Voice in the Wind: A Tale of Two Girls

Voice in the Wind, pp. 131-147

And we’ve reached Julia’s wedding to Claudius Flaccus. Marcus kept up his objection until the end. Indeed, Rivers tells us that Marcus argued for “coemptio, or bride-purchase, a marriage easily dissolved by divorce” but his father refused, saying that Claudius would like to be the one to divorce Julia, and not the other way around.

“For all of Julia’s beauty and delightful high spirits, she is vain, selfish, and volatile. Such ac combination quickly wears on any man. Or haven’t you learned that with Arria?”

Marcus paled in anger. “Julia is nothing like Arria.”

“Marriage by confarreatio to a man like Claudius will assure that she doesn’t become like her.”

“Have you so little confidence in your won daughter?”

“I love her more than my own life, but I am not blind to her faults.” Decimus shook his head sadly.

These family relationships are not pretty.

Decimus muses that “with the proper husband, Julia could mature into a woman like her mother.” He looks over at Julia and sees her give Claudius “a brave smile.” This pleases Decimus. “Perhaps she wasn’t the fool he feared she was,” he thinks to himself. Rivers tells us that Decimus remembered “his own marriage day and the love he had felt for his frightened bride.” Which is curious, because if he had a love match, he’s certainly not allowing his daughter to have one.

Rivers also lets us know, through Decimus’ musing, that Claudius and Julia will live at Claudius’ country estate near Capua. “Ensconced there, Julia would be far from the destructive influences of young women like Octavia and Arria with their modern ideas if independence and immorality,” he tells us. All of this feels very modern, and plays directly into evangelical narratives about the negative consequences of bad peer influences.

The wedding takes place in the Temple of Zeus and is officiated by priests. The wedding party then processes through the streets back to the Valerians’ home.

Some uncouth youths shouted ribald remarks that brought stinging color to Phoebe’s checks as she reclined beside decides. Cosseted behind the high walls of their home, she was protected from much of the licentious and ill-mannered behavior of the citizenry.

How positively Victorian. It reminds me of the scene in HBO Rome when Cornelia tells her father they should leave, because there’s a lewd woman on the stage—thus reinforcing her proper feminine modesty.

Decimus hoped Claudius would get her with child quickly. With a child at her breast, Julia would settle more easily into being a proper Roman wife. She would see to her hearth fire and run her home as Phoebe had trained her to do. Her mind would be occupied with the early education of her children and caring for her family rather than on the games and lewd gossip.

Yep, Decimus is a real keeper.

This section skips back and forth a bit. In the kitchens, Hadassah compliments the family’s cook, Sejanus, on the fascinating food he has prepared—sows’ udders and jellyfish, decorative edible bird sculptures and the like. When Sejanus tells Haddassah she can take a taste, she’s pleased—but Enoch walks in at that moment and declares that Hadassah will have none of it: “Our law forbids us to eat anything unclean.”

Later on, after the feast is over, Sejanus offers Hadassah, who is helping cleanup, a taste of what’s left, now that Enoch is out of the way. Hadassah goes back and forth but ultimately makes what I think is the right choice. She turns Sejanus down, because Enoch has been kind to her and that she doesn’t want to upset him. She tells Sejanus that the food looks lovely, but that he’s fasting.

I tried to look up what we know about early Christian dietary laws but couldn’t find anything. This is after Peter declared all foods clean, breaking with the Jewish law, but early Christian practice was extremely diverse and information didn’t travel as fast as it does today.

Hadassah had never been among people like the Valerians, who had so much and yet so little. They needed the Lord, and yet she lacked the courage to tell them of the miraculous and wondrous things she knew. She tried, but the words stuck in her throat; fear kept her silent. Every time an opportunity came, she remembered the arenas along the way from Jerusalem; she heard again the screams of terror and pain that sometimes haunted her nights.

This is in some sense the central tension of the book—Hadassah is too afraid to try to tell those around her about Jesus, whether her masters or her fellow servants, such as Sejanus and Enoch. Enoch still thinks she’s Jewish, and she let Sejanus think that too.

Hadassah saw the wealth and comfort the Valerians enjoyed as a curse on them. Because of those things, they felt no need for God. They were warm, well fed, and beautifully clothed and sheltered. They enjoyed rich entertainment and were served by a large retinue of slaves.

This line of reasoning does not go good places. I’ve seen evangelicals use this line of reasoning regarding the U.S. as a whole—we’ve grown so prosperous we don’t need to trust in God, so we’ve forgotten him. But it’s also not true—none of the Valerians, perhaps with the exception of Phoebe, are happy. The way Rivers writes her book sometimes makes it difficult to tell the difference between thinks that are objectively true in her story, and things that are her character’s perceptions or assumptions, but Hadassah has just mused on Julia’s unhappiness and she’s about to muse on Marcus’ discontent, so she can’t think the Valerians actually happy.

