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Classical retellings from a female perspective: a fascinating trend

09 November 2022

Dr Jacqueline Klooster , Assistant Professor of Classical Languages & Cultures at the UG's Faculty of Arts, has been awarded a €37,500 grant from the Lira Fund (Lira fonds.) The grant will allow her to write a popular science book on retellings of classical literary works from a female perspective. The book will be titled De Bestseller-Muze. Pop-feminisme en de oudheid in populaire fictie (The Bestseller Muse. Pop-feminism and antiquity in popular fiction), and is expected to be published in spring 2025.

Text: Marjolein te Winkel

For the past five years or so, one retelling of Greco-Roman mythologies after another has been published. Classics expert Jacqueline Klooster comments: 'So far, a huge range of titles in popular novels about antiquity has become available, all told from the perspective of female characters, and almost all written by female authors.'

A fascinating trend

In the new tales, the female characters like Medusa, Helena, and Circe are given voices that were not, or not clearly, heard in earlier versions. 'Even the Muse Calliope is allowed to comment on her role in one of the books, which is secondary in the original narrative,' says Klooster.

A fascinating trend, Klooster thinks, even if it is not entirely new. 'It has been done before, by Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, among others. But never before was the amount of retellings from a female perspective as overwhelming as now. This raises questions that I want to provide answers to.'

Questions like: Where does this phenomenon stem from? Why were so many female authors seemingly simultaneously inspired to use the perspective of mythical women? What new stories does this generate, and why is that important? Finally, why is all this such a huge success, given the large print runs and good reception of these novels?

Contemporary societal debates

Apart from the backgrounds, Klooster will also research the implications of this literary boom. She will examine which major contemporary societal debates are reflected in the retellings, and what we can learn from them, about antiquity and ourselves. Klooster: 'Is the popularity of this theme especially saying something about our own world, about the texts from antiquity, or about both?'

'And what do these books do to the reader? To a younger generation, it means that they are introduced to antiquity in a new way, while an older generation is confronted with new, sometimes shocking facets of a world they assumed to be familiar. This area of tension deserves attention: it tells how a society shapes itself through reflection on the past —and how, in doing so, it seems to rewrite the past in its own image.'

Of all times

The trend shows that myths are of all times, and that classical languages are not a distant memory. 'These stories are still alive, and there is still a need for them.'

While some retellings are better than others, Klooster is very excited about a number of them. 'The best ones really do justice to the originals,' she believes. As far as she is concerned, these include: Circe by Madeline Miller, Bright Air Black by David Vann, and Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung by Nina MacLaughlin.

About Jacqueline Klooster

Jacqueline Klooster (1976) is Assistant Professor of Greek Language and Literature at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen. She publishes on a regular basis for a wider Dutch-speaking audience, including in de Nederlandse Boekengids (Dutch Bookguide). In 2017, she published her book Elementaire Deeltje Klassieke Literatuur (Elementary Particle of Classical Literature), published by the Amsterdam University Press. She is currently writing an accessible Literary History of Antiquity together with three co-authors, which will be published in spring 2023. In 2012, she won the Academische Boekengids/Vrij Nederland essay prize and in 2018 the Zenobia essay prize. In 2021-22, Jacqueline Klooster stayed as an Individual Fellow at NIAS, where she worked on an academic monograph on leadership and literature in Ancient Greece. In addition to being an assistant professor, she will be editor-in-chief of the international journal Mnemosyne and chair of the Nederlands Klassiek Verbond (Dutch Classical Association) starting January 2023.

About the Grant

The Lira fund launched the Scientific Books Grant Scheme in 2022. With this grant, the Lira Fund joins the Recognition and Rewards programme of Dutch universities and research institutions through which universities also value and honour other qualities of researchers.

Last modified:02 May 2024 1.40 p.m.
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