Voice in the Wind, pp. 127-131
Oh boy. This week is a doozy!
Marcus found himself watching the young Jewess every time he was at home. He wondered what it was about her that fascinated him so much.
It’s the mojo, I’m telling you. But there’s more.
She was devoted to his sister and seemed to sense Julia’s every mood and need, seeing to her with gentle humility. Bithia had served Julia before Hadassah, but the Egyptian had no fondness for her. Julia was high-strung and difficult. Bithia obeyed. This young Jewess served. Marcus could see it in the way she put her hand on Julia’s shoulder when his sister was in one of her restless moods. He had never seen anyone but his mother touch Julia in that way. What was most amazing was that Hadassah’s touch seemed to soothe his sister.
I think we may be a bit removed from Roman slavery. Reread the above, but sub in antebellum slavery. Imagine a book praising an African American slave girl for serving her white mistress, selflessly, ceaselessly, and without asking anything in return. The other slaves obey—but this girl serves. As Rivers writes—and as evangelicals, given their tradition’s emphasis on selfless service, will read it—this is high praise of Hadassah. But what, in our antebellum example, would this mean regarding the slave that runs away, making a bid for freedom? Does that make them selfish, caring more about themselves than about serving others (i.e. their masters)?
And, in case it needs repeating, this is a book where things happen. Hadassah is able to influence and ultimately evangelize her owners. That is not realistic. For every one Hadassah, who actually accomplishes this, there would surely be hundreds of other girls starting out in her same position who serve and give and nothing happens except that the dishes get washed and hair gets done and clothes get properly put away in the Roman equivalent of closets.
There’s this idea within evangelicalism that if you’re quiet and gentle and kind and you serve, people will notice you and be drawn to you and want what you have. But sometimes—and arguably more often—when you’re quiet and gentle and kind and you serve, people will just walk all over you.
Still, you can see why this book would be so attractive to so many evangelical girls of my generation—it communicates that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re at, if you are sweet and kind and you serve quietly without asking for anything in return, everyone around you will notice and be affected by your mojo. They’ll admire you and they’ll want to know what it is you have that they don’t. And boom presto, you’ll gain both praise and converts—the ultimate achievement within evangelicalism.
Except that real life doesn’t always work that way.
At this point, we have a flash-back to the day Julia learned of her arranged marriage to Claudius Flaccus. This occurred after Hadassah had joined the household, but before Julia’s conversation with Octavia in the previous chapter. And yes—it was tumultuous.
“I won’t marry him! I won’t! she screamed at their father the evening he had told her. “You can’t make me! I’ll run away! I’ll kill myself!”
Father slapped her across the face. He had never done such a thing before, and Marcus was too surprised to do anything but sit up form the couch and slam his goblet on the table.
“Decimus!” his mother gasped, clearly as shocked as he was that Father would do such a thing. Not that Julia didn’t deserve it. Even so, to slap her in the face was unpardonable.
Julia stood in stunned silence, her hand pressed to her cheek. “You hit me,” she said as though she couldn’t believe it either. “You hit me!”
“I will have none of your hysterics, Julia,” their father said through his teeth, his face ashen. “You speak to me in that tone of voice, and I will slap you again.”
So now we can add domestic violence to our categorization of this household. And—let’s be very clear here—forced child marriage. Julia is a young 15. Claudius Flaccus is 49.
Now clearly, this book is set in Rome, circa 70 AD. It’s likely out of keeping with historical reality that this is the first time Julia has been hit. It was also common for young teenage girls to be married to full-grown, mature adult men. The more interesting question becomes whether Rivers, looking back, approves of these things—or whether she is only including them because of the periodization.
After some additional argument, Julia flees the room, and Phoebe sends Hadassah after her. Decimus walks out, leaving Marcus and his mother alone in the room. Marcus is upset.
“He had no right to strike her.”
“He had the right of a father. Much of what is going wrong with the Empire has to do with fathers who have not disciplined their children. She had no right to speak to your father the way she did.”
Phoebe is very clear—she approves of the match, and of Decimus’ behavior (i.e. slapping Julia). She also uses language, above, that is virtually identical to that used by many evangelicals today. Phoebe has already been established as a kind, gentle, gracious woman, in the mold of the ideal evangelical wife and mother today—and she approves of this match, because it will settle Julia down, and prevent her from falling in with bad influences—she chooses her friends unwisely, you see. This all will sound very familiar (and palatable) to the evangelical reader.
Ultimately frustrated with his mother, Marcus goes to see how Julia is doing. He peeks into her room to see Julia clutching Hadassah, who is stroking her and soothing her.