Claudius and Julia leave, and Hadassah is left behind to pack. She and Julia’s things will be picked up in a few days. Phoebe comes and sits by Hadassah as she packs, talking with her. She asks Hadassah about her family, where they are, and how they died. And now it is Phoebe who is musing.

She had seen Marcus looking at the girl with curious fascination. Hadassah was no more than a year older than Julia, sixteen at most, yet she was profoundly different. She had a quiet humility gained through suffering. And there was something more … a sweet and rare compassion lit her dark eyes. Perhaps, despite her tender age, she possessed wisdom as well.

Phoebe makes Hadassah promise to stand by Julia, as a friend, no matter what.

“That’s why I select you that day when Enoch brought you to us with the other captives. I saw in you someone who might be able to stand by my daughter in all circumstances.”

As commenters pointed out some weeks ago, Hadassah can’t exactly stand up to Julia if she’s being self-destructive. She is bound to obey Julia. Especially now that she will be leaving the house and Julia is married, she answers to Julia, not to Phoebe.

Let me touch on two more things in this section. First we go to Marcus:

The main course was served, and he found himself watching Hadassah again … No one seemed to notice her at all—no one except him—and he felt her presence with every fiber of his being.

Was it only that he was bored and looking for distraction? Any distraction? Or was there really something extraordinary about her, something beneath the surface commonness? He wondered every time he saw her.

When she removed the tray of appetizers from his table, he watched her strong, slender hands. As she walked away his gaze flickered one rate gentle sway of her slender hips. Six months in their possession had changed the emaciated little Jewess child into a nubile young woman with beautiful, mysterious dark eyes.

Hadassah adjusted the tray before Julia … As she bent over, Marcus looked at her slender ankles and small handled feet. …

The soothing music was getting on his nerves. He couldn’t get it out of his mind that Hadassah would be going to Capua with his sister. What did it matter if she did? What was she to him but a slave in his father’s household, a slave who served his sister?

 

Bithia danced then, distracting him briefly with her undulating movements and the swirling of colorful veils. She aroused Drusus, if not the staid Flaccus, so solicitous of his now tipsy bride. Marcus was bitter. The thought of his sister with her aging husband made him sick; the thought of not having Hadassah’s quiet presence in the household depressed him.

This is not a healthy obsession. At all.

Next we move to something Arria had said to Marcus previously, about Julia:

“Poor girl. I pity her.” There was a tinge of mockery in her tone that grated on Marcus. “She’ll be little better than a chattel once the vows are declared and far wafers exchanged before priests. She’ll have no rights whatsoever.”

I’m curious whether she would have used such a framework—that of rights—but also, Arria herself has “no rights whatsoever,” so what even is she on about? She has a father, presumably, or a male relative who is responsible for her. Why she’s running around having sex with nobles across Rome, unaccompanied by a chaperone, I have no idea, but she is a noblewoman, so someone is presumably in charge of her. This is Rome, after all.

Is there a central theme to this section? Maybe. We learned that Decimus is eager to get Julia married off and pregnant so that she will turn into a demure Roman woman and not risk the contagion of bad company (i.e. Arria and Octavia). But we also hear, again, that there is just something about Hadassah. Marcus senses it. Phoebe senses it.

The lesson here isn’t just Roman Julia contrasted to Christian Hadassah. It’s also wealthy, privileged Julia contrasted with battle-scarred, slave Hadassah. Hadassah has been through so much suffering—but then, suffering, as with poverty, is portrayed as a good thing. Hadassah had “a quiet humility gained through suffering,” remember? There’s also a line in there about how Hadassah goes above and beyond—she doesn’t just obey, she serves.

Consider the messages this book sent the teenage evangelical girls who read it when it was published in the 1990s. I remember wishing I had been through more, so that I would have more of a testimony—I remember almost resenting how easy my life was. I’d never been tested. I’d never experienced suffering, or pain, for my faith. There’s also the negative portrayal of ambition (Marcus) or a desire for happiness (Julia). It is in service, in giving of self without asking return, that contentment is found (Hadassah).

The central tension Hadassah faces is not a desire for freedom, or for a life of her own. It is in her shame over what she perceives as her cowardice—her failure to proselytize those around her. She is kind, she is gentle, she is selfless, there is something about her that people recognize—but she is not brave. She is scared. Reading this now, I want to reach through the pages and tell her that that is okay. She’s watched her mother, and her brother, and her sister, and her father die—and so many others. She has no reason to alienate or anger or distance her masters, or her fellow servants.

But then, that is not the message evangelicalism offers, with its focus on the gospel and salvation. If hearing about Jesus is all that stands between someone or hell, well, it’s no wonder Hadassah is wracked by inner turmoil.

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment