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Margaret George

Memoirs of Cleopatra, The
St. Martin's, 1997
Barnes & Noble


When I first set eyes on this book I was reminded of a couple of spoof quotations that once appeared on the cover of a Private Eye publication - Reviewer 1: 'I couldn't put it down.' Reviewer 2: 'I couldn't pick it up.' This novel is big in every sense except the one that matters. In her 957 pages, the author handles a broad and complex sweep of events with considerable technical skill. She is especially good on the great set-piece scenes: her depictions of the Battle of Actium and of the series of spectacular triumphs awarded to Julius Caesar, for example, are brought to us in the novelistic equivalent of living Technicolor. Since the novel is entitled The Memoirs of Cleopatra, events are necessarily filtered exclusively through the Egyptian Queen's own eyes, which is a shame, for Margaret George's Cleopatra seems to suffer from chronic psychological myopia. This has the unfortunate effect of fixing both events and personalities in a single dimension, so that they never come truly alive for us. And since Cleopatra's own musings rarely rise above the banal, we are given very little insight into the minds that shaped what is, after all, one of the major turning points of European history. The narrative is brisk and workmanlike, but marred by dialogue that is almost comically stilted. Both creak under a hefty burden of semi-digested research, which does little more than prove that the author has done her homework. (This we may already guess from the long and erudite bibliography that appears in the Author's Note). She would have served both her art and her readers better if she had learned a little less and woven what she did learn a little more deftly into the fabric of her story. If there's a good and satisfying novel buried here somewhere (and I'm sure there is), ruthless editing would have rescued it. As it stands, the best that can be said of it is that the reader who seeks an undemanding tale rich in romance, pathos and spectacle will not be disappointed. It would help, however, to have both a strong pair of wrists and plenty of time on one's hands. - Sarah Cuthbertson From The Historical Novel Review (1998), published by the Historical Novel Society.

