Elisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from the University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Over the years she has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer, governance consultant and is now a business writer.
Her debut novel, The Wedding Shroud, was published by Pier 9 Murdoch Books in Australia and New Zealand in 2010. It is the first novel in the Tales of Ancient Rome series set in Ancient Rome and Etruria. When Murdoch Books was taken over in 2012, Elisabeth chose to retain all rights to The Wedding Shroud and independently published digital and paperback editions. It has since been judged runner-up in the 2012 international Sharp Writ Book Awards for general fiction. The second volume in the series, The Golden Dice, is now available.
Elisabeth was inspired to write her first novel, The Wedding Shroud after finding a photo of a C6th BCE sarcophagus of an Etruscan husband and his wife that she later located in the Louvre. The casket was unusual because, in this period of history, couples were not depicted together let alone in a pose of such affection. The image of the Etruscan lovers remained with her. What kind of ancient culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? Discovering the answer led her to the decadent and mystical Etruscan civilization and the little known story of the war between Rome and Veii.
Researched and written over a period of fifteen years, the books in the Tales of Ancient Rome series vividly describe the world of Etruria, a fantastic society ultimately destroyed by Rome but which heavily influenced its conqueror’s culture from republican into imperial times. There have been very few novels that have explored Etruria and the early Roman Republic which makes The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice unusually engrossing reads for historical fiction lovers.
The inspiration for The Wedding Shroud is rather interesting. Would you explain how it came about?
I have always been interested in ancient history, particular the Classical period of C5th – C4th BCE. At that time women were considered the possessions of men. And when they died they weren’t commemorated in death. At best their existence was recorded as being either a wife or daughter on a man’s tomb.
Knowing this I was amazed when I came across a photograph of a casket of a life size husband and wife lying in a tender embrace upon their dining couch (known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple). I had to find out what ancient society depicted both a man and a woman in such a sensuous pose, what seemed to me to be an exaltation of marital fidelity. Discovering the answer led me to the mystical Etruscans who existed in Italy from before archaic times in the areas now known as Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. Etruria was a sophisticated society rivalling Athens. There was one major difference, though. The Etruscans granted independence, education and sexual freedom to their women. As a result they were considered wicked, decadent and corrupt by the rest of the ancient world!
Remembering the Married Couple, I decided to create two characters – a young Roman girl, Caecilia, who is wedded to an Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna, to seal a truce. And she leaves Rome, austere and intolerant, to travel to Veii where she grapples with conflicting moralities as she is slowly seduced by the pleasure and independence that his people offer her.
The title is very evocative. Does it relate to the inspiration of the book or to the institution of marriage?
The Wedding Shroud? No, it isn’t a cynical statement about married life! The inspiration for the title came from discovering another Etruscan sarcophagus with an even more powerful image. A man and woman lay naked in each other’s arms beneath a mantle. I came to understand this mantle could symbolise the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom stood when they took their vows. In effect the husband and wife were swathed in their wedding shroud for eternity. Caecilia sees such a casket when she attends a funeral in Veii. It makes her question Rome’s attitude to women, marriage, love and duty as she struggles to understand her own feelings for her husband.
You created a wonderful balance of description and dialogue. How did you go about researching the everyday details? For example, Caecilia’s father has gnarled hands into which she rubs oils. Did you write this then research which oils she would most likely have used?
I love research. My passions are writing and history so writing historical novels blends the two. I always like to note down little bits of trivia as much as major facts. Some of those details fuelled actual episodes in the book while others gave ‘flavour’ to settings, descriptions and characters. So when I decided that Caecilia’s father had arthritis, I then researched the plants used to soothe aching joints. One was a pungent yellow ointment made from calendulas. Serendipitously, this added to the subtext of her father’s ‘tainted’ ethics.
How closely does the plot of your novel echo what you were able to discover about the couple that inspired the book?
Unfortunately, very little is known about the man and wife depicted on the Sarcophagus of The Married Couple. They inspired me to research the Etruscans but the plot of The Wedding Shroud is very much from my own imagination. The fact that their lives are a mystery, though, makes the loving depiction even more intriguing.
The historical events around which the novel is based are not generally widely known. Did you feel an obligation to increase people’s awareness of these events as much as telling your story?
The last thing I want is for readers to see my book as a history lesson. When I decided to write about the Etruscans I thought it would have more impact if I could compare their sophisticated civilisation to Rome’s (which was still a tribal society scrapping with its Latin neighbours). That is when I learned of the little known story of the war between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii. These cities were located only 12 miles across the Tiber River and were implacable enemies. It intrigued me that just by crossing a strip of water you could move from the equivalent of the Dark Ages into something similar to the Renaissance. I thought readers might like to learn about both societies through my fictional account of the lead up to this real war.
By choosing a female main character, it gives the reader a different perspective into life at this time. Can you draw any parallels between your main character’s experiences and those of women today?
My aim was to explore the everyday lives of women and how their societies treated them. I did this by telling the stories of a Roman maiden, Greek slave girl, Etruscan matron and Cretan courtesan.
Caecilia comes from a world where women were second class citizens without the right to vote or hold property. Their primary purpose was to bear children in order to ensure the continuation of their husbands’ bloodline. As I mentioned before, their identities were defined by their relationship as either daughter or wife and they weren’t given the opportunity for education and social or sexual freedom.
The more I read about the lives of ancient women, the more I realised that gender inequality is still prevalent today and varies only by degree. Many rights that women of the western world take for granted such as education, suffrage, the ability to practise a profession and property ownership have only been acquired in relatively recent times. Certainly the concept of women being either ‘damn whores or god’s police’ is still held by many cultures.
Also Caecilia comes from a society where ‘virtues’ are strictly defined and duty to family and State comes before love. She is introduced to a ‘free’ society which challenges everything she has been taught to believe. This resonates with the divide between fundamentalism and liberalism that many women face today.
You are writing a sequel to The Wedding Shroud. To what can your readers look forward?
The Wedding Shroud ends with war being declared between Rome and Veii. The sequel continues with Caecilia’s journey as the two enemy cities endure a ten year siege. I have also introduced two new female characters: a Roman grave whore who rises to become the concubine of a general, as well as a young Etruscan artisan who comes to live in the House of Mastarna. All three women’s ability to cope in war is explored together with the stories of the men they love.
What has been the most gratifying comment you have had on your work?
I was very, very excited when Ursula Le Guin agreed to endorse my book as I never expected her to even reply to my query letter. She praised the book as having: ‘All the drama and sensuality expected of an historical romance, plus a sensitivity to the realities of life in a very different time and world which gives unusual vividness to the sensations and emotions of the heroine.’
Of course, I always love it when a reader tells me they found pleasure in discovering the world of the Etruscans.
Thank you, Elisabeth.
Interview by Lorraine Fraser King for Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative