Rewriting History

Benardine Evaristo opens her innovative novel with a line from Oscar Wilde, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”
Evaristo does exactly that in this thrilling, tragic, and enduring prose poetry novel. She takes Londinium and throws it into a raw world that feels like slam poetry in a night club. The simple act of manipulating the language and form of the writing in the story allows for so many new windows of opportunity for the writer. The writing is raw and it allows the leading lady of the story to be shown in a real light.
Londinium is a Roman city in AD 211. What was happening in AD 211? Women were objects for barter and sale. They were beings with 2 purposes, making connections and making babies. Our young protagonist has her free spirited life jolted by an important, old, fat man who means to marry her. Perfect right? The family will have a new, high connection and Zuleika will be safe and comfortable for the rest of her life. But what is the price that a woman must pay for this trade off?
Evaristo writes, “but I was Felix’s missus / and protected. She stayed / two weeks. Felix came to bed at dawn, / if at all, insisted I bolt the door / until he knocked.”
Zuleika now lives in a grand home with slaves, good food, daily massages, and nearly everything she could ever want. But, take note of “bolt the door”, doors and women in any culture are always more than a plank of wood with hinges. In Zuleika’s case, she went from the doors of her father’s humble abode which swung both ways and allowed freedom to a grand and ornate door that shut itself and bolted itself not only to keep her in, but keep all others, but her husband, out.
So, why did Evaristo choose ancient Londinium to rewrite history? Maybe the reason is because little is known about that time so stories can be layered on top of what is already known. Pictures can be painted and freedom can be exude by the writer through her characters. I think that Zuleika’s struggles, though from another time, can still be felt in London. Picture walking in the same space that she walked through; she ascribed entirely different to the places that she encountered but she was still walking in what we now know as London.
Imagine Virginia Woolf walking with Zuleika. They may have gotten along! Maybe the advice Woolf would’ve given Zuleika would be similar to, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Zuleika had no real country, she had a nationality and a status but no place to really call her own. Did she not claim her own world at the end? It lead to her doom but she finally caught a glimpse of what freedom is and the potential that comes from being under its umbrella. Zuleika felt more freedom than most women, she had a sexual awakening despite all efforts to destroy it and she lived, even if just for a short time.
Why have a protagonist that dies so young? I sometimes wonder why these stories can’t have happy endings in our 21st century fairy tale understanding. But, I think Evaristo understands that though Oscar Wilde promotes the rewriting of history, it should still be within the confines of a basic structure. The basic structure of Londinium had no happy ending for Zuleika. Just a few happy moments that were milked to the fullest.



Emperor’s Babe


Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo is a novel that is written in verse that tells the story of Zuleika and her life in Londinium. One of the things that interested me as I read this novel, was the characters Aemilia and Valeria and the relationship they had with Zuleika.

Aemilia and Valeria are first presented in the novel as wild slaves that Felix had ordered for Zuleika before he left for Rome. One of the things that seems unusual in this is that it is a person who immigrated from African owning slave from up north, modern day Scotland. Evaristo had stated that the Romans did not care about enslaving Africans more than any other group. The section “Zuleika and Her Girls” her depiction of the arrival of these slaves is very savage, “When they approached, they clawed the air with filthy talons, mucus ran in clotted rivers form pinched little noses, their eyes were splattered with mosquitoes courtesy of Tranio, to shut them up.” Despite this describing these two as wild creatures, Zuleika calls them her pets. It is important take into consideration at this point is that Zuleika is not allowed to leave her own house. According to her husband she was to remain there.  Aemilia and Valeria were Zuleika’s only company, they are the ones that spend time with her on a day-to-day basis. In a since they all were captives to the house, Zuleika was not allowed to leave for the longest time and Aemilia and Valeria were strictly a commodity that had to do what Zuleika said.

Only occasionally do you see Zuleika think of freeing Aemilia and Valeria throughout the novel. Once she begins to think about it, she tends to digress onto another thought and remove the thoughts of freeing her slaves from her mind. Looking at the conditions of her slaves forces her to look at her own condition of being married to Felix. The comparison of the two is shockingly similar, all of them were acquired through economic gain, and they have no say in any of the things that go on around them in their lives. Because it is so painful for Zuleika to think about her own situation, she tends to ignore these issues with her own slaves, being easier to turn a blind eye rather than look at the similarities.

