their own situation and that of Agamemnon’s troops, weary occupiers of a marshy coastal plain during their decade-long siege of Troy. Near the beginning of Regeneration, Barker reproduces Sassoon’s poem “To the Warmongers,” in which his bitter reference to battles that seem to “shine/With triumph half-divine” mocks the deskbound generals back in England for indulging in a vain fantasy of replicating the Greek conquest of Troy at the Somme and Ypres.

Regeneration opened with Sassoon’s bold protest in 1917 against what he saw as a needless prolongation of the so-called Great War. Denied the publicity of the court-martial that he was seeking, Sassoon was sent instead to Craiglockhart, a Scottish hospital for war injuries. There, while being treated by the distinguished neurologist William Rivers, he met Owen. Barker’s Sassoon recognizes an uneasy parallel between his prolonged absence from warfare and that of Achilles, who after Agamemnon robbed him of Briseis protested by withdrawing from the battlefield. The war goes on and comrades die. Sassoon’s guilty connection to Achilles is made explicit in Barker’s novel when he hands Rivers a poem that ends with a deliberate echo of Odysseus’s appeal to Achilles, who refuses to leave his tent to fight: “Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

Can the loss of human life in war ever truly be justified? Barker is still exploring that agonizing question. Toward the end of The Ghost Road, Hallet, a soldier voluntarily returning to the front after hospital treatment, pleads with the skeptical Owen to agree that a war that has cost so many lives remains a just war. Hallet later dies in a London hospital of new and appalling wounds. Watched by his horrified parents and by Rivers, his therapist and doctor, he manages to whisper his final judgment on the war: “Shotvarfet.” The reluctant Rivers translates the garbled words: “It’s not worth it.” Afterward Rivers is unable—or unwilling—to remember whether he, whose task it is to send his “cured” patients back to the front, had joined the chorus of dying soldiers on the ward as they echoed Hallet’s words: It’s not worth it. By making us observe the Trojan War through the watchful eyes of Briseis, an innocent victim, Barker reminds us of Hallet’s bitter conclusion about the value of life sacrificed to war.

Barker is known best for writing about men, but the silencing of women in war has never been far from her mind. The women of the Regeneration trilogy, who use the blunt language of the north of England, are punished if they speak out. “I talked, I played me mouth,” Beattie Roper, a fierce old pacifist in The Eye in the Door, explains from the cell where she’s been locked up for trying to kill the British prime minister. In Life Class (2007), the first novel of her second war trilogy—followed by Toby’s Room (2012) and Noonday (2015)—Barker connected, with startling directness, that enforced silence to her thoughts about women in the Iliad. Here Elinor Brooke is describing London’s preparations for war in the summer of 1914 in a letter to her lover and fellow art student Paul Tarrant:

The women have gone very quiet. It’s like the Iliad, you know, when Achilles insults Agamemnon and Agamemnon says he’s got to have Achilles’ girl and Achilles goes off and sulks by the long ships and the girls they’re quarrelling over say nothing, not a word, it’s a bit like that. I don’t suppose men ever hear that silence.

Reading those arrestingly prescient lines, we might wonder why Barker took so long to write about the Trojan War.

Advertisement

Behind the battle lines, women’s participation in war has always been crucial. In The Silence of the Girls, when Briseis leaves the weaving sheds to volunteer her services in the Greeks’ hospital tent, she speaks in the authoritative tones of one of that unsung army who were permitted to work as nurses during World War I. Like them, she knows what a war does to its victims. (Questioning the myth that Achilles was vulnerable only in his heel, she’s in a position to refute it: “Invulnerable to wounds? His whole body was a mass of scars. Believe me. I do know.”) That brisk tone, familiar to readers of Barker’s previous works, lends conviction to the voice of Briseis, a deposed queen who talks to us coolly of duckboards and trenches; of the distinctive crackle of soil under the skin when gangrene sets in; of the extreme youth of so many of the dying men; and finally, hauntingly for anyone who has visited the vast graveyards of northern France, of the anonymous dead: “This list of intolerably nameless names.”

Barker brings to her interpretation of the distant past an exceptional ability to persuade us that we’re reading about people who wouldn’t feel out of place in her earlier books, set in times far closer to our own. “Why was he born so beautiful?” the Myrmidon warriors roar for Achilles, their charismatic young leader, as if they were marching out to the Somme. “Why was he born at all?” We accept the Greek warriors singing ditties from World War I as readily as we grant the women and soldiers the language that Barker first put into the mouths of the women of Union Street. “Be thankful. Mightn’t fancy you if I was sober,” a ravaged old sex worker tells the shy former factory hand she takes into her bed in that bold early work.

