In the literary world it feels as if Greek mythology is having a moment, with authors lining up to rework these classical tales of gods, wrath and thunder. But in truth the legends have always burned bright. They delve into the far corners of human behaviour and experience, picking at potent pressure points – gender, love, power, brutality, ethics and divine retribution – and it is this currency that gives them such eternal relevance.
Classicist Laura Shepperson is the latest writer to dive in with an edgy, accessible feminist reworking of the tricky story of Phaedra. As the book opens we are in Athens, crowds fired up for what is pitched as the scandal of the century. Hippolytus, son of King Theseus, is on trial for raping his stepmother, the Cretan princess turned Athenian Queen Phaedra. But as the trial begins, we soon realise Phaedra is the one on trial, her reputation tarred by association.
You see, Phaedra’s brother was the Minotaur, half man, half bull, famously slain by her husband. And her mother is Pasiphae, widely portrayed as an adulteress. Phaedra’s sister, Ariadne, was originally to marry Theseus, but something happened to her – and readers discover what later in the story. We also discover why Phaedra followed her sister to Athens, where respect for women is decidedly thin on the ground.
“I was struck by the way Phaedra’s story is traditionally presented, particularly in the play by Euripides: she is held responsible for first attempting to seduce her stepson, then falsely accusing him of rape,” author Laura Shepperson explains.
“But Euripides glosses over the fact that Phaedra is the sister of the Minotaur, a monster killed by her husband, Theseus. What would it be like to be married to your brother’s killer?
“I saw the potential for conflict in a court case that would tear Athens and the royal family apart.”
The plot is told through many voices, including Phaedra’s, and early on Phaedra notes: “Any man can throw words up in the air, and it is women who must pay when those words land.”
It’s a portent that proves accurate. “There are two sides to every story,” says Shepperson.
“The Heroines asks the reader to consider them both. Is Phaedra an innocent victim or a vengeful woman? When only men get to tell the stories, can women’s truth ever be heard?” Here, women get to speak at last.
About the author
Debut novelist Laura Shepperson was born in the UK, grew up in South Africa, moved to New Zealand as a teenager and now lives in London with her husband and two children.
“As a child one of my favourite memories is the day my mum gave me one of her library cards so I could choose books from the library’s adult section as I’d read my way through the children’s section,” Laura says.
When she took Classical Studies at grammar school in Auckland she fell in love with the ancient myths and adds, “I’ve never looked back.”