I was excited to see the “Mythic” square on this year’s bingo card. I do enjoy myths and there are so many excellent re-tellings out there, including Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles and Miller’s Circe. Penelope Haines’ Helen Had a Sister, like these other novels, takes a lesser known female character from the Trojan War/Iliad and gives us her story. This time, it’s Clytemnestra (aka Nestra), a Spartan princess, older sister to Helen, wife of Agamemnon, mother to Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. We know that Clytemnestra had an affair during the 10 years her husband was away at war, that she and her lover then murdered Agamemnon upon his victorious return, and that Orestes avenged his father’s death by committing matricide. It’s easy to forget that she was Helen’s sister, and one might wonder what kind of upbringing these women had and why they behaved as they did. Haines does a fine job of creating a backstory for Clytemnestra and her family, giving this character depth, intelligence, terrific leadership ability, a sense of justice, and a justifiable rage against injustice. Like Barker, Haines imagines a Greek world where people talk about the gods but deities are not real; they do not appear as characters but are objects of faith or perhaps superstition. This is a gritty, realistic world where politics, war, and human weaknesses drive the action.
Clytemnestra and Helen were the daughters of Spartan King Tyndareus and his wife Queen Leda. Although rumors say that Helen and her twin brother were actually sired by Zeus, anyone with any sense knew that that was just a silly story. Nestra is four years older than Helen and a beauty in her own right. I was glad to see that Haines didn’t turn good looks into a point of jealousy between the girls. They actually get along well and love each other, but they are quite different. They both are educated and trained in fighting, something that set Spartan girls apart from other girls in Greece, and at the age of 18, they took the test that allowed them to be registered as “citizens.” Helen, however, seems much more dreamy and boy crazy than Nestra. She imagines great romances and is drawn to Aphrodite, while Nestra is more practical and drawn to the huntress Artemis. When they are still children, two young men arrive at their father’s court — Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus. Relatives have slain their father, the King of Mycenae, and the two teens need refuge. They offer themselves as mercenaries to Tyndareus who takes a shine to them and makes them a part of his household until they can build up an army and reclaim their throne.
As the years pass, Nestra develops a love for Agamemnon which he returns. He tells her he means to ask for her hand, but he and Menelaus must fight for Mycenae first. While they are gone, Nestra turns 18 and her parents prepare to marry her off. Tyndareus and Leda have a loving marriage and their wish for their daughters is that they have the same. Consequently, each girl will have the final say in whom they marry. When Tyndareus sends out word that his eldest daughter is ready to marry, suitors from all over arrive to make their case for her affection. Nestra is furious when Agamemnon waits until the last minute to show up and just assumes he can have her. Leda has already expressed her concerns about Agamemnon to Nestra. She has seen how the man treats women slaves, but Nestra can’t believe he would treat her the same way. As if these flags weren’t enough, after they do marry and arrive in Mycenae, the priest/seer Calchas warns Agamemnon in a very public way that this marriage and Nestra will be his ruin. Nestra sees this as an overt political play by Calchas, who worries about being usurped in importance at the court now that there is a Queen there. Yet, with the passage of time, Nestra sees that her mother was right about Agamemnon, and that the man is not a great leader. He can be childlike, and when problems arise he spends more time looking for someone to blame than in taking responsibility and finding solutions. His anger issues and ego become more and more obvious to Nestra, but she finds ways to make her life enjoyable by getting involved with civic life, doting on her children, and trying to advise Agamemnon and manage the kingdom in his absence.
Both Nestra and Helen, who chose to marry Menelaus, end up in marriages where they have lost respect for their husbands. When Helen runs off with Paris to Troy, Nestra knows it’s because Helen was bored with her husband. She sees the problem that Helen has caused, though, and she sees that Agamemnon will use it to start a war with Troy that he has wanted for some time. Gods and goddesses will be used as excuses to do what is politically and economically expedient for Mycenae. When Agamemnon and the Greek armies depart, Clytemnestra is left behind as an able ruler for the kingdom. The people know and love her and her children, especially 15-year-old Iphigenia. Agamemnon earns Nestra’s hatred and that of his own people when he tricks Clytemnestra into sending Iphigenia to the port where they are camping before sailing for Troy. He says that Iphigenia will wed Achilles, but in fact, Calchas has said that Iphigenia must be sacrificed to the gods in order to get the winds to blow so that the armies can depart. When Nestra learns of her husband’s treachery, she swears a blood oath to kill him when he returns from Troy. During his 10-year absence, she continues to prove herself a good ruler, but her hatred does not diminish, and when Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus arrives unexpectedly at court, sparks fly. Aegisthus is the son of the man who murdered Agamemnon’s father and was himself used as a pawn in the civil war. Nestra is wary of him at first, but they seem destined for each other and share a hatred for Agamemnon. Mycenae and its people manage to get through the war in good shape, and so when Agamemnon returns and Clytemnestra acts on her oath, not many shed a tear for the man. Among those who do, however, are Nestra and Agamemnon’s surviving children, which will not bode well for Clytemnestra.
I very much liked the way Haines created the character of Clytemnestra. She is a strong willed, independent-minded woman, but she sees that to be a successful queen and for her own happiness she will need to figure out how to manage Agamemnon’s volatility and vanity. Her ability to put up with and sometimes explain away her husband’s violence toward her is painful to read. She doesn’t really hate him and can even still feel a strong bond of love for him until he allows their daughter to be murdered. Clytemnestra, who as a younger girl had little sympathy for or interest in slaves or common people, grows up to become a wise and compassionate ruler who understands that you earn your people’s love and support by caring for them. Some of her strongest supporters in her quest to fulfill her blood oath are the women who serve her at court and who have seen Agamemnon’s treatment of her. If you are interested in updated myths where the women characters get a chance to shine, Helen Had a Sister is worth a look.