Susan Stokes-Chapman, author of Pandora, tells Historia why the Regency period is the perfect era for a retelling of a Greek myth – and how she went about unboxing it for her debut novel.
As someone whose knowledge of Greek mythology went no farther than one module on the subject at university in 2004, I’m as far a cry from being a classicist as I am from understanding quantum physics. Still, the myth of Pandora’s box has been known to me for as long as I can remember.
It is, after all, a tale we all know well without really realising it: Pandora, the first human woman created by Zeus, was given a box and told not to open it, but opened it anyway, unleashing all the evils of the world and leaving Hope trapped inside. But until I started researching the myth, that’s all I knew.
Let’s back-track. One of the questions I am asked so often is why Georgian London? Why transport the myth into the 18th century when I could as easily have set the novel in Ancient Greece?
Well, aside from the fact I am not – as already established – a classicist, and therefore woefully ill-equipped to write such a novel, I was head-over-heels for the Georgians, particularly the Regency period.
The 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice began my love affair with the era – it was the elegance, the simplicity of it (bear in mind I was only ten years old at the time and not yet familiar with the seedier side of Georgian history) which drew me irrevocably in, and that initial impression came from my admiration of the fashions of the time.
The events of Pandora play out over the first few months of 1799. The formal Regency era was from 1811 to 1820, but the period from 1795 to 1837 – which includes the latter part of George III‘s reign and of his sons George IV and William IV – is also regarded as the Regency era.
So, Pandora is set on the cusp of it, with women’s fashions already changing from full skirts to more sedate and graceful designs known as ‘Empire’ style. These were high-waisted gowns, dresses which gathered under the breasts and at the neck; dresses remarkably similar to the clothing worn in Ancient Greece.
Traditionally Grecian clothes were made of wool or linen; sheets or blankets which were assembled on the body into dresses and tunics. The style was loose yet flattering on the figure, and was snazzed up with intricate hairstyles and striking accessories, many featuring a geometric or nature-themed pattern.
Similarly, material for Regency era gowns tended to be soft and lightweight, typically made of muslin. Colours ranged from shades of white, with pastels worn for daytime and darker colours in the form of a trim, shawl or overlaying fabric worn at night.
Outfits were finished off with beautiful and elegant jewellery, gold generally being the preferred choice of metal because it appeared best under candlelight. Combined with sparkling gemstones, the simplicity of the gowns were offset to perfection.
Designs inspired by nature were extremely popular, and a cameo was often a favourite adornment. Cameos – typically oval in shape, consisting of a picture carved in relief on a background of a different colour – tended to show a profile of a person or a detailed scene. Many of these scenes were taken from Grecian myth.
The Georgian era was also characterised by its classical architecture, much of it inspired by Ancient Greece in one form or another. The dominant style of 18th-century buildings evolved from the Palladian revival, a European architectural style derived from and inspired by the designs of Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). His work took the values of the classical temples of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and became known as ‘Palladianism’, a style which continued to develop until the end of the 18th century.
By the middle of the century the movement broadened, incorporating a greater range of classical influences which was eventually dubbed as ‘Neoclassicism’. It was heavily influenced by Sir William Hamilton‘s excavations at Pompeii, as well as the aristocratic tradition of the Grand Tour.
One of the more defining features of Neoclassicism seen on many Georgian buildings are columns of which there are three kinds: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These can be seen flanking grand entrances, and a perfect example is the original entrance to the Society of Antiquaries at its old location, Somerset House.
Grecian elements were also evident in the smaller details. If you look closely, many buildings have ornamental mouldings and balustrades which echo those found on ancient Greek temples.
Architects weren’t the only ones inspired by the Ancient Greeks; even the Romantic poets took their inspiration from Greek myth. How could we forget Shelley’s famous line, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” from Ozymandias, Lord Byron’s Prometheus, or Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn? Which brings me now on to Greek antiquity specifically.
Understanding, then, that the Ancient Greeks were so popular with the Georgians, it was surprisingly easy to link these two periods of history. We have an answer now to the ‘why’ of before, but you might also ask how I made the connection.
It’s a common mistake to assume the mythical Pandora released all worldly evils from a box. It’s the actual name of the myth, after all: Pandora’s Box. However, on disappearing down a Google rabbit-hole I discovered that Pandora’s box was never a box at all, but a vase.
It turns out that ‘box’ was a mistranslation, courtesy of the 16th-century philosopher Erasmus. When he translated Hesiod’s tale of Pandora into Latin, the word pithos (a large storage jar, or, vase) was translated into the Latin word pyxis, meaning, you guessed it, ‘box’.
As such the term ‘Pandora’s Box’ came into being and has endured ever since… which intrigued me. I’d never heard of this before. I decided to dig a little deeper (archaeological pun intended) into the myth for more details.
I started with typical online sources. www.greekmythology.com was a good one, as was www.theoi.com. I found an excellent book dedicated to how the Pandora myth had been represented and misrepresented in literature and art by Dora and Erwin Panofsky: Pandora’s Box: the Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol.
But it was the more light-hearted Mythos by Stephen Fry that gave me a more generalised account that somehow still felt thorough – all those random bits of information gleaned from various sources packaged into one tale that made sense – and it was this version of the myth I ended up using in my novel, whilst still acknowledging that there were different ways the legend could be interpreted.
Each of the sources I looked at confirmed the canister which the mythical Pandora opened was indeed a vase, not a box. It was this fact alone that allowed me to place her into the 18th century.
The aforementioned William Hamilton loved his Greek vases, having collected many of them during his 35 years living in Naples. He’d sold off a lot of his collection in 1771, only to start collecting again until, in 1798 when a French invasion seemed imminent, he decided to pack off his second vase collection to England for safety.
Ironically, some of this collection went down with the naval ship HMS Colossus off the Scilly Isles, never to be recovered in Hamilton’s lifetime… according to historical sources.
This is where creative licence comes into play. As a writer, it’s hard not to ask: “what if?” What if Pandora’s vase was real? What if it had been excavated from an ancient temple, buried by a flood years before? What if it had somehow found itself on board a ship, and then at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean? And what would have happened if it had been brought to the surface and made its way into the hands of a deceitful salesman?
These are all questions I wanted to answer in my novel, Pandora, and I shall leave it up to you to decide if I’ve been successful or not.
- The creation of Pandora by the Niobid Painter, c460–450 BC, detail from calyx-krater (vase), British Museum: Sebastià Giralt for Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
- Plate from Gallery of Fashion, vol iv: April 1, 1797 – March 1, 1798: Metropolitan Museum via Picryl (public domain)
- Joséphine de Beauharnais by Andrea Appiani, c1808, wearing cameo jewellery: Wikimedia (public domain)
- Somerset House, entrance from the Strand, outside the old entrance to the Society of Antiquaries, by James Petts: Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Pithos, Crete, c675 BC, Louvre CA4523: Jastrow for Wikimedia (public domain)
- Sir William Hamilton by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1777: Picryl (public domain)