Ultimately Aemilia and Valeria are the ones who expose Zuleika’s affair to Felix. They did this because Zuleika continued to ignore there needs by denying there wish to find a husband. When they ask Zuleika permission to go and find a husband, she denies them, and scolds them. When she was a child her father had told her “When you’re a slave you dream /of either owning slaves or freeing them.

“The Emperors Babe” By: Bernardine Evaristo

“The Emperors Babe” By: Bernardine Evaristo


In “The Emperor’s Babe” By: Bernardine Evaristo, this contemporary writer explains the way those women occupy the space of London. The main character Zuleika was taken advantage of at a very early stage of her life and also in her arranged marriage with her husband. She was sexually abused and raped in the early pages of the novel. This point of her life shaped the rest of the story and affected her experiences through out. On page 29 of the novel it explains more in depth about the abuse that Zuleika experienced and had to go through. At the end of the scene she says, “and each time I woke up, it was my first night in the kingdom of the dead.” She was describing how each time she experienced the abuse it was just as terrible and horrible as the last. This is showing the disrespect that women had in third century London. Then, going back a little farther into the text you see that Zuleika did not want the kind of life that she had. She wanted the freedom she had as a young child and to feel respected as a person. She wanted to feel reckless and alive and to just have fun with her friend Alba. She was so young and innocent and had only a little experience of what freedom felt like. On page 20 it says, “desperate to run into the night forever, to find the river and disappear in it. I was swimming in the dead of it; my frozen limbs struggled up the beach, my dress instantly soaked. I ran back through the deserted streets, feeling my blood warm up my joints becoming fluid again, the only sound of my sandaled feet on hardened earth, my harsh panting breaths.” This quote shows how she felt free. It explained how much freedom meant to her as a young child, so after her tragic experience of abuse from her husband, there was freedom taken away from her. While she was with her husband (who is a wealthy business man) her role of a woman is taken differently with the class she is in.

On page 27 it says, “A lady uses powdered horn to enamel her teeth dontcha know, and powdered mouse brains to keep her breath sweet. I am pampered by maids, an ornatrix is weaving Indian hair into my own, six pads- Vestal- style. They are painting me white with chalk, my lips and cheeks with the lees of red wine, don’t talk! Black ash is dabbed onto my eyes.” The married life was a way of life for women of that century. Also women did not have much of a choice when it came to whom they were to marry as well. It seemed as though it didn’t matter if a woman wanted, or was even mentally prepared to be a wife. It was about the status. It was about the class, and about the money. It was not about the women as a person, her values or her humanity. Chapter two in the novel it is called “Metamorphosis” which is basically maturity and becoming an adult. I think that is an interesting choice for the title because Zuleika is becoming an adult at a very young age.

On page 33, it is describing her sexual enslavement role as a wife and the way that she “should” be. She cannot play into the role because something just doesn’t feel right to her. She feels something is missing, a lack of freedom. The material possessions and economic stability can only keep her sane for so long. It is not fair that women should not feel real passion for her marriage. And also, it is definitely not healthy for women to helpless and venerable in the marriage as well. The material possessions would soon turn into only a distraction from the hurt. So Zuleika moves on to another man. Because unfortunately now, she feels her only way to find true happiness is through another man. She finds it hard to accept herself and be one with herself again.

On page 121, she explains how she needs to feel something again, explaining that she doesn’t even feel alive anymore. “She turned on me: ‘you’ll be playing with fire’, ‘I want to be on fire. I want to burn. I want to be consumed. I’ve been dead since my wedding night. I’ve been living inside myself for years, I want to feel extreme pain and extreme pleasure.” This passage her is explaining her sexual awakening. She wants a change; she wants to feel pleasure and actual passion from a man. This could also be taken as a way to hide or numb the pain of the past. Her past experience made her feel hopeless. I feel that she could be seeking a man to find actual happiness and pleasure. She feels as though a man is the only way she can bring those feelings back into her life.

