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Roidis and the Borrowed Muse: British Historiography, Fiction and Satire in Pope Joan

by Foteini Lika

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

reviewed by Richard Pine

This is a thorough, painstaking and thoughtful account of the origins and creation of Emmanouil Roidis’ 1866 masterpiece, Pope Joan, the apocryphal story of a ninth-century English girl who, through a series of bizarre developments, became Pope and then died in childbirth. Unreal though it may seem, there is substantial historical evidence for the idea. The existence of a sedia stercoraria – an open-bottomed chair of, shall we say, inspection, on which popes-elect were required to sit in order to verify that they were, in fact, male (which features in the tv drama-documentary The Borgias at the election of Jeremy Irons as Alexander VI) – suggests that at some stage the Vatican considered it necessary to insure against its repetition.

The story continues to elicit both prurient novels (I’m thinking of Donna Woolfolk Cross’s Pope Joan of 2005) and serious evaluation of the documentary evidence, of which Peter Stanford’s The She-Pope (1998) is probably the most worthwhile, and at least four others in recent decades (in addition to several in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).

The author, Foteini Lika (who teaches European literature at Greece’s Open University), has two arrows to her bow: she first discusses the contemporary furore caused by the publication of Pope Joan and its aftermath, and then examines Roidis’s possible sources for the topic of history in relation to fiction, as he employed medieval and later documents as the basis for his story.

Lika pays full attention to modern textual studies and influences, and is particularly interested in Julia Kristeva’s and Roland Barthes’s ideas on intertextuality. In examining the “British” literary and historiographical traditions which might or might not have given Roidis some inspiration, Lika looks at Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), the near-contemporaneous History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Walter Scott’s “Waverley” novels and Byron’s Don Juan as stylistic models. Her treatment of these possible influences is persuasive, provided one is willing to accept this form of intertextual study rather than regarding Roidis as simply telling a story without recourse to influence other than what he acknowledged in his own text.

Roidis’s book – self-described as “a historical romance” – was part-narrative and part-documentary: Roidis supplemented the life-story of Joan with a huge range of ancillary argument to authenticate his romantic argument. In terms of modern Greek literature, it is instructive that Roidis exploited the relationship of faith to fact, which brought down on him massive denunciation by the Greek Orthodox Church for its “anti-Christian” attitude and for “every kind of irreverence, misbelief and indecency”. Such criticism continued, but the nature of the book was taken up by literary critics who could not agree on whether it was a “romance” or a satire on the romantic tradition. It was in fact the way in which Roidis wove satire and straight narrative that confused his public, and which probably made Lawrence Durrell so interested in it that he made his own “version” of the book.

Her study of intertextuality shows us how very modern Roidis was in his conception: not least the “intratext” between his own narrative and his Introduction and Notes. Roidis was modern, too, in the way, as Lika expertly shows, that he combined history and fiction (a trait which his most successful translator, Lawrence Durrell, would carry to extremes in The Avignon Quintet [1974-1985]).

Lika uses, indiscriminately, it seems, three translations of Pope Joan: by Charles Hastings Collette (1886), J H Freese (1900) and that by Durrell (1947/1954) – the latter being perhaps the most widely read in modern times and still in print. The translation by David Connolly (2019), one of today’s most eminent translators from Greek, presumably came too late for her consideration.

However: a note of caution. Lika is, apparently, unaware that serious fault has been found with Durrell’s “translation” or “version” of Pope Joan, to which he was introduced by George Katsimbalis in the 1940s. It has been heavily criticised by Panayiotis Gerontopoulos, who (erroneously) believed Durrell’s work to be based on an English version by T D Kriton, published in Athens in 1935, which omitted Roidis’s Prologue, Introduction and copious Notes, thus reducing the length of the original by approximately half. Gerontopoulos called Durrell’s version a “hoax”, stating that it occupied “a no man’s land between high art and an out-of-bounds pornographic literature”. To remedy what Gerontopoulos saw as a slight on Roidis’s original, he and Jane Rae Cousineau published their own translation of Papissa Joanna in 2014. Like the contemporary objections to Pope Joan, Gerontopoulos’s reading of Durrell’s “version” opens up a very wide topic which Lika’s book addresses in her opening chapters: the roles of satire and metaphor, and the relationship between history and imagination which is incorporated in the Greek term for the novel, mithistorema.

Lika’s last word on the subject — “In short, Roidis changed every rule in the book” — is fascinating: Roidis, writing in mid-nineteenth-century Greece, when the Greek novel was in its infancy, predicted the way in which Greek writers would question authority, the nature of the state, the interpretation of history and the nature of religious faith – all of them current today in both literature and politics.

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