The Bearkeeper's Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The protagonist of The Bearkeeper's Daughter is John, illegitimate son of the Byzatine Empress Theodora. Bradshaw bases his figure on the writings of the historian Procopius, whose Secret History contains much material, mostly discredited, about the emperor Justinian and his time. According to Procopius, John was ordered killed by the empress, but Bradshaw's fictional account leaves him alive and eminently successful at the end of the narrative. Actually John is an excellent choice for the novel's central character. His ambiguous position, close to the inner circle of rule but outside of it, makes him an ideal observer and commentator. A man of many talents, John takes a job as secretary to the head chamberlain of the court, where his accounting and shorthand skills, and his command of several languages, make him an instant success. Later in the novel, he demonstrates his skilled horsemanship, and when called upon to command a military operation, performs capably. He is reticent to expose his true identity, since it might impugn the reputation of the empress, and this tends to restrain him in discourse. In fact his conversations reveal more about others than about himself. Even when he falls in love he is unable to express his genuine feelings.

The two women in John's life are more sharply characterized. Bradshaw gives a detailed portrait of the Empress Theodora. A woman who overcomes a notorious past as courtesan and actress to reign in regal splendor, Theodora is both admirable and despicable. Even her son admits at her death that he loves her as his mother but must despise her as a tyrant. She demands humiliating obeisance from her subjects; all must approach her on knees and kiss her extended foot. She shows extreme favoritism in her political influence and is capable of inflicting cruel punishment when angered. On the other hand, she takes an almost childish delight in the ceremony and regalia of her role. She loves riding in her gilded chariot, wearing her imperial purple cloak, and her eyes glitter with pleasure when the people on the streets shout their acclaim. This remarkable woman faces death heroically, making a secret of the illness that is rapidly killing her.

The other woman who is important to John is Euphemia, a young aristocrat who treats him with arrogant disdain. John, however, falls in love with her, although he is unable to tell her of his feelings. She is depicted as nervous and rarely at ease. The fact that her father is a disgraced official makes her position in society difficult. She possesses valuable files left behind...

(The entire section is 654 words.)