Laurie Maguire


On her book Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood

Cover Interview of March 16, 2010


What happens when a story is translated—literally, “carried across”—or updated to modern political and cultural conditions?

The rape of Helen was clearly topical in the 1590s when poems and plays about Helen (including several allusions by Shakespeare) abound.  These literary retellings of Helen’s story coincide with a change in rape law: in 1597 a statute change made rape a crime against the woman rather than against the male “owner” of the woman (her husband or father). 

But what happens when Helen changes ethnicity?  (Derek Walcott gives us the first black Helen in his 1997 Caribbean Omeros.)  What happens when Helen’s story gets rewritten to whitewash her?  (Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway is presented as a latter-day Helen, one who never succumbed to temptation.)  What happens when the story foregrounds Helen’s motherhood?  (A Victorian novel does this, A Daughter of the Gods, by the unknown female writer, Jane Stanley.)  Or when Helen’s story becomes the subject of comedy and parody (as in Offenbach’s operetta La Belle Hélène) or a silent movie (Helen of Troy won an Oscar for its witty intertitles in the first year of the Oscars, 1928)?

Getting to know a story helps us get to know the period that told it.

© 2010 Laurie Maguire