Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: A Novel

( 8 )

Overview

"A bravura performance: a witty, moving, sexy book that bursts with as much color and excitement as the city of Constantinople itself." -Financial Times

Roman historian Procopius publicly praised Theodora of Constantinople for her piety-while secretly detailing her salacious stage act and maligning her as ruthless and power hungry. So who was this woman who rose from humble beginnings as a dancer to become the empress of Rome and a saint in the Orthodox Church? Award-winning ...

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Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: A Novel

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Overview

"A bravura performance: a witty, moving, sexy book that bursts with as much color and excitement as the city of Constantinople itself." -Financial Times

Roman historian Procopius publicly praised Theodora of Constantinople for her piety-while secretly detailing her salacious stage act and maligning her as ruthless and power hungry. So who was this woman who rose from humble beginnings as a dancer to become the empress of Rome and a saint in the Orthodox Church? Award-winning novelist Stella Duffy vividly recreates the life and times of a woman who left her mark on one of the ancient world's most powerful empires. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore is a sexy, captivating novel that resurrects an extraordinary, little-known figure from the dusty pages of history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Duffy’s seductive retelling of the story of the legendary empress Theodora will delight historical fiction fans. Introduced into a life of performing for the people of Constantinople, Theodora, a bear-keeper’s daughter, steals the limelight as an alluring child actress. Trained as a child prostitute, Theodora wanders throughout Europe and Persia in search of happiness and success while exploiting her racy talents, but nothing quite prepares her for becoming empress alongside Byzantium’s Emperor Justinian. Her magnificent comeback in her native Constantinople allows her to face the people who once shunned her, and they begin to see her in a new, respectful light. Duffy (The Room of Lost Things) presents a portrait of a woman who rose from misfortune and poverty to build an empire alongside a devoted husband. (Oct.)
Laura Lippman
"Theodora is a best-of-all-worlds book — entertaining, gripping, thoughtful and dangerously enlightening. Stella Duffy, a versatile and gifted novelist, is uniquely suited to bringing Theodora to life. She clearly has great affection for her subject, but does not allow that to undercut her keen eye and pitch-perfect ear. An achievement that many writers will envy and few will equal."
Sarah Waters
"Duffy's passion for her heroine, the charismatic Theodora, is evident on every page. The result is a novel that remains true to its historical sources, whilst managing to reinvent its subject matter with great freshness and verve. A vivid and affectionate portrait of one of the most fascinating personalities of the ancient world."
-Laura Lippman
"Theodora is a best-of-all-worlds book — entertaining, gripping, thoughtful and dangerously enlightening. Stella Duffy, a versatile and gifted novelist, is uniquely suited to bringing Theodora to life. She clearly has great affection for her subject, but does not allow that to undercut her keen eye and pitch-perfect ear. An achievement that many writers will envy and few will equal."
-Sarah Waters
"Duffy's passion for her heroine, the charismatic Theodora, is evident on every page. The result is a novel that remains true to its historical sources, whilst managing to reinvent its subject matter with great freshness and verve. A vivid and affectionate portrait of one of the most fascinating personalities of the ancient world."
-Publishers Weekly
"Duffy's seductive retelling of the story of the legendary empress Theodora will delight historical fiction fans."
-Kirkus
"There's... intelligence and empathy under the energetic potboiler surface."
Library Journal
Daughter of an actress and a bear keeper for the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Theodora was trained as a dancer, singer, and actress who performed on the stage and in the bedrooms of anyone who could afford her, from the time she was a child. Her skills as a comedic orator endeared her to both rich and poor, noble and common, so much so that she was exhausted by the time she was 16 years old. An invitation to be the mistress of the new governor of Apollonia in Libya came as a welcome surprise and an opportunity to create a new, more socially acceptable life for herself. But when Theodora finds herself cast off in a few short years, she must make her way back to her beloved Constantinople. VERDICT Duffy's (Parallel Lies) retelling of the true story of a woman (500-548) who rose from lowly beginnings to become Empress of the Byzantine Empire is lively and dramatic. One hesitates to use the term chick lit when referring to historical fiction, but perhaps it fits as Duffy explores themes of sexuality, theater, religious conversion, female oppression, and the struggle for power and recognition in a sixth-century historical setting with a surprisingly contemporary attitude. [The publisher notes that this is soon to be an HBO series.—Ed.]—Jane Henriksen Baird, Anchorage P.L., AK
Kirkus Reviews
The unexpurgated story of Theodora, performer and prostitute in Roman Constantinople, destined to rise above her hardscrabble life to become the Emperor's wife. The book is being for HBO. British novelist Duffy (State of Happiness, 2004) uses modern vocabulary to enliven her historical novel-- "bitch," "slut," "bloke" and worse pepper the pages as she recounts the lurid life of the bear-keeper's daughter trained for the stage from age five. A quick mind, a bold spirit, innate talent and a merciless teacher render Theodora a star by age 12 when she also starts work as a whore. At 17, bored but ambitious, she leaves Constantinople with her lover Hecebolus, the new Governor of the Pentapolis in Africa, but that relationship ends when Hecebolus takes another lover. Desperate to return to Constantinople, Theodora pretends to be a penitent Christian for the chance of a voyage home. This role, begun cynically, later turns sincere, and she agrees to work undercover for the church. Back in Constantinople she is introduced to Justinian, the Emperor's favorite nephew, who likes her so much he changes the law forbidding actresses to marry in order to wed her. Now the stage is set for Theodora's legitimization, first as wife, next as the Emperor's consort. A sequel is rumored. Although heavy on the sex and sensationalism, there's also intelligence and empathy under the energetic potboiler surface.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143119876
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/27/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 731,998
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Stella Duffy grew up in New Zealand and now lives in London. She is the award-winning author of seven literary novels, a detective series, eight plays, and more than forty short stories.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 17, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting Read.

