Here is the thing about not allowing your children to read grown-up books: it is not possible for you, also, to possess these books. If your child is a reader, then there is no shelf high enough and no place secret enough for them. I know, because I climbed up there. I was a lazy child and often overweight, but I climbed bookshelves like a monkey for my parents’ Stephen King* and Anne Rice** novels and – once I was done with my own age-appropriate books about Egypt – for Pauline Gedge’s The Twelfth Transforming.
I was ten when I first read it. For years, I reread it over and over, until the thing fell apart. Since it was out of print by then and I did not feel a need for another copy, I had not reread it in years, until now. As such, rereading it has told me more about the contrast between reading at ten and reading in one’s mid-thirties than about the historiography of historical fiction.
What makes Gedge’s book remarkable at the outset, to a typical reader, is the immediate and casual acceptance of incest. Pharaonic incest was practiced in order to protect the purity of Egyptian royal blood, which was regarded as literally divine. It is not clear to us whether incestuous marriages were meant to strengthen a pharaoh’s claim to the throne, or to keep royal blood (and royal claimants) out of lesser families by making sure that the sisters and daughters of a pharaoh were not free to marry and have children with anyone else. In any case, the first few pages of Gedge’s novel make it clear that this is a narrative where all members of the family are sexual rivals. It is startling and repulsive.
That is, it is now. When I was ten, I accepted the incest in this book without question. This had nothing to do with the thankfully decent world that I lived in as a fifth-grader. I never even contemplated it as such. Egypt was simply the past. The world of the book was what it was, and I had no place to question it, nor any need to.
Could I let myself be such a reader now? Today, I have a hard time reading most anything without the internal critic asking: what are we being told to accept here? Is it accurate? Is it probable? Is it pushing an agenda against some gender or race or creed? Am I, in short, being taken for a fool by some rat-bastard typist who has issues with his/her ex?
No, I can no longer do without that voice. I can never be such a carefree reader, so full of wonder, as I was when I was ten. On the other hand, I also thought that John Maddox Roberts was a good fantasy author back then; so in all such losses there is some gain.
Gedge’s novel is as rich as a rum cake. She specializes in producing a decadent, highly scented picture of the royal and noble houses of Egypt, a place you could imagine losing hours in languid drunkenness, as her characters often do. The story is one of royal intrigue and dissipation, of naivete and madness, not of ideas or of love. Egypt itself is depicted as a mass of cowlike laborers, either working or suffering, invisible to the main characters of the story.
When I was a girl, I was immediately interested in Queen Tiye, the viewpoint character, and sorrowful for her sorrows, simply because she was the queen. Now, on rereading, all I see is a woman who loved only power, who failed to be a mother to her children and was surprised and angry when they grew up to be either spoiled past bearing, or insane, or both. Did Gedge herself see that? It is hard to say.
The whole novel, as evocative and carefully written as it is, makes one feel slightly sick. Someone who read this novel without any prior interest in ancient Egypt would no doubt consider the whole wretched thing well lost to the Persians.
* Which I read right away. I did not have to wait for Tim Curry for IT to give me sleepless nights.
** Which were boring and annoying and I could not see the point. In fact I have yet to see it.