Right then, I’ve been putting this off, not wanting to seem grumpy or ungracious, but the fact is I’m grumpy and ungracious as hell about it …
So. It has come to my attention (ok, I googled Stella Duffy + Theodora) that some people find the use of profanity/cussing/swear words in Theodora a little much. Excessive. Too rude. Unnecessary.
This didn’t come up in any of the UK press/mainstream reviews but been mentioned in a couple of recent UK and US blogs talking about the book.
And honestly, I really wouldn’t usually respond; you like the book, you don’t, I’m glad you read it, I hope you enjoy it, thank you for buying it, but there’s no accounting for taste, and none of us can (or should) write to second-guess the market. I can only write as well as I can and on an idea I believe in/care about, doing so to the best of my ability at the time I do the work. (While hoping I’ll get better with age and practice!)
But … the question has been asked, would the characters really have sworn this much in those days?
And the answer, dear readers, is yes. Yes they would. People have always sworn, cussed, cursed, profaned, blasphemed. It’s what human beings do. There wouldn’t be a commandment about it if they didn’t, there’d have been no need. Some more than others. Some more readily than others. But yes, people swear. Some people, in some occupations, swear more readily than others.
I’m guessing, if you’re a sex-worker (as Theodora may have been in reality, and is in my book) then yes, you and your colleagues may swear a little more than the average judge. (Then again, thinking of judges I have known …) Theodora was also a performer, a comedian, a dancer. Do those people, in my experience, swear? Again, yes.
Is it appropriate to say ‘making love’ when a twelve year old girl is about to engage in paid-for sex for the first time? I’d say not.
Would a dwarf madam in a theatre company/travelling brothel use the words cunt and fuck? Well yes, I rather think she would.
I want to write realistically, I want to write truthfully. (I may not always succeed, I may not always be good enough, that’s a different matter.) I don’t think swearing is either big or clever, but I do think it’s realistic.
This is Constantinople in the 6th century. When murderers are sentenced, if the judge is feeling lenient, they are blinded or maimed instead of hanged for murder and other severe crimes. Boy are sold by their families to be made eunuchs. Girls are sold as sex slaves for the price of a pair of sandals. These people are ROMANS. Decimation, crucifiction, wholescale invasion … they were highly skilled at the lot. And in these very last days of Rome, where they are trying to hold on to the last vestige of the Empire, from Constantinople, tensions are running even higher. Thirty thousand people may have been slaughtered, on the Emperor’s behalf, in the Nika rebellion. Churches, hospitals, the Senate, the Baths – all were burned to the ground by rioting Constantinopolitans. I’m guessing they didn’t say “bother” when an ember jumped from the flames and landed on a foot. I’m guessing soldiers and builders and dock workers and actors and firemen and anybody working a tense and exacting job were as skilled blasphemers then as now. I’m guessing they had way juicier swear words in old Illyrian, Thracian, Syriac, Aramaic, Greek and Latin than we’ll ever know. I had to make do with Anglo Saxon, it’ll do very nicely.

(Meanwhile … the profanity loathers might be pleased to hear that I think these characters swear a little less in the sequel. Well, it’s mostly set in court, in the Palace, in Church, so I’ve gone with time and place and all that – and anyway, everyone knows kings and queens and courtiers and politicians and churchmen don’t swear at all. Ever. Right?)