    The book is, for the most part, well written and carefully researched. The language is casual, though sometimes profane, so it is not for the easily offended. It was shorter than I expected, and I would have liked a few more details, but all in all, it was a very quick, very entertaining read. If you're into historical fiction, and looking for something a little different, give it a try!

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  • Posted October 31, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Theodora review

    I didn't know anything about Theodora before so I went in with a clean slate. This book is more like a biography with a little bit of story telling mixed it. I felt like I walked away with a great deal of knowledge about her. The author did a huge deal of research for this story. There was a lot of attention to detail and one can appreciate how much work the author put into writing this whether you like the book or not.

    The story starts off with Theodora at a young age preforming on stage with her mother and two sisters. The story follows her as she ages and her life changes. You get to see how hard times were back then and how much people change when they are forced into this business.

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  • Posted October 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting read

    A few weeks prior to reading this novel, I came across a short chapter in a history book about Theodora. She was a larger than life character that knew how to command an audience. Theodora lived during a tumultuous time. There is not a lot of documentation about this period and a lot of what we know is speculation. I was really interested in reading Stella Duffy's take on the Empress Theodora.
    Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy depicts Theodora from a young child until her marriage to Justinian I. Theodora's life was not an easy one. As a young girl she was taught to dance, to learn how to turn off her emotions and most of all to survive. Her punishment for misbehaving in her dance lessons sounded torturous. At a young age she was sold to a theater where she began her career as an actress. The title actress was also exchangeable with the title of whore. However life's circumstances did not hinder Theodora from getting what she wanted out of life. In fact some might say she made life play by her rules.
    I enjoyed the details that Stella Duffy gave to Theodora's life. The author dives into the head of one of the most influential women of ancient Rome and makes her come to life. I appreciated the fact that the author did not hold back from the grittiness and brash life of Constantinople and Theodora. Although there is not explicit sex scenes in this novel, it is spoken of very often. Theodora used her body in what ever way suited her best. Duffy doesn't gloss this issue over.
    Overall I really like this book. It is an engaging read that will have you wanting to know more about this brazen woman.

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  • Posted September 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Page-turner portrait of an amazing woman and her time!

