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Friday, April 11, 2014

Virtual Book Tour Guest Post: Wiles of a Southern Belle by @EagleandtheSwan

Wiles of a Southern Belle
By Carol Strickland, author of The Eagle and the Swan

In elementary school I docilely attended a weekly dance event called “Genes and Janes.” I swear to God I wore a stiff-ribbed hoop skirt contraption under my red, bell-shaped skirt trimmed with black rick rack—an unthinkable outfit for savvy primary school students today. Why our mothers considered it mandatory for 9-or-10-year-olds to learn square dancing will forever remain a mystery to me, but there was no shortage of boys enrolled, wearing those peculiar string ties and starched, white shirts. We twirled around, dutifully following instructions to “Bow to your partner” and “do-si-do”—now a lost art among children, I suspect.

By junior high, we “popular” kids formed our own dance club. I blush to recall what we named it: The Happy Hipsters. Needless to say, no more square dancing, which was clearly for squares. Our chosen name brazenly declared we ‘tweens were hip. It was the Beatnik era, the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Coolness had penetrated even the mossy, I-like-Ike suburbs of New Orleans. 

Irony was unknown to us. We were all too happy to pose as hipsters, even though we had no hips to speak of and our main concept of hipness was the surly James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. Consistent with our outré status, now there was no de rigueur dress code. We girls all wore pastel party dresses with wide sashes, organza puffed sleeves, and our Pappagallo flats. Boys still wore stiff shirts, their hair slicked down with Brylcreem.

Hipness—or lack thereof—aside, it was considered obligatory for properly brought up Southern children to be skilled in ballroom dancing: the waltz, box step, and cha-cha. I confess we mounted a minor rebellion and demanded the bumptious jitterbug (toe-heel, toe-heel, back-forward), which we so admired on The Dick Clark Show. After all, Elvis Presley had blazed on the scene and there was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. But even with rock ‘n roll, it was still an era when dance partners held each other stiffly and joined hands to oscillate and spin. Pre-Twist, in other words.

I was in the awkward stage of cat-eye-glasses (i.e., pre-contact lenses), but at least my dreadful grade-school perm had grown out. Gawky and flat-chested, I had nevertheless imbibed with mother’s milk a Southern Belle’s Code of Feminine Conduct. Not that any modern mother breast-fed her babies. We were all hygienically bottle-fed by black nurses. 

Television, advertising, movies, and accepted formulae decreed that for a girl to be successful in attracting the opposite sex—our primary concern—you had to be (1) pretty, (2) flirty, (3) not ostentatiously smart, and (4) able to convey an impression of hypnotic fascination with whatever a targeted boy wished to expound on. I absorbed the lesson that “good” girls should be seen more than heard. The key to social prominence was to make eye contact (preferably with fluttering lashes and an adoring look of all-consuming interest) while prompting a boy to hold forth. I perfected the ability to ask questions rather than volunteer answers, which actually served me well in my later life as a journalist. A smiling look of utter enchantment hid my inner, blank boredom.
In high school, this trajectory led me to become a cheerleader, lustily egging on the boys’ teams to athletic triumphs, and a spot on the Homecoming Court, clutching a bouquet of roses and smiling benignly at the crowd like a mindless beauty queen. I emulated my idol, Jackie Kennedy, wearing a pillbox hat with a little veil and a scratchy wool suit in a tasteful, neutral color.

In this pre-Women’s Lib era, none of our mothers worked outside the home. And even in the moms’ domestic sphere, African-American maids did the grunt work of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and sizeable amounts of childcare. Our mothers were free to play bridge, gossip, possibly tipple, go to Garden Club, and serve on committees espousing good works. In today’s parlance, our role models hardly “leaned in” to grab a place at the power table. They were relegated to a decorative slot as chauffeurs and birthday-party organizers.

This preamble is by way of explaining why I undertook to tell the story of Empress Theodora of 6th-century Constantinople. My heroine and I couldn’t be more different. I came from an affluent background and was swaddled, coddled, and nearly smothered by parental attention and concern. Theodora, the circus bear-keeper’s daughter, was born into the trashy underclass and became a prostitute at a tender age. While I was dorkily square-dancing, she was developing an infamous reputation as an exotic dancer (OK, a stripper). Maybe it was my feeling of being stifled—judged by external appearance and behavior rather than interior qualities—that drew me to this brassy, outspoken firecracker. Plus my sympathy for her as an abused child who overcame so many handicaps.

Despite her wretched childhood—or maybe because of it—there was something in the way she moved: from the gutter to the top. Theodora made her own way when it seemed as if there was no way for a lowlife like her. She became the most powerful woman of the civilized world, arguably the first female co-ruler of an Empire. 

So here’s a salute to Theodora. She was hardly a role model for a proper Southern lady, but she showed how effective both beauty and brains can be when working in harmony.

Carol Strickland is an art and architecture critic, prize-winning screenwriter, and journalist who’s contributed to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Art in America magazine. A Ph.D. in literature and former writing professor, she’s author of The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in the History of Art from Prehistoric to Post-Modern (which has sold more than 400,000 copies in multiple editions and translations), The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture, The Illustrated Timeline of Art History, The Illustrated Timeline of Western Literature, and monographs on individual artists.

While writing on masterpieces of Byzantine art (glorious mosaics in Ravenna, Italy featuring Theodora and Justinian and the monumental Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul built by Justinian), Strickland became fascinated by the woman who began life as a swan dancer and her husband, an ex-swineherd.

Knowing how maligned they were by the official historian of their era Procopius, who wrote a slanderous “Secret History” vilifying them, Strickland decided to let the audacious Theodora tell her story. She emerges not just as the bear-keeper’s daughter and a former prostitute who ensnared the man who became emperor, but as a courageous crusader against the abuse of women, children, and free-thinkers.
For 1,500 years she has been cruelly maligned by history. Labelled as corrupt, immoral and sexually depraved by the sixth-century historian Procopius in his notorious Secret History, the Byzantine Empress Theodora was condemned to be judged a degenerate harlot by posterity. Until now. Due to a conviction that its contents would only be understood by generations of the distant future, a manuscript that has remained unopened for a millennium and a half is about to set the record straight. It will unravel the deepest secrets of a captivating and charismatic courtesan, her unlikely romance with an Emperor, and her rise to power and influence that would outshine even Cleopatra. This historical novel traces the love affairs, travails, machinations, scandals and triumphs of a cast of real characters who inhabit an Empire at its glorious and fragile peak. It’s the tale of a dazzling civilization in its Golden Age; one which, despite plague, earthquakes and marauding Huns, would lay the foundation for modern Europe as we know it.