Monday, December 27, 2010

Book review: The Wedding Shroud, by Elisabeth Storrs

Few authors have fictionalized the Etruscan civilization, especially when compared with the many who write about Rome. Though separated from the Roman Republic by a mere twelve miles of river and forest, Etruria was seen as alien and hostile by its neighbor to the south. Much remains unknown about its people, though numerous sculptures from this ancient land reside in museums today. In her absorbing first novel The Wedding Shroud, Elisabeth Storrs takes us up close and personal with the Etruscans, situating us in a vibrant, complex society ruled by elected magistrates and divine portents.

Caecilia, a well-educated Roman maiden, is adopted by her patrician uncle after her beloved father dies in 407 BC. Soon after, she is forcibly wed to Vel Mastarna, a wealthy aristocrat from the Etruscan city of Veii, as a means of establishing an alliance. The Romans are dying from starvation and need the Veientanes’ corn to survive.

Shocked by the loose morality expected of her as an Etruscan nobleman’s wife – elaborate hairstyles, sheer embroidered gowns, gambling, wine-drinking, and socializing with men – Caecilia dons her rough linen stola and tunic and vows to remain true to Rome. Her unwillingness to adapt doesn’t earn her any admirers. Neither does her status as a member of the hated Aemilian family.

Caecilia is quickly seduced by her husband’s teachings in the bedroom, although Mastarna’s heart still belongs to another woman - at least at first. As the political climate shifts within Veii, and tensions heat up on many fronts, she makes a desperate and dangerous attempt to forestall her predicted fate.

Storrs writes in the third person, but the tone is unexpectedly intimate as we experience Caecilia’s isolation and culture shock as she lives amongst the enemy. Her stubbornness in clinging to Rome may lose her some sympathy points early on, but her path from innocence to maturity is believably rendered, and her futile goal of retaining her so-called dignity makes her even more human. Caecilia’s interactions with three others of her sex – her caring mother-in-law, her Greek slave, and a proud Cretan hetaera – provide further insight into her personality and women’s roles in ancient Italy.

Special attention has been paid to the Etruscans’ belief system. We may think of ancient religions as mythology, supernatural fables of a sort, but the gods have a very real presence in the lives of these characters. While Mastarna follows the Cult of Fulfluns, which celebrates the exuberant pleasures of life, his brother Artile oversees worship among the Cult of Calu, the god of the underworld. The wedding shroud of the title, a transparent veil draped over a newly married couple that will also cover them at death, conveys the theme that death and life are opposing but connected forces. It’s also illuminating to observe the two nations at this pivotal point in their history; many elements thought of as classical Roman traditions were in fact imported from the Etruscans.

By the novel’s end, only a year has passed, but Caecilia has been profoundly changed by her experiences. Over this time, Etruscan society has become more familiar, but it still hasn’t lost its strangeness. With her page-turning story, Storrs revivifies a long-ago past while reminding us that it’s a place utterly unlike the world we know: the mark of a skilled historical novelist.

The Wedding Shroud was published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in September at $32.95 Australian (489pp, trade paperback).  Converted to US$, the price is about $25.  Overseas readers interested in buying a copy might try Dymocks in Oz or The Nile in NZ; both ship internationally.  I'm an occasional customer of both.  Other suggestions welcome!  Per the author's website, a sequel is in the works, which is great news.


  1. My first reading of anything like this. I would really like to find this book. Thanks for the review.

  2. I have been interested in reading this book since I first heard of it, and since the author did an amazing guest post for us at Historical Tapestry.

    There are some other options in relation to bookstores - <a href=">this chart</a> will help give a comparison of prices from a variety of different bookstores. The postage prices are for within Australia, but will at least give some idea for people who want to buy the book.

  3. Mystica, it's a unique novel worth seeking out. Hope you can find a copy.

    Thanks, Marg, I hadn't come across that site before. It will also be useful for me later on, next time I want to buy something from Australia. It was an excellent guest post - I learned a lot from it.

    Here's the direct link: Why I Love Etruscan Art

  4. I've just finished this book and I agree - it is a unique and intimate portrait of both the main character, her personal conflict, and the two linked but very different societies in which she lives. It's a most absorbing story, and I felt sorry to leave the world Storrs created when I came to its end.

  5. Great review. I'm definitely going to try an locate a copy.

  6. My late Latin teacher was very well-versed in the Etruscan culture. She might have enjoyed this book. Here I’ll go off-topic if I may to alert folks that if you google Al Franken/Huffington Post there are two good stories about the FCC making alarming rulings that would affect websites like this one regarding net neutrality. Corporate websites should be banned from “priority pricing” that lets them buy the fast lanes on the Internet, leaving us in the slow. We need a Paul Revere community of independent bloggers so we can alert each other to crucial upcoming FCC rulings and make our voices heard.

  7. For anyone else (like me) curious about what a tutulus hat looked like, here's a picture of an Etruscan statuette wearing one. Her dress is very interesting in that it shows both Near Eastern and Greek influences - her dress is modelled on the Greek chiton, but her shoes and hat are Eastern.

    Both the ancient Greeks and the Phoenicians were great merchant-traders, and the closeness of their spheres of influence to Etruria can be clearly seen in this map of the Etruscan League of 12

  8. Thanks very much for the links, Annis. Fascinating to see the convergence of various cultures in Etruscan art (and garb). I did some looking around, and the tutulus seems to have been worn by both men and women.