“Tell him he can fuck her till her back breaks,” says Achilles in a message to Agamemnon in The Silence of the Girls. Briseis winces, but we don’t doubt the authenticity of what she’s heard. Achilles’ insult also underscores his kinship with one of Barker’s most powerful creations, the hotly defensive and bisexual young officer Billy Prior, who uses similarly brutal language to tell one of his spurned lovers in The Eye in the Door to get lost. Like Achilles, Prior suffers from a lethal combination of pride and simmering rage. Like Achilles, he’s never in doubt about his eventual fate if he chooses—as he does—to return to the battlefield:

Well, here I am, in what passes for a dug-out. And I look round me at all these faces and all I can think is: What an utter bloody fool I would have been not to come back.

In the fifteenth century Troy was transformed into a chivalric romance when the History of Troy designs produced by the Grenier family at Tournai in France were among the most sought-after of all tapestries. (As many as nine sets may have been woven.) Displayed for special occasions like festivals, these exquisite and fabulously expensive works of art served to remind visitors to Europe’s royal and ducal courts of their owners’ power. Six centuries later, we are again having a bit of a Trojan moment, but this time the impetus is all coming from women, with Barker acknowledging Caroline Alexander’s fine 2015 translation of the Iliad.

Briseis and Achilles; painting by Jacopo Tintoretto

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Jacopo Tintoretto: Briseis and Achilles, sixteenth century

In fiction, Madeline Miller led the way when she won the UK’s Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012), which portrayed Achilles as a fearsome spear-thrower who uses his goddess-given skills—his mother was Thetis, a sea nymph—to protect his lover, Patroclus, from harm on the battlefield. Miller’s Achilles doesn’t fancy Briseis, presented there as a motherly Anatolian farmgirl whom he leaves untouched. While Barker employs vernacular language to reduce the gap between past and present, Miller strives for a more archaic feel. “He was a marvel, shaft after shaft flying from him,” the slow but sturdy Patroclus tells us in prose that nods to Homer as the inspirer of his own surprising eloquence. “All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet.” (Miller has since published Circe, a richly imaginative novel about the Odyssey’s most dangerous island enchantress.)

More recently, in Anne Carson’s characteristically audacious 2021 translation of Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women, the savage Hecuba denounces her vain son Paris’s trophy wife, Helen, as the “hinge, axis, determinant, why and fucking wherefore of it all.” Rosanna Bruno provides the witty illustrations for Carson’s comic bubble-text speeches in this invigorating graphic novel collaboration that in one striking scene depicts a glum chorus of anthropomorphized Trojan canines and cows endorsing their queen’s lamentations.

Meanwhile, Natalie Haynes, a young classicist and former stand-up comedian, gives Helen short shrift in her third novel, A Thousand Ships (2019), in which a faintly tiresome muse controls what Homer says about the ancient world’s most beautiful woman. “I know what the poet would like to be doing now,” Calliope tells us, before jauntily predicting the doglike servility of the captivated Homer’s prose as he follows Helen back from fallen Troy to rejoin her husband, Menelaus, the younger brother of Agamemnon. “Well, he cannot,” the muse announces. “I shall teach him a lesson.” And so she does. Wielding her feminist sword with cutting gusto, Haynes allows Calliope to ensure that Homer is punished for presuming to give a subordinate role to the women of his great song cycles.

Haynes’s relish for the task of redressing a perceived imbalance of power between the sexes is never less than buoyantly apparent. Crafty Odysseus meets his match in a skeptical wife whom he has already kept waiting through a decade of distant warfare. Surely, Penelope explodes, even Odysseus wouldn’t sink so low as to remain with Circe, a witch, for an entire year! (A garrulous wandering bard has brought the story of his travels back to his abandoned queen in Ithaca.) How can she be so certain? For an incontestable reason: “You are my husband, and such behaviour would be beneath you. A long, long way beneath you.” One doesn’t envy this infuriated Penelope’s elusive spouse the task of explaining just how Calypso kept him in thrall for a further seven years of his slow journey home.

Both Miller and Haynes have demonstrated a flair for giving the classics a feminist slant: Haynes’s epistle from Penelope to Odysseus rewrites the first of eighteen imaginary letters composed by various legendary ladies to their lovers in Ovid’s Heroides, or Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines). It’s a valid way to introduce the old stories to a new audience at a time when the study of classics seems to be on the wane. But is it fair of them, or of Barker, to argue, as all three novelists appear to do, that the relative absence of female voices in the Iliad and the Odyssey implies that women haven’t played a crucially influential part in that world where myth and history meet?

