British classicist Natalie Haynes upends popular understandings of ancient Greek epic poems, stories and plays written by men, retelling them from a female perspective and tracing the origins of their mythic female characters.
I was astonished to find myself flying through page after page of Haynes’ summaries, enthralled at the plot twists and playwrights’ audacity and eager to find out what happens next. Haynes’ book dwells not on the plays but on the stories of women’s lives that they contain; nevertheless, her enthusiasm for the original texts is impossible to ignore. Her broader goal requires her to provide outlines of the texts in which her subjects’ stories are buried, but those outlines are beautiful, compelling overviews. They’re crafted a bit like what it would sound like to have a good storyteller relate the latest gossip to you over drinks at a club, with all the colloquial jokes and asides that a lively retelling would include. If I’d read summaries like these back in high school, I would have been instantly hooked. Pandora’s Jar is a delightful, compelling read. Lively, provocative, and well-researched, it’s the sort of book that leaves readers with a thirst to learn more.
With Pandora’s Jar, she returns to nonfiction to examine the origin stories and cultural legacies of the best-known women of classical literature, with the characteristic blend of scholarship and sharp humour that will be familiar to fans ... Her frame of reference expands out from the original texts (which she quotes in Greek to explain linguistic ambiguities) and classical artefacts to include Beyoncé, Ray Harryhausen and the social media response to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, to illustrate how far the (often one-sided) narratives of these woman have penetrated our culture ... This is an erudite, funny and sometimes angry attempt to fill in the blank spaces.
Haynes has a stand-up comedy background, and her wry wit leavens these grisly tragedies. Her irreverence—Kronos eats his children and ‘fails a basic fatherhood test’—has the ring of affectionate family teasing: that’s how intimately she knows and loves her subject. Alongside the laughs are rigorous analysis and ethical wrangling, as she considers the dilemmas posed by mythology ... If I’m ever prosecuted, I’d like Natalie Haynes to defend me. She argues persuasively, carving out space for women denied a voice (Medusa), overshadowed (Jocasta) and unjustly condemned (Helen of Troy). She explores feminist literature reclaiming mythological narratives...and matches entertainment with erudition, discussing Greek linguistic nuance alongside historical context. If anything, I could have done with more of the latter to offset all the myth. Agile, rich, subversive, Pandora’s Jar proves that the classics are far from dead, and keep evolving with us.