“How could my father think of marrying me off to that stretched old man?” Julia whined, clutching the girl like a talisman.
“Your father loves you, mistress. He desires only your good.”
And it goes on like that.
“I wish Drusus were my father. Octavia can do anything she pleases.”
“Sometimes that kind of freedom doesn’t come from love, my lady, but lack of care.”
Hadassah turns out to be very good at reciting platitudes. But there’s a bigger issue here. Hadassah, our Christian heroine, is defending the marriage Decimus has arranged for Julia.
“You can’t understand, Hadassah. What can you know? Sometimes I feel I’m more a slave than you are.”
I’m reminded of Ivanka Trump’s comments about how difficult her childhood was because she couldn’t run a lemonade stand like other children because she lived in a mansion rather than a regular neighborhood. Poor little rich girl. But there is a point to be made here—Julia isn’t a slave in the same way Hadassah is, but in this society and at this time, women were for all practical purposes owned by the male relative in charge of them. What we’re talking about here is a property transfer, from Decimus to Claudius Flaccus.
Hadassah soothes Julia by speaking in Hebrew.
Marcus rejoins his mother and they begin speaking, again, about the impending marriage. Marcus says he doesn’t think Flaccus is a good match because he is “hardly exciting for a girl of Julia’s temperament,” but when Phoebe asks Marcus who he would match her with instead—“Antigonus, perhaps?”—he can’t answer. I’m still trying to get my handle on Marcus—he thinks Flaccus is bad for Julia, but can’t think of anyone he thinks would be good for her?
And then Phoebe says this:
“Julia needs maturity and stability in a husband. Those traits are not usually found in a younger man.”
“A young girl wants things other than maturity and stability in a man, Mother,” he said dryly.
“A young girl with any common sense realizes that character rand intelligence far outlast charm and handsome features or build.”
“I doubt such wisdom will mollify Julia.”
“Despite the histrionics, Julia will bend to your father’s decision and be the better for it.”
This is likely not unlike what a Roman mother like Phoebe would have said at the time. But are we (as evangelical readers, since that is the audience) intended to agree with this interpretation? Again, we’ve had Phoebe presented to us as meeting the evangelical checklist for good wife and mother, and Phoebe frequently says things that are word-for-word what modern evangelicals would say (such as above, about the lack of discipline of modern children). And now she’s defending a marriage between a 15 year old girl and a 49 year old man.
At the very least, this has to be confusing to the evangelical teen girl reading Rivers’ book—and it was teen girls that made up its readership. I read it myself as an evangelical teen, multiple times. At the time, I already thought arranged marriages romantic, and (as a homeschooled girl raised on quiverfull ideas) thought an age gap rather made sense. Julia’s reluctance here confused me—Flaccus was rich and connected and stable, after all—although I understood her fear of sex. I don’t remember anything more specific in my response, but I think it’s worth asking what Rivers is communicating to her readers in the way she is writing Phoebe.
When Phoebe asks Marcus to use his influence, Marcus objects:
“Oh, no. Don’t drag me into this. If I had any say, Julia would choose whom she pleases.”
But when Phoebe asks who she would choose, Marcus remembers the “young rogue” they encountered at the arena. Clenching his jaw, he realizes that “All young girls were fools for handsome faces,” his sister included. But he still objects to the match with Flaccus.
I’m very confused by Marcus’ response here. In fact, I think it is his actions I understand least. Decimus and Phoebe, I get that. I can even see Julia objecting, though she would have been raised to expect an arranged marriage to an older man. What I don’t understand is Marcus vacillation. It’s as though he’s not sure what he really wants. Perhaps he wants his sister to be happy, but he’s afraid to let her take any risk in achieving that? He wants to maintain his family’s honor. But realistically, would Marcus be so worried about this? Wouldn’t he have simply been happy to have her properly married off to a stable, monied, and connected nobleman?
Perhaps others with more recent familiarity with various Roman texts can think of comparisons for this situations within history, or of historical brother/sister relationships that might shed light on how this realistically would play out.
This section ends on this note:
“I think you’re very wrong, Marcus. You see, what you have not been told is that your father didn’t go to Claudius Flaccus. He came to us. Claudius is in love with her.”
I’m pretty sure that, as a teen, I saw this as very romantic. A mature, established man of means who adores you? Why not! But reading it now, I’m repulsed. Flaccus does not know Julia. At all. He’s seen her once or twice at various functions, but they’ve never interacted. And yet, he believes he’s in love with her? That’s creepy. That speaks of ill judgement. And obsession.
Next week, the wedding.
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!