Other women may feel differently, but the powerful voices I remember first hearing from the ancient world were those of Clytemnestra, Electra, and Medea. A vengeful mother whose husband had killed their child (to bring a fair wind for the voyage to Troy); a grief-stricken daughter who had seen her father slain in his own palace; a betrayed and unforgiving wife: the playwrights turned them into flesh-and-blood women rather than capricious goddesses, all justifiably furious, all bent on obtaining revenge in a way that seemed to a young female reader transgressive, visceral, and thrillingly credible.

The ancient poets and playwrights could be as crudely funny and consciously contemporary as Barker in The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy. Written in 411 BC (two hundred years after the Homeric epics), Aristophanes’ Lysistrata unleashed voices that Barker surely had in mind when writing The Women of Troy, in order to dramatize and have fun with the ageless trope about sex being power. “The women won’t let us touch their pussies, not until we’ve made a peace with all Greece,” whines a Spartan envoy in the Athenian playwright’s scurrilous critique of war. “Grab a man’s dick, you can lead him anywhere,” Barker’s sexually adventurous Hecuba tells her former lover, the Trojan priest Calchas.

Like Haynes’s A Thousand Ships, Barker’s The Women of Troy draws directly on two plays by Euripides, The Trojan Women and Hecuba, to depict the degrading situation of the captured Trojan women after the fall of their city. Following Seneca’s later treatment in Troades of events after the fall of Troy, Barker paints a scornful portrait of Achilles’ unmet son Pyrrhus, the slayer of King Priam, as a teenage brawler and flashy newcomer from distant Greece who has inherited his father’s outrageous temper but none of his charisma as a leader. For Briseis, pregnant with the child whom Achilles’ faithful Myrmidons expect to emerge from her womb as a miniature replica of his father, Pyrrhus is a constant danger: “My child’s half-brother. The enemy. It doesn’t get any starker than that.” Thanks to Barker’s neat arrangement of a Greek husband for Briseis, whose relatives married into King Priam’s extensive family, she is able to move with impunity among both the Greek victors and the traumatized women of Troy who are now their prisoners.

Briseis’ unusual position enables her to restore connections between captives who are now imprisoned in different compounds by different kings. As in The Silence of the Girls, her chief role in The Women of Troy is that of a recorder of the defeated women’s experiences. As before, Barker makes frequent use of a gritty northern dialect (“old git”; “a right little bruiser”) to inject contemporary feeling into conversations between Briseis and Hecuba. Spoken among the enslaved women being held in the Greek camp in The Silence of the Girls, Barker’s deliberately rough language sounds convincing and often surprisingly funny. Coming from King Priam’s indomitable widow, it jars, almost as if the queen of England were to deliver her annual Christmas speech in Cockney. Silence, at moments like this, seems not such a bad idea.

It’s possible that Barker’s final volume in the series may offer a more rewarding portrayal of Hecuba. In The Women of Troy, Barker is at her best when literary knowledge and imagination operate together, as in episodes like young Pyrrhus’s disquieting nocturnal encounter on the beach with the rotting, flyblown corpse of Priam, the king he ignobly murdered and whose body he refuses to bury. In another striking scene, Barker places Briseis alone in a dark storeroom among an army of ghosts:

I closed my eyes, and gradually—this was a slow process—I felt a presence growing in the darkness behind me. “Presence” is the wrong word, but I don’t know what the right word is. Opening my eyes, I forced myself to lift the lantern high above my head—and cried out with shock. Because there, lined along the far wall, stood Priam, Hector, Patroclus, Achilles…. What I was seeing were suits of armour…fastened to the walls, each piece in its proper place, so that together they formed the shapes of men.

Barker has sometimes described writing as an almost clairvoyant experience, a characterization that undervalues both her formidably precise and detailed research and the strength of her prose. More successfully than in The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy evokes the desolation of the Iliad’s setting, the sea “flexing its powerful shoulders for the next attack” as Hecuba totters on the shore, and the “black and broken towers” of Troy jutting up “like the fingers of a half-buried hand pointing accusingly at the sky.” While the novel presently feels as awkwardly incomplete as The Eye in the Door did before she finished that trilogy with her award-winning The Ghost Road, there are lines and scenes in The Women of Troy that suggest Pat Barker is in the process of writing the Greek trilogy by which she always intended to crown a remarkable career.