The Emperor’s Babe and Druid Culture

The Emperor’s Babe, by Bernardine Evaristo, is a tale of Londinium, 211 A.D. In this novel the main character, Zuleika, is married to a rich Roman man, Felix. To show his affection towards Zuleika, Felix buys two young women slaves for her. These two women are from a Druid tribe north of Londinium. During their time with Zuleika, they tell her about their lives and their culture. I decided to explore the Druid culture that, through these two women, is presented in the novel.

The first description we get of the difference between the Londinium, Roman-influenced people and the Druids is in physical description. “Two ginger girls arrived, captured / up north, the freckled sort (typical / of Caledonians)” (Caledonia is a Latin name the Romans gave to the lands north of Hadrian’s wall). Zuleika finds the girls “fascinating” yet “vile”. The verses continue on to describe these women in barbaric ways. Zuleika finally forces them to be bathed, so she could bare to be around them with being “nauseous”. Very little is known about the day to day life of Druids but one can assume, based on similar cultures we know more about, that there was little to no sense of cleanliness and certainly no sense of sanitation. What we would understand as being barbaric also extends to the girls’ behavior. They “escaped / out the window and climbed / on to the roof, howling.” These stark cultural differences are too difficult for Zuleika to handle so she begins a process of forced assimilation. She even tries to make them look less alien by covering their freckles with white lead.

Aemilia and Valeria, as Zuleika has named them, soon fall into step with their new roles in a Roman household but they like to tell Zuleika stories of their lives before being captured. Valeria says that their “Mammy and Faither were chieftens, ye ken.(‘ye ken’ means ‘you know’)” and their “granfaither / was chief Druid”. From my research of Druid culture I have learned that Druids were priests and that it could take up to twenty years of study and learning to become one. Once they had achieved this status, they had quite a bit of power among the tribes. They were pinnacles of wisdom and often acted as teachers and judges.

A particularly interesting aspect of Druid culture was the prominence of women in all the roles of the tribe. At one point in the novel Valeria says “Mammy would leid de sodgers into battle, / hir lang heir flying behind like fire, / standing on hir chariot she was so ferox, / all in de scud, face pentit blue wi an owl / tattooed on it”. This is significantly different from the roles that women played in Londinium culture, this role is illustrated by Zuleika’s situation, in which she is so insignificant to her husband that he simply, and rather nonchalantly, disposes of her after she has an affair.Here is a link to an interesting website that goes into the specifics of women in Druid culture.

In the previous quote, Valeria mentioned that her mother wore blue paint on her face. This is an ancient tradition in Celtic/Druid culture and is primarily worn as war paint for an upcoming battle. Most of us have probably seen this portrayed in television or movies but here’s an example anyway courtesy of the movie ‘Braveheart’.

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In my research into the relationship between the Druids and the Romans during the time The Emperor’s Babe is set, I discovered that the native non-Druid Britons were  quite afraid of the Druids because they believed that Druids had physic and possibly other mystical powers. One article I read (linked below) stated that the Romans “were happy to make a peaceful settlement with most tribes/groups in England, they had no intention of doing the same with the Druids”. Apparently, the Romans were horrified by the sacrificial rituals that Druids performed for their religion and simply massacred them. They then began a forced Christianization, or forced total assimilation of the land and what people were left just like Zuleika forced Aemilia and Valeria to assimilate.

Link to short article about Roman-Druid relationship:

How does this novel help me understand Englishness? Well, it’s been discussed in class that to determine Englishness, one must consider history. I think it is extremely important to know that London was created by the Romans, something I was not aware of until this book. We know that London’s influence on the rest of England is tremendous so the Roman influence on Englishness must be astounding.


The Emperor’s Babe

The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo is a novel in verse about Zuleika, a daughter of Sudanese immigrants living in pre-London or Londinium in AD 211. She is married off to a Roman senator, Felix, and is definitely not happy where she is. While the whole book was really enjoyable for me, there was one particular, minuscule part that fascinated me and forced me to look deeper into the background and history of what marriage was in Roman London times.

