BMCR 2020.09.08

The tragic life story of Medea as mother, monster, and muse

, The tragic life story of Medea as mother, monster, and muse. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020. xvii, 230 p.. ISBN 9781527541306. £61.99.


Despite the title, Jana Rivers Norton’s The Tragic Life Story of Medea as Mother, Monster and Muse is only tangentially about Medea. Rather the bulk of the book treats the lives and literature of early 20th century writers (Hilda Doolittle, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Ellen Glasgow, Adrienne Rich, Charlette Perkins Gilman, and Doris Lessing) and concludes with the author’s own life story. Medea is offered as the mythic prototype who represents the Muse for the tumultuous experiences that inspired the literary artists treated within the book. The problem is that Medea’s experiences, as portrayed in ancient literature, only apply to the writers discussed in the book loosely and sometimes not at all. Medea is effectively a hook offered to bring readers to the monograph.

Caveat lector: the discussion of this celebrated ancient literary persona in the Preface and Introduction is not founded on a deep understanding of the character or on significant research for that matter. In the opening of the Preface, Medea is called a “love-sick maiden who suffers from unrequired love and devotion,” the “esteemed daughter of King Aeetes,” who is “highly skilled in the art of alchemy and can revitalize dead and mutilated flesh” (ix). The introductory summary offers no mention of her being a wife, mother or stepmother, though all but the last are eventually touched upon. If anything, Medea was the much-feared daughter of Aeetes, with Apollonius’ representation in Book 3 of the Argonauticain mind, and there is no mention in Archaic, Classical, or Hellenistic literature of her dabbling in alchemy, a practice that began in Greco-Roman Egypt in the first centuries CE. References to the Argonautic myth, in fact, come mostly from “Jason and the Golden Fleece” as told in Donna Rosenberg’s World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics3 (Lincolnwood IL 1999).

Medea is also said to be “consumed by a monstrous mentality” (x), a theme reflected in the title of the book. I find two problems with this description. First, I think it unfair to reduce Medea, even if a fictional character, to the status of a monster, a creature lacking humanity. The murder of her own children was the shocking result of the extreme victimization of a woman, a foreigner and an intellectual facing homelessness, to recall Euripides’ conception of her tragedy. Her filicide parallels other instances of women living in unbearable circumstances, a syndrome today known as Parental Alienation Syndrome, as duly noted on pages 5-6. I would not denote her understandably broken mental state as monstrous, but tragic and all too human. Secondly, I would not characterize the writers, the real focus of the book, as monstrous by association. Rivers Norton overreaches in citing Medea as a model, something that she herself acknowledges when she finally announces the focus of her book on page 14: “Yet, unlike Medea, who fails in many versions of the myth, to transcend her misfortune as a part of her imaginal autobiography, the female artisans within this book, though facing relational hardships, as well as artistic disenfranchisement as a part of their journey toward individuation, successfully emancipate themselves from the undervalued relational, historical, social, and cultural constructs of gender, culture and class.”

What follows in the body of the book is “A Crisis of Identity in Four Dramatic Acts.” Act I: Medea as helper maiden and muse. “Unlike the mythic Medea, H.D. transforms experiences of misogyny to validate her own identity as female artisan …” Millay, “alike Pindar’s portrayal of Medea as muse” (Rivers Norton uses “alike” for “like” throughout the book), is compared to Metis, goddess of wisdom, and not Medea, in her struggle against the “male based hierarchy of modernist expression.” Act II: Medea as mother. “(A) true to life sign of the inconsistencies of mothering attachments in the life and works of poet Louise Bogan (who) … discovers expressive restitution, as well as reconciliation with her past, through the daemonic in art.” Medea found no reconciliation. Act III: Divorce. “(T)he destabilizing role of marriage and separation, found in circumstances of parental alienation and dread (as) depicted in the writngs of novelist Ellen Glasgow.” Act IV: “(A) reflective dialogue guided by the themes of magic, monsters and mental illness, and its prevalence in the formation of early psychiatry, and embodied within the mother-daughter bond and its autobiographical renderings of three literary daughters,” as seen in the work of Adrienne Rich, Charlette Perkins Gilman, and Doris Lessing. The book concludes with Rivers Norton’s “journey of recovery from the woundedness of a mother’s ravenous wrath and withdrawal, to gain insight and vitality through a daughter’s reimagination of the monstrous as mythic restoration” (pp. 15-16).

Although from the perspective of a Classicist, the book fails to deliver on the topic of its title, I became more interested as I realized that, while The Tragic Life Story of Medea as Mother, Monster and Muse is not about Medea, it examines how painful familial and other emotional traumas can result in exquisite art, a topic I find perennially fascinating. Kierkegaard’s magnificent articulation of the poetic artist in Either/Or came to mind as I read the book: “What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful’.”

