In the first week of the March lockdown, while the rest of the country was frantically learning how to bake sourdough bread and working out with Joe Wicks, Natalie Haynes was translating Ovid.
“I didn’t know who I would see again or when… What could I do to make myself feel better?” she tells me, admitting that this is possibly “not an entirely normal response”. “Perhaps if I just translate these 21 poems of Ovid and make videos about them, everything will be alright.”
That weekly video series, entitled Ovid Not Covid, lasted five months and took viewers through The Heroides: a book of love letters from the great mythological heroines to the heroes who abandoned them.
The subject matter is not exactly cheery – the stories of many of the women end in suicide, and in one case (Medea, one of Haynes’ personal favourites) infanticide. But finding the fun in tales of war, murder, sexual violence and tragedy is nothing new for a woman who has made her name fusing classics with comedy. Haynes was the first woman to be nominated for the Edinburgh Best Newcomer Award and spent years as a professional stand-up after her degree in classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Today, she is probably best known for her critically acclaimed BBC Radio 4 show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up For The Classics. Six seasons in, with a seventh due to be broadcast in May, Haynes has made it her mission to introduce the British public to the ancient world in a way that combines academic analysis with humour.
Until recently, the show has focused on historical figures: Plato, Virgil, and of course the “problematic” Ovid – a man whom Haynes unapologetically adores, not least for his unexpected flair for telling stories from a female perspective (“an act of literary transvestism”, as she puts it). But in the interest of gender balance, the 2020 series turned towards myth, putting some of antiquity’s greatest heroines under the literary microscope.
These women are also the inspiration for Haynes’ latest book, Pandora’s Jar, published last October, shortly before England went into its second lockdown. As the title hints (the famed “box” is likely a mistranslation), it’s an attempt to rescue the narratives of the women excluded from or demonised by centuries of classical reception: Pandora, on whom all the evils of the world are blamed; Helen, used throughout Western literature as a byword for feminine fecklessness or dismissed as just a pretty face; Medea, the woman behind Jason’s triumphant quest for the Golden Fleece, whose part is all but written out in subsequent retellings. But this isn’t about imposing a postmodern, feminist lens onto ancient texts – it’s a return to the texts themselves, which are far more comfortable with complex female characters than we give them credit for.
“I often found that their patriarchy seemed less egregious than ours in lots of ways,” Haynes admits, though she is quick to clarify that if offered the chance to live in another era she would give the ancient world a miss (“You know what I like? Medicine. A vote. Plumbing”). “They are extremely misogynistic societies, and yet we find the stories you get are much more nuanced than the later versions we find in societies that have absolutely no excuse.”
She is scathing about the way classical women have been erased over the centuries, not least because it does such a disservice to ancient writers who were fascinated by imagining the world through female eyes. She points out that, of the eight plays Euripides wrote about the Trojan War, seven have female title characters; that the Helen of Greek drama is clever and funny; that Dido in book four of Virgil’s Aeneid is the best role in the poem and has more lines than Aeneas. What went wrong?
“You go through this terrible decrease of women’s representation on screen and on stage, which is only really just now changing. It’s extraordinary when you look at how many lines people have: even the film Frozen [which has two female leads] doesn’t give the majority of lines to female characters. That is a dispiriting moment, that Virgil can do it but Disney can’t.”
Not that Haynes isn’t a fan of Disney – she enthuses about the 1997 cartoon Hercules, dismissing the substantial plot changes. “There’s no such thing as an original version, I feel like I’ve spent my whole life saying that. I have no problem with Philoctetes being Danny DeVito… My question always is: did you love this story when you were telling it? And the answer literally sings off the screen with Disney: yes. They’re clearly massive classics nerds.”
Haynes is passionate about inspiring a new generation of “classics nerds”, whether that’s through her books and radio show or encouraging classics in schools (“teenagers are so close to people in Greek tragedy”, she jokes – hopefully in reference to their heightened emotions, rather than propensity for poor decisions). And for adults who may have missed out on the opportunity, her message is it’s never too late. “The number of people who have made it through life somehow feeling that they weren’t good enough for classics, that is heart-breaking and unforgivable. Classics waits for all of us.”
So maybe now, stuck at home midway through a third lockdown, is the perfect moment to rediscover classics, not just as a worthy intellectual pursuit but for the joy it offers. Everyone has their own form of escapism and Haynes admits she avoided anything remotely anxiety-inducing at the start of the pandemic, but for her, the death and violence of classical literature isn’t depressing – it’s inspiring.
“Beautiful literature should transport us, shouldn’t it? That’s what great poetry is.”
If the popularity of her Ovid Not Covid series is anything to go by, others agree. Thousands of people joined her in finding solace in the classics, waiting each week for a new video about an abandoned Greek heroine. She isn’t sure she would have got through the first lockdown without it.
“The idea that people were waiting, with a cup of tea and biscuit, for an Ovid poem, I can live in that world. Even in a pandemic, that makes it seem better.”
[see also: How Augustus rebuilt Rome]