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Book Review: Pope Joan, by Lawrence Durrell

Pope Joan

By Emmannuel Royidis
Translated and Adapted by Lawrence Durrell
First Published in 1954

Review by Melisende d’Outremer

This work by Lawrence Durrell is a 1954 translation of the Greek Papissa Joanna of Emmannuel Royidis which was written in 1886.

Joanna’s story begins with her humble antecedents – the daughter of an unnamed English monk (who is never named) and a buxom Saxon goose girl called Judith. Her father-monk is inspired to leave England and preach in the land of the great Charles (whom I am presuming to be Charlemagne), which he did as a wandering missionary for eight years until his “every hope of paternity” was cruelly removed. Whether through miraculously conception or rape, Joanna was born sometime in the year 818. And eight years later, following the passing of Joanna’s mother and a curious incident with a bare-breasted Abbess, Joanna’s father once more embarks on the missionary trail, this time with Joanna to accompany him.

We next come across the 16-year-old Joanna – the epitomy of young womanhood – encountering two saints, who not only regale her with tales of their ‘earthly” lives but provide her with a vision in which she finds herself ‘seated on such a high throne that her head, which wore a triple crown, almost touched the clouds; “. Joanna has the first image of herself in such an exulted position. And by the end of Part One we are travelling towards a convent at Mosbach dedicated to (and run by) St Blittrude.

Part Two encompasses: Joanna’s journey to the convent (fraught with danger as befits any worthy heroine); her time in the convent; her first meeting and developing relationship with one Father Frumentius culminating in her flight from the convent with her lover to the hermitage of Fulda where both as accepted as “monks”. Their relationship continues until they are found out and are forced to flee.

Part Three finds our intrepid lovers taking ship to southern France – more specifically Provence and Toulouse and thence to Corsica, imbued with the culture and customs of the Greeks (which Joanna finds a bit too concerting). All the while Joanna’s fame for piety, wisdom and learning grows. During this period, the relationship between Joanna and Frumentius begins to unravel in a tide of jealousy and morbid self-pity. And from this point on, we say goodbye to the faithful Frumentius and Joanna now becomes the readers focus.

Having dumped her lover in Part Three, Joanna or Father John begins her journey to the Eternal City, where she takes up a teaching career, winning renown for her eloquence – and yet no-one ever suspects “what treasures were hidden under her habit”. Joanna decides from now on she not waste her time on “vain dreams” but will work towards her ultimate goal – she puts aside the needs of the flesh (no lovers for the time being) and fully embraces the political culture of the Papacy (patronage, false flattery, the creation of pious compositions) – and indulging in the study of medicine and foreign languages, and possibly dabbling in witchcraft along the way.

Thus with the passing of the old Pope named Leo, Joanna finds herself sitting atop the sacred throne of St Peter as Pope John VIII. In the ensuing pages, we are told that our heroine became ‘drunk with power”; took a lover; built some churches; consecrated some bishops; wrote some articles; and crowned the German King Louis as Emperor.

We are then told an angel presents itself before Joanna offering her two propositions: a life condemned to the eternal fires of hell, or an early death and earthly disgrace. Wavering between the two choices, she opts for the second and so seals her own fate.

What this book isn’t is a factual biography or even a comprehensive argument for the existence of such a controversial figure. Royidis instead insists his “romantic biography” is based upon “unimpeachable sources” for which no authority could be found. Spattered throughout this work are constant references to Greek and Roman mythology, Biblical stories, and historical interludes (which if read correctly, account for what passes as a timeline of contemporary events).

Once I got past all the unnecessary narrative, this book read like a script from a “Carry On” movie – a titillating tale of lusty desires and ambition set against a religious backdrop, and heavily cloaked in the guarded innuendo of the time. In fact, Durrell himself says that this work is “a record of the history and misfortune of Eros” which secured Royidis his excommunication from the Catholic Church and his novel worldwide fame.

~~~ Melisende

See also Melisende’s blogs: Women of History and Melisende’s Library

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See also “Pope Joan” movie premieres

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