In November 2009, I met Margaret Atwood. This was at a grand party, the pinnacle of the Canadian literary-awards season—the Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, where I was a nominee. Someone introduced us, and as I shook her hand I remember thinking, that voice! That hair! I said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
She said, “Aristotle was a shit, wasn’t he?”
In September of that year, I had published a novel called The Golden Mean. It was a strange novel, using a raunchy, contemporary North American dialect to tell the story of Aristotle and his teenage student, Alexander not-yet-the-Great. The novel startled a lot of readers, upsetting their expectations of what the ancient world could sound like, what a young Canadian woman should be writing about, and what they themselves might want to read.
Reactions to the novel were gender-driven from the start. When my agent first shopped the manuscript around, I was told that it wouldn’t sell because historical fiction was read by “book-club ladies” who wanted “a heroine and a love story.” Bless Random House of Canada and my editor there, Anne Collins, the only Canadian publisher willing to take a chance on this very unromantic, male novel. (It went on to become a Canadian bestseller and was translated into 14 languages.)
I received a rejection from a British publisher who objected that I “wrote like a man.” (How, I wondered, did they reject their male authors?) People asked me repeatedly how I “managed” to write from a male point of view. The cover of the Canadian edition, which feature a naked man slumped over on a white horse, caused a minor scandal when it was banned in the BC Ferries bookshops. The story of that censorship went viral and was picked up as far away as South Africa and Iran, where the cover was displayed uncensored but the author photo of me in a V-neck was blacked out from the throat down.
As a relatively confident 21st-century, left-coast feminist, I managed to take most of this in stride. I could laugh at the hoary prejudices of the publishing industry (women need love stories! Lady novelists shouldn’t use bad language!) and the extremely modest luridness of my 34A “cleavage.” What troubled me more, though, was the knowledge that I had represented only half of the ancient world. I had written about the world of men and politics and science and diplomacy and warfare, the public world. But I had neglected the world of women and slaves and kitchens and hearths and myth, a more intimate, domestic world. I realized I had to write another book.
Aristotle’s will was recorded by his biographer, Diogenes Laertius. From the Loeb Classical Library translation:
“And when the girl shall be grown up she shall be given in marriage to Nicanor; but if anything happen to the girl (which heaven forbid and no such thing will happen) before her marriage, or when she is married but before there are children, Nicanor shall have full powers, both with regard to the child and with regard to everything else, to administer in a manner worthy both of himself and of us.”
“The girl” was Aristotle’s daughter, Pythias, who would have been about 16 at the time of his death. I chose her as the protagonist for my new novel, The Sweet Girl, for a number of reasons. Nothing is known about her (such a relief for a fiction writer!). She would have been Aristotle’s most intimate intellectual heir, taking his ideas those first few steps forward into history after his death. Most intriguingly, Aristotle was a screaming misogynist. I imagined his relationship with his daughter would have been complicated, to say the least. In his History of Animals, he writes:
“Women are more compassionate and more readily made to weep, more jealous and more querulous, more fond of railing and more contentious. The female is also more subject to depression of spirits and despair than the male. She is also more shameless and false, more readily deceived, and more mindful of injury, more watchful, more idle, and on the whole less excitable than the male. On the contrary, the male is more ready to help, and, as it has been said, more brave than the female.”
Yada, yada—maybe Ms. Atwood had a point. Yet I admired the man, dammit. I admired the scope of his mind, his boundless curiosity, and his ability to see connections—between ethics and astronomy and physics and music and politics and marine biology and law. And I read love, too, in the concern he expressed for his daughter’s future in the will. I wanted to believe she could be more than just a bleeder and a breeder; to me, but also to him.
Initially I conceived of the novel as something small, quiet, autumnal: an account of their relationship during the last days of his life. But early on in the writing, I realized that if I let him live, the strength of his voice and personality would overwhelm hers. I had to kill him off to let Pythias’s character really breathe, to give her some agency and independence. So Aristotle dies at the end of the first act, leaving Pythias alone to find her way in a world hostile to her education, her intelligence, and her ambition.
I didn’t want to write a fairy tale. I didn’t want to make Pythias into a historical-fiction princess, living a story of forbidden love in fancy dress and encouraging the reader to deplore the circumstances of her oppression from a comfortable moral distance. We’ve all read that novel too many times. Pace Ms. Atwood, I was confident enough in my feminism—and that of my readers, male and female—to believe that we could accept the oppression of women at that time as settled historical fact. Together, we could despise Aristotle’s misogyny without despising Aristotle. Similarly, we could despise the circumscribed life his daughter would have lived without feeling that she was defined by that life.
Outrage is less interesting, to me, than the mystery of happiness. Eudaimonia, Aristotle called it: a human flourishing to the fullest of her capacities. Aristotle wouldn’t have said “her,” but I will. What would eudaimonia look like for her, for Pythias? That became the question I tried to answer in The Sweet Girl. A question that, were Aristotle alive today, I hope he would consider “worthy both of himself and of us.”
Annabel Lyon is the author of The Sweet Girl (Knopf). She lives in Vancouver.