- Sarah Cuthbertson, 11/27/2005

The first impression one has is massiveness which leads to suspicion — scholarly studies of the most famous woman of antiquity are well under half the length of this novel. The license of fiction permits the notion that in her last months and days the queen wrote these memoirs in ten "scrolls" of varying length. Second, book covers often reveal something of what lies within: the front displays Cabanel's romantic painting of a more pouting than regal queen; inside the back cover is a photograph of the author holding a snake and looking rather like the Cleopatra of the painting (if one makes the necessary modifications in clothing). This does not augur well. On the other hand, George writes well, some perceptions are incisive (Antony's Dionysiac penchant for wine, Octavian's penetrating stare, some of Antony's staff officers), and the descriptions of Alexandria and the Nile valley are attractive. We sympathize with Cleopatra and Antony as their cause crumbles from desertions in 32—30 (two scrolls) and the queen's final efforts to save Egypt's independence from Rome (scroll 10). Readers will move rapidly through this two and a half inch thick book during free evenings, commutes and vacations. Those unworried about historical accuracy will enjoy it. The entertainment media agrees, as ABC broadcast a miniseries based on the novel on May 23-24. Let us distinguish between historical novels, in which adherence to facts and probability tempers imagination in recreating the past, and historical romances, which more inventively insert emotions and passions. The Memoirs of Cleopatra belongs in the latter category. The problem is not that factual errors jump off the page— George was careful and the Author's Note at the end provides her reading list, which includes the ancient sources and respectable modern studies; this is not the place to list and correct points of fact. Rather, the interpretation as a whole does not convince. The three main characters are Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony, and passionate romance dominates all of them. Their personalities are not true to life: they are weak and one-sided, and neither displays the ability to inspire soldiers to fight for them through terrible hardships. A Caesar who at age 51 falls headlong into passionate love with the 18-year old Cleopatra could not have outdueled his political enemies and become Dictator for Life. (Nor could he have conquered Gaul, but since he did that before he met Cleopatra maybe criticism on this score is unfair.) The Caesar emerging in McCollough's series of Roman novels is closer to the real thing. George's Antony may be truer to life, as his failings where women were concerned was undeniably a major factor in his downfall, and Plutarch's famous quip that Fulvia essentially trained Antony so that Cleopatra found it easy to dominate him (Life of Antony 10.3) contains much truth. Many modern scholars do find emotional attachment and commitment in his relationship with the queen. None the less, this is not the Antony who hard-heartedly ordered the execution of Cicero, triumphed at Philippi, played hardball politics with Octavian for some years, and was heroic during retreats in 43 and 36. Cleopatra is of couse central, so we must ask if this is a believable description of a queen who fought gamely through twenty years of Roman political struggle. The author rightly portrays her as determined to preserve Egypt from Roman rule and creates two attractive themes — but lets another dominate. Ultimately her Cleopatra is nearly as one-sided as are Caesar and Antony. The queen's devotion to Isis is a recurring, even convincing, focal point all the way to the serpentine suicide. George cleverly and plausibly emphasizes the symbolic power of water in Cleopatra's life: her love for the Nile and the great harbor city at its western mouth, Alexandria; her mother is said to have drowned when Cleopatra was a little girl (admitted to be fiction in the Author's Note); she overcame a fear of water as a child; first Pompey and then Caesar came to Egypt across the Mediterranean in 48; she sailed to meet Antony at Tarsus in 42; fleets which were to have been her salvation were instead her downfall, as she and Antony sailed to Ephesus and then Greece in 32 and were crushed at the naval battle of Actium in 31, after which she sailed back to Egypt; and her son Caesarion attempted to flee down the Red Sea to India. While George recognizes that we cannot accurately reconstruct Antony's policies because Octavian destroyed pro-Antonian material, she seems not to have realized the same point with regard to Cleopatra, and, further, that it is almost impossible to escape from the ancient writers' over-romanticism of Cleopatra. Since the real Cleopatra's personality is irretrievably lost in hostile propaganda, any novelistic recreation is doomed to plunge increasingly into imagination. The fundamental flaw may lie in the conception of the book. Cleopatra's lifetime was a great drama and we are quite well informed about events and personalities. To insert more passions and eroticism than are already in the sources takes us ever farther into fantasy. It might have been better to have cast the novel as the memoirs of one of the queen's attendants, say the court physician Olympos, to whom in the story she entrusts her manuscript because he outlives her. As a fact-oriented man of science who was Cleopatra's friend from childhood, Olympos could be expected to steer clear of the romanticism and provide more detached analyses of Caesar and Antony. Thomas Watkins, Western Illinois University, 7/99

- Thomas Watkins, 11/27/2005

The world-renowned author of The Autobiography of Henry VII and Mary Queen of Scotland And the Isles turns from Renaissance Britain to ancient Egypt and the story of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. Told in the first person -- from the young queen's earliest memories of her father's tenuous rule to her own reign over one of the most glittering kingdoms in the world--this is a mesmerizing saga of ambition and power. But it is also a tale of passion that begins when the twenty-one-year-old Cleopatra, desperate to return from exile, seeks out the one man who can help her, the Roman general Julius Caesar -- and does not end until, having survived the assassination of Caesar and the defeat of the second man she loves, Marc Antony, she plots her own death rather than allow herself to be paraded in triumph through the streets of Rome. Margaret George has long been acclaimed for the richness and authenticity of her characters, setting, and action. Mary Stewart called her first novel, The Autobiography of Henry VII, "a remarkable achievement...magnificently researched and admirably written," while The Detroit Free Press proclaimed, "it doth brim with lust, violence, cruelty, and lively conversation...Margaret George has found a new and fresh way to tell the story." Her second novel, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, was hailed as "an evocative portrait" (The New York Times Book Review) and "a triumph of historical fiction" (Houston Chronicle). In her glorious new novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, Margaret George has created a story and a heroine so magnificent that they will live forever. -Amazon.com

- Amazon.com , 11/27/2005

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