    In choosing Theodora of Byzantium for her subject, Stella Duffy picked a definite case of truth trumping fiction. Duffy fills her novel with richly depictive discourse, transporting the reader into a world of political intrigue and religious turmoil, a world where the worth and potential of an individual was most often pre-determined by birth.

    Born into poverty in a time (mid sixth century) and place (Byzantium) in which women had very few options, Theodora, daughter of a deceased bear trainer, followed a path considered fortunate for one in her situation. She gained renown on stage as an actress, which sounds innocuous enough to our modern sentiments, but in her day actresses, along with singers and dancers, became prostitutes to their audiences after their onstage work was concluded. Ms. Duffy uses this early portion of the novel to display for us the strength of Theodora's resolve to rise above her current status, the culture and chaos of Constantinople, and the squalor from which our heroine succeeds in rising. To understand why Theodora is such an anomaly, and thus why she is to be so greatly admired, one must understand the situation from whence she came.

    Disclosing too much of the plot would, I feel, rob readers of some of the narrative pull with which the amazing sequence of events of Theodora's life endows this novel. Once immersed in her tale, it is a difficult book to put down. The story concludes with Theodora's marriage to the emperor Justinian I and her coronation as empress of Byzantium. Initially I was very annoyed by the ending. In order to fully appreciate the transformative nature of this woman and understand the complete measure of her intelligence you must explore her role as Justinian's consort. I am happy to report that Stella Duffy announces on the book's Penguin page that she is working on a sequel, to be titled The Purple Shroud.

    There is one single element that kept this from being a five star book for me. The book made liberal use of the "F word". It made me approach the first sex scene with some trepidation, as it seemed to indicate that Ms. Duffy's writing in that area might be a bit raunchy for my taste. That ended up being not at all the case. Which left me wondering: who is the intended audience for this book? It lacks the explicit sex which the more profane reader might expect, and its copious research would lead one to believe it is aimed at serious readers of historical fiction, who generally, in my experience, appreciate better verb selection. Yes, some might argue that the word is used to show a certain degeneracy of Theodora's character. I feel it degraded Stella Duffy's literary gifts. Through wonderful, descriptive prose Ms. Duffy makes clear to the reader the gritty nature of Theodora and her unfortunate origins. If an author does such an admirable job of "showing", why stoop to the baseness of not only "telling" but doing so with the crassest of four letter words?

    Overall, I enjoyed this look at one of history's oft ignored women of substance. If the one element mentioned above is not one to put you off, I think that lovers of historical fiction, as well as those who enjoy tales of personal transformation and triumph will find this a satisfying read.

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  • Posted September 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Drama, Sex, Schism, and Imperial Intrigue!

    Theodora of Constantinople is smart and sassy as a very young woman. She is not so pretty but what she lacks in beauty she more than makes up for with her decent singing voice, comedic acting abilities, and the ability to improvise when the show is going awry or some facet produces an unexpected audience effect. She has a fierce ability to put up with much discipline in her art, forceful teaching that at times seems almost abusive.

    Her talents are acknowledged after one particular evening's performance, but unfortunately a selfish act on her part forces her destiny elsewhere, to a monastic community where she undergoes physical and spiritual training that transforms her life in a realistic, moving direction. No, this isn't a sudden conversion but a series of meditative moments that enable her to know who she really is. She is now ready to take on a more serious mission, in the middle of the Chalcedonian schism where authorities war over Christ's divine and/or human nature. Her sharp, intuitive nature however becomes even stronger until she succeeds in getting the position of assistant to Justinian who will soon become Emperor of Constantinople.

    To tell more would spoil the magic of this well-written, adventurous, poignant, comedic, sexy, dramatic, and intelligent novel that reads like an in-depth biography, one sure to appeal to many types of readers with diverse interests. The descriptions of the people, food, architecture, theater performances, and more are so vivid that it seems that the reader is there taking it all in. Stella Duffy is a talented writer who carries the reader to many points where one is laughing, crying, thinking and rapidly reading with such eagerness that one doesn't want the story to end.

    Theodora...is a must read and sure to be a best seller! Just wonderful!!!

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    Posted March 18, 2012

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    Posted January 7, 2014

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    Posted May 4, 2012

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