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Psappha: A Novel of Sappho
By Peggy Ullman Bell
ISBN: 0970127499

Review by: Rebecca Basham

  1/1/04

Psappha: A Novel of Sappho by Peggy Ullman Bell recounts the life of Sappho in all of its glory and misery. Beginning with Psapha’s early exile from Mytilene for being outspoken in the land of a despot, Pittakos the Tyrant of Lesbos, Psappha travels the stormy seas to a land where women are placed in “Gynakeon” or harems and stripped of all of the freedoms of Lesbos where “Lesbian women live free while you can’t trust yours in the company of men.”

While Bell maintains significant historical accuracy, the works of Sappho are not necessarily the focus of her novel. Instead, one is introduced to Sappho’s works in the fragments available to modern scholars as a subplot of the life of this character. Her journeys lead to marriage and childbirth while interred in the gynakeon as well as her introduction to spirituality and sexual relations with other women of the gynakoi. Most importantly, Psappha is introduced to homosexuality through her male servant, Lycos, and then an African Warrior Queen, Gongyla. The novel chronicles the development of schools for women developed by Psappha to promote Lesbian freedom in a foreign country, and her success at educating the women of prestigious families. Following Psappha’s success, she is invited home by the same tyrant who threw her out because he needs her name as a poet and teacher to bolster his reputation. Psappha returns triumphantly to Lesbos with her daughter, her lover, Gongyla, and her servant to develop other schools. There, she is swayed by the beauty of a female dancer and has an affair. Her lover, the African Queen, leaves and returns to the bush. Quickly, Psappha realizes her mistake and follows “Gyla” to reclaim their love. Unfortunately, they are reunited only briefly because Poseidon cannot handle the love and beauty of Psapha’s verse or happiness. When the angry god claims Gyla’s life with a violent earthquake, Psappha leaps from a cliff to join her lover in eternal union.

It is a crowning achievement that Bell skillfully manages to make this a novel of popular fiction concerning lesbianism that does not cross the line into pornography or pulp. The story, while of alternative sexuality and indeed what most consider the roots of lesbianism, has a riveting plot that propels the reader towards the understanding of a culture not their own and the background of an important historical figure who deserves much more attention. Bell does not rely on stereotypes or tired clichés of homosexuality to tell the story of Sappho; instead, she relies on the talent of a true writer to tell the story of an enduring love and an impressive and important life.

 



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