The respective titles of Kate Tempest and Tessa Hadley’s recent works, Brand New Ancients and Dido’s Lament, signal their engagement with Greco-Roman epic, the ancient genre most deeply invested in the construction of memory. As Philip Hardie writes (263), “Memory is the ground and goal of the epic,” and Tempest and Hadley appropriate its capacity to shape memory’s role in literary and cultural discourses. Through recalling the past and creating differences with it, these authors offer a new epic landscape, where women produce and contest memory. Here, a woman inhabits the role of author as memory’s creator and female characters destabilizes the attempts of men to control the past. Tempest and Hadley’s works showcase how a boldly re-membered Greco-Roman literary canon offers female authors and characters a central role in the construction of memory, and in doing so they reframe conversations about the mnemonic value of antiquity today.
Through invoking the canon and showcasing their departures from it, Tempest and Hadley avail themselves of epic’s mnemonic power in order to open new possibilities of female control. Originally performed orally, Brand New Ancients transforms the mundane lives of two half-brothers into myth. Its descriptions of everyday people as “gods” create an epic milieu, while phrases such as “He feels like a Spartan in Troy” allude to particular Homeric moments. Tempest occupies the masculine role of bard, while a main female character gains the renown lusted after by ancient heroes. By virtue of its title, meanwhile, Hadley’s story about a once-married couple opens up a dialogue with the Aeneid about the construction of literary and personal memory. A phone-number’s erasure, for instance, alludes to the commemorative struggles accompanying Aeneas’ flight from Carthage. Cumulatively, such intersections destabilize the role of memory in Vergil’s rendition of Dido’s tale, and Dido’s Lament, like Tempest’s poem, reshapes the potential of antiquity for shifting today’s discourse about memory and gender.
Hadley, T. August 8 and 15, 2016. “Dido’s Lament.” The New Yorker: 62-67.
Hardie, P. 1990. “Forsan et Haec Olim Meminisse Iuvabit.” Review of E. Henry 1989. CR 40: 263-4.
Tempest, K. 2013. Brand New Ancients. Bloomsbury.
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