We know Aristotle both from museums that display him in those monumental curly-haired busts, and from textbooks that present him as the Greek polymath, whose ideas shaped our world. Now, in Annabel Lyon’s masterful historical novel, “The Sweet Girl,” we see him also as parent to a strong-willed girl. It is she who drives the story.
Pythias knows Aristotle as “Daddy” — a fond daddy, who encourages her to read and learn, to dissect animals and gather plants, to sit in on philosophical debates in the Lyceum he founded in Athens. She is an apt pupil, more so than her half-brother Nicomachus (for whom Aristotle wrote the “Nicomachean Ethics.”) She is also a beloved daughter — not just a favorite with her father, but also with Herpyllis, the slave he had taken to his bed. Her life is as idyllic as a girl’s could reasonably be expected to be in Athens during the 4th century B.C. She really doesn’t have to spend much time at weaving and embroidering, and while she helps Herpyllis in the kitchen, nothing onerous was demanded so she could share in Aristotle’s investigations of nature.
Until she hits menarche. Then things begin to change. She is no longer welcome at her father’s knee. Typically, girls of her age were married off, but Aristotle favored the Spartan practice of waiting until a girl is fully grown at 17 or 18. At this point, he’d arranged for her to marry a distant cousin, Nicanor, a soldier in Alexander the Great’s army.
But Alexander dies, and things change for Aristotle and Pythias. Like Alexander, they are Macedonian, and while he was alive, they were tolerated in Athens, which was smoldering as a Macedonian vassal. With Alexander gone, Aristotle and his household must flee to Chalcis. Aristotle dies shortly thereafter, and Herpyllis returns to her native village. Pythias, now impoverished, has to figure a way forward. She tries all the avenues open to a woman: she apprentices as a priestess; she inherits her father’s medical implements and becomes a midwife; finally, she lives as a demimondaine, entertaining the powerful men of Chalcis. And she waits to see if Nicanor will show up. It’s not clear he is still alive.
With exquisite skill, the author evokes Pythias and her family as credible members of a community that existed more than two millennia ago. At the same time, she shows their kinship with us, allowing us to see their constraints as different from our own, but nonetheless analogous.
One reason for the clarity with which we can see her characters is that Ms. Lyon does little more than sketch in the courtyards and markets, the dust, the temples, the plants and foodstuffs that evoke ancient Greece. This lets us see Aristotle as we have rarely, if ever, seen him before: as a great man who nonetheless has a daily life that includes dealing with a household, playing with his children, talking to his friends, and managing the business of his Lyceum. Since he shared the ancient Greek belief that women were less than men, we have previously seen nothing of his daughter except in that testamentary instruction about her marriage. Nor, indeed, do we ever see much of other ancient Greek women apart from their portrayal on urns and vases. “The Sweet Girl” helps to show these icons of Greek art as realistic pictures of Greek life. It also suggests that this society — based on slavery, the subjection of women and constant warfare — was not the harmonious, democratic land of rationality that we might have imagined.
Such reflections might cast light on modern society, and Pythias’ life might also occasion thoughts about women and their possibilities then and now. Beyond this, Ms. Lyon has not struggled to make “The Sweet Girl” an analogue for contemporary life. Nor is she concerned to either sentimentalize or excoriate the past. This lack of tendentious clutter is relaxing, and gives the reader space to reflect on the people and society presented in the novel.
One thought that might occur is why on earth it’s called “The Sweet Girl.” “Sweet” does not seem the most useful way of characterizing Pythias, nor does it suggest much about the topic of the book. In contrast, the title of her first novel, “The Golden Mean” — which is about Aristotle and his pupil Alexander the Great — uses an Aristotelian tenet that is one of the themes of that book.
“The Sweet Girl” is in a sense a sequel to “The Golden Mean” — certainly in dealing with Aristotle — but the switch in focus from two famous men to one unknown girl makes for such radical thematic and narrative changes that there is no sense in which reading the first novel is necessary to an appreciation of the second — a novel that in its quiet way delights as it instructs.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.