The Memoirs of Cleopatra: A Novel

The Memoirs of Cleopatra - Margaret George George's first published novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII is one of my all time favorite historical novels. Both that book and The Memoirs of Cleopatra are doorstopper monsters, almost a thousand pages in length. Yet the Henry VIII book was riveting, just flew by and was very moving. I gave it five stars and it's on my favorites shelf. Having finished the Henry VIII book--years ago--I eagerly bought the Cleopatra book--and found it tedious going. I gave up and the book lay on my bookshelf for over a decade unfinished until I decided to try again. It's a well-researched book, with lots of rich historical detail, and goodness knows the events of Cleopatra's reign makes for stuff just as fascinating, if not more, than Henry of England and his six wives. Yet this book just isn't the engrossing and moving experience of her earlier book. There's an art to taking a historical figure who has had bad press and manage to flesh out and make the character sympathetic. I consider the historic Henry VIII something of a monster, so I thought it a great achievement George gained my sympathy. It might have helped that Henry's "autobiography" had comments appended to it by the king's fool--Will Somers. A man who loved Henry, but wasn't blind to his flaws and could let us know those things Henry couldn't see clearly. Another brilliant book that deals with a villainized monarch is Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, regarding Richard III. That one is told third person from multiple points of view--and shows us Penman's vision of who she thinks is the true Richard. But Cleopatra's first person voice just can't carry the weight. Too often George comes across as an apologist for Cleopatra. Glossing over flaws that would have made her much more interesting, and with little asides about what her enemies say about her that for me beg the question about the real queen. The book reminded me a lot of Anchee Min's Empress Orchid, a first-person novel of the much villainized "Dragon Lady" of late Imperial China. I thought Min too often flinched from dealing with her heroine's dark side, her ruthlessness, and that made the characterization fall flat for me. The same is true of George's Cleopatra, making her far less interesting than the historical record suggests. I see that especially when the novel deals with her affair with Caesar. George writes the relationship as romance novel love at first sight. We have this ruthless teenage queen who didn't flinch from pushing aside one brother from power and may very well have had her other brother-spouse poisoned. A strong queen who got involved with two of the most powerful men in the Roman Empire. I could see a Cleopatra determined to use Caesar to preserve her throne, then maybe falling for him--but the way the book depicts the affair, with her melting into a puddle of goo after one look at his masterful face doesn't feel real to me. And no where in this Cleopatra's voice do I get the sense of her being of a time and place alien to modern sensibilities. I feel I get the glittery surface of onyx and citrus wood and dates and incense, but am left with no insight into Cleopatra and her times. This in contrast to the Henry VIII book, even though I knew the Tudor period well and the story of Henry and his wives was very familiar to me, George's take felt fresh and thought-provoking. This Cleopatra book, however, definitely isn't a book I consider a keeper, and it's not keeping its place on my bookshelves. But that leaves me with a dilemma. Which is the real Margaret George? The author of The Autobiography of Henry VIII or the author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra? George has written other biographical fiction about fascinating female historical figures: Helen of Troy, Mary Magdalene, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. All at doorstopper length. I'm just left wondering which of the books I've read is the anomaly, and whether I should read more of George. Anyone read more of her who can let me know if the other books earned their length?