Since I am not a scholar of early 20th century American literature and have limited space for the review, I’ll confine my comments to the discussion of Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) to underscore my take on the book: weakness in its purported relevance of Medea but strength in teasing out the anguish in the works of the writers. According to Rivers Norton, H.D. is like Medea who experienced betrayal, marginalization and exile (p. 17), but was “unlike” her as she “discovered universal truths and luminosity of life as revealed to her within the matriarchal traditions of her own familial and cultural contexts” (p. 18). Further along in her discussion, the only connection between the story of Nephele and Athamas, included on p. 21, involves the tree on which the fleece was hung and the Doolittle Christmas tree—an unnecessary stretch, to say the least. H.D. wanted to marry Ezra Pound, already a proven womanizer, but her parents refused, so like Medea she faced the decision to betray her family (p. 26). And yet, rather than choosing Pound, she opted for writing and nonconformity in a lesbian relationship with Francis Gregg. The connection with Medea is tenuous, and the characterization of Medea, both as rushing to Chalciope’s room and as not knowing of her sister’s fear for her children, contradicts the account in Apollonius’ epic. These errors are all the more surprising because in this case Rivers Norton looked at Seaton’s antiquated translation of the Argonautica (p. 25).[1]

H.D. eventually separated from Gregg and moved to London, where Pound assisted in developing her career through important introductions. But “H.D. was a young woman seeking a lover, even a father figure, who would complete her inner need for wholeness and approval. Pound had played that role and she had responded to his charms and charisma only to be rejected for the love of another” (p. 29). Rather than being crushed, as Medea was by Jason’s abandonment, “Pound was her awakening, the ‘scorpionic sting or urge’ that got her away from the very domestic safety that began to confine her” (p. 30). This experience allowed her to find herself, reject Pound, and marry Richard Aldington, an open marriage and a relationship examined in her novels Asphodel and Paint it Today (p. 33). Aldington’s extramarital affair led to the anguished poem “The Islands,” which evokes not Medea but Ariadne, though it is fair to say that the connection between the tragic heroines was made in antiquity by both Apollonius and Catullus (pp. 34-35). H.D.’s experiences, rather than resulting in self-annihilating filicide, led to a positive urge to articulate the personal devastation in her life. Rivers Norton leads me to find in H.D. “an unhappy woman who hides deep anguish in her heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.”

As Rivers Norton’s account of H.D.’s work makes clear, the writer often turned to classical themes as a way of dealing with emotional trauma, as in her translations of Euripides (Hippolytus Temporizes, 1927 and Ion 1932). Rather than embarking on “the journey of a darkened Medea,” (p. 49), H.D. affirms herself as a writer with agency in “Helen” (1923), “Calypso” (1938), and the epic Helen in Egypt (1952), in which, according to Rivers Norton, she rejects a male definition of women as seen in her relationships with Pound (Menelaus), Aldington (Paris) and D.H. Lawrence (Achilles). “To birth a new self, H.D. as Helen must shed the old skin of patriarchal brutality and control, hence a false self, ruled by a Medea-like failure to return to her motherland, for a divine renewal of the feminine spirit and reconciliation with her historic and mythic past” (p. 53). This connection with Medea escapes me, especially as Medea was said to return to Colchis after an eventual failed sojourn in Athens, restoring the deposed Aeetes to the throne (summarized at Apollodorus 1.9.28).[2] More important than any specious connections with Medea, as I read this chapter, the representation of freedom from “patriarchal brutality and control” emerges as the lovely music that comes from anguish in the heart. In this, as in the other accounts of the artists described in this book, Rivers Norton writes a moving narrative of women whose prose and verse express their intense personal conflict in such a way that, like Kierkegaard’s imagined audience, I too say “Sing again soon.” As a result of reading The Tragic Life Story of Medea as Mother, Monster and Muse, I want to learn more about, and to read the works of, the authors whose lives Rivers Norton presents with such loving detail.

The book fails to provide “a life story of Medea,” as suggested by its title. When dealing with the real topic, more often than not Rivers Norton states “unlike Medea,” which undermines her general thesis. The monograph is also replete with typos; the editor(s) did not serve the author’s interest nor that of their own production well. And yet, I enjoyed reading the book and learned much from it. Rivers Norton offers a poignant narrative of women who survived trauma through literature, a narrative that reflects her own profound experiences, the reason why she was drawn to the writers included in the book and why she can speak from personal authority.


[1] Cited from the on-line Internet Classics Archive.

[2] Ellen Glasgow’s book Barren Ground more closely parallels Medea’s experience, with clear references to the myth, including a cheating husband named Jason, attempted murder, flight to New York (= Athens) and return to her father (pp. 156-63). But here too, different from Medea, “(b)y mid-life, Glasgow’s ability to write through suffering, (sic) enabled her to see the imagination as a transformative source of insight and growth” (p. 162).