After a brief Google search, I came across a Wikipedia article about marriage in ancient Rome and while I know Wikipedia is not the most credible of sources, I thought this was still a good place to start. The very first line is, “The lives of elite Roman women were essentially determined by their marriages.” So while elite young men were able to marry in their early twenties after a year or so of military service, girls were married off exponentially younger. “The higher the social position of the girl, the sooner betrothal tended to follow puberty, since marriages were arranged for social reasons.” We all know, from the studies of Falling Angels by Tracey Chevalier that for a long time, women didn’t have the rights that they deserved and were treated as property by their husbands. Zuleika was 11 when she was married to Felix, I was barely starting to even like boys at 11. The biggest component of these marriages, however, was the dowry element. A dowry is the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to the marriage. It is her family’s way of helping to pay for household expenses. While it is never stated if Zuleika’s family provided a dowry, I have to think that there was some kind of payment involved. This idea is incredible to me and makes me wonder to how we ended up with marriage involving a love component.

According to a The Week article entitled “How Marriage Has Changed Over Centuries,” pair-bonding began in the Stone Age as a way of organizing and controlling sexual conduct and providing a stable structure for child-rearing and the tasks of daily life. Eventually, marriage expanded into a means for preserving power. Kings married off their daughters to forge alliances, acquire land, and produce legitimate heirs. In 1215, marriage was added as a sacrament of the church. And in terms of love, “marriage was considered too serious a matter to be based on such a fragile emotion.” A Roman politician in was expelled from the Senate in the 2nd Century B.C. for kissing his wife in public! Marriage didn’t enter the scene until in the 17th or 18th century. Now, marriage is all in relation to love and emotion, so this whole history of marriage is incredibly interesting to see where it progressed from and to think what it could be today if Enlightenment thinkers didn’t think that life was about the pursuit of happiness.

How all of this relates to Zuleika really strikes me because I have to wonder what would have happened if she had been able to choose who she married- her entire life could be different. Maybe if she was given a choice, she could have found someone she loved, could have waited until her body was completely ready to experience the consummation of that marriage, and could have enjoyed a long, happy life with someone that she cared about. Her affair with the emperor probably wouldn’t have happened and then the “disgrace” she brought to her husband wouldn’t have ended with her dying. But this time period didn’t allow for that kind of thinking. Everything was a business transaction and her marriage to Felix allowed for her family to persevere and retain their financial standing.

This idea of marriage has expanded and grown so much throughout the course of history that it definitely affects the theme of Mapping Englishness. Zuleika’s life takes place in a pre-London, an amazing idea to me and definitely brings up the idea of a heterotopia. If you think about it, we are walking, sitting, breathing, living where thousands of people before us who are dead now walked, sat, breathed, and lived. It’s an amazing idea that is constantly in my mind as we walk the streets of London and see the architecture of many of those before us. Marriage is a part of our culture, our history, it’s written in our religion and in our government. I liked the imagery in Virginia Woolf’s “The London Scene” where there is a couple getting married in the industrialized island of St. Clement Danes. This idea of marriage sprouting into a thing of love from a thing of power is incredibly meaningful and I have to think that Zuleika could have lived a more fulfilled and rebellious and crazy life if she wasn’t confined in her societal restrictions.

[For giggles: a Q & A with Bernadine Evaristo AND a BBC “Ten Key Moments in the History of Marriage article]

“Londinium:” The Connection between ‘Romaness’ &; ‘Englishness’ towards Women in “The Emperor’s Babe”

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After reading Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, I understood how much influence the Roman’s really did have on the people of England today.  I felt that Evaristo did an amazing job at comparing “Londinium” (Rome’s London) to the empire it became. I felt that many of these passage have a great correlation with the two themes of this trip to London that I have been experiencing thus far.  And those are Women in Literature and how they are portrayed and the spatial practices of “Englishness.” To start off with the first theme known as the portrayal of Women is greatly shown in this work.  For example: in one of the proses entitled Osmosis (III), Zuleika, the character all of these proses revolve around, one can see the deceit and betrayal in how her own parents; (especially her father) Of whom became so desperate for money that they would sell their own daughter to Emperor Ceverus:

“Dad looked hurt. They shared

 The same profile, I thought tribal.

‘There are some things

You can only share with your own.

When you’re a slave you dream

of either owning slaves or freeing them.'” (Evaristo 24)

So the question is to this quote would be, what happens when you’re this slave forever? Because I am positive that one would have to be an idiot to not see that this is a slave trade in it’s most depicted definition.

      Another example of this time period’s treatment and portrayal of women can be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum here in London.  Alfred George Steven’s 1855 reproduction of The Rape of Proserpine, depicts the god known as Hades raping the  goddess known as Proserpine.  Showing how disgusting and brutal the Roman system was for Women; and how this abuse of woman would still continue in both depiction and in reality up into more recent years.  With that being said I feel this patriarchy during not only the era of Rome but as well haunted England up into the Middle of the 20th Century is greatly depicted in this amazing work of prose. Furthermore, it discusses a more realistic outlook of the ‘Romaness’ and ‘Englishness’ in terms of their brutal oppression towards women.

The Emperor’s Babe

The Emperor’s Babe is historical fiction, written as an “autobiography” in verse.  The story is told by Zuleika, who is a poet and the book is written as a series of poems.

Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrants, lives in Roman occupied London (Londinium)) in AD 211. She and her friend Alba “were the wild girls of Londinium”, “partners in crime.”  As an eleven year old child, Zuleika is married off to Felix, a much older, successful Roman.  She spends her time as a girl about town, providing the reader with a view of life in Londinium.

As an aristocratic wife, she benefits from her husband’s position, but is unhappy. Throughout the book Zuleika thinks about who she really is:  Londinio or Nubian?   She begins to write poetry, which help her express her feelings of identity.

She begins an affair with Septimius Severus, the Emperor of Rome.  The story becomes more serious and darker, describing the depravity of Roman society, especially as related in Zuleika’s visit to the amphitheatre.

The book was a different sort of read for me, confusing at first, but a rhythm developed as the story progressed.  The story uses Latin and modern words. I think the author may have done this to show the connection between Londinium in AD 211 and the space of today’s London. The author states “There are many parallels to be made between Londinium and contemporary Britain/London, and I simply played on this to make the period more lively and accessible, as well as using language to do this.  The language that Zuleika uses is very now, very modern.  The novel is peppered with Latin, Italian, Cockney-rhyming slang, patois, American slang, pidgin Scots-Latin, and in the case of Severus, broken English.  Using language in this way greatly aids characterization as well as making the text dynamic.” (McCarthy). I found this somewhat distracting (was the word “glamour puss” ever used in ancient Londinium ?) (Evaristo p.35)Perhaps the use of modern slang was used to make the characters more familiar to today’s reader.

I can see the author’s use of modern street names as another way of connecting Londinium and today’s London. I think this may show how Zuleika “occupies” the space of London.

In the article “Revisiting the Black Atlantic: Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots.”, the point is made that Bernardine Evaristo portrays Londinium as similar to today’s London.  The article states “Evaristo portrays London as a conglomerate of cultures, accents and peoples that very much resembles the multicultural metropolis of today.”  (Munoz-Valdivieso).

As Evaristo herself suggests, “in one sense, The Emperor’s Babe is a dig at those Brits who still harbour ridiculous notions of ‘racial’ purity and the glory days of Britain as an all-white nation” (McCarthy).

The story ends sadly, although I am not entirely clear as to how it occurs.  The emperor dies, Zuleika’s affair is discovered, and Zuleika discusses her funeral with Alba. Is she murdered?  Is she dreaming of being strangled? Does she commit suicide?  I would be interested in hearing from the class regarding the ending and their overall impression of the book, which was a very different kind of read.

Evaristo, Bernardine.  The Emperor’s Babe. London: Penguin Books, Ltd. , 2001. Book.

McCarthy, Karen “Q&A with Bernardine Evaristo”. Valparaiso Poetry Review VIV.2(2003):

Munoz-Valdivieso, Sofia. “Revisiting the Black Atlantic: Bernardine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots.” Interactions 19.1-2 (2010): 53+. Academic OneFile. Web. 27 June 2013

Image: The Londinium of the Emperor’s Babe