Winter Quarters by Alfred Duggan follows the adventures of two Celtic warrior nobles during the last days of the Roman Republic. Acco and Camul travel across the Roman World, from Gaul to Parthia and beyond.
The curse of the nymph goddess
At the beginning of the novel, Acco brings a curse upon himself and must flee from the “nymph goddess” he has offended. This goddess takes the forms of several goddesses from the Mediterranean world: the Celtic three mothers, the Roman Bona Dea, the Syrian Mother goddess, Astarte or Ashtaroth.
At Rome, a false Druid explains to Acco “So the Goddess is Bona Dea, and Vesta, and of course Hecate of the three shapes and perhaps Diana as well. I don’t know about Isis, but Juno and Minerva are just satellites of Skyfather”. [pg 85]
As they travel around the Roman world, Acco and Camul encounter various religious traditions and speak widely to different characters to find out more about this goddess. It seems that the goddess is not always openly worshipped. Her rites are secret and bloody. Women look after these traditions and keep them separate from the knowledge of men. The male gods (the Skyfather) and benign female gods (such as Athena) have pasted over this more ancient figure, but have not overcome her completely. Such a reading was likely based on The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
The nature of cross cultural syncretism is now questioned by several scholars of ancient religions who stress that although ancient texts discuss the links between deities, local dieties continued to be worshipped and linked deities were not always consistent. Isis could be Demeter or Aphrodite for example, but both Demeter and Isis were individually worshipped in the same communities.
In the narrative world in which the novel is set however, it is impossible to escape this goddess’ grasp.
The first time I heard about Alfred Duggan was in a Five Books interview with Adrienne Mayor. I had assumed that Alfred Duggan would be a popular writer of historical fiction, little read today because fashions have changed. Instead what I found was meticulous researched and psychological insightful fiction which bounces along at a good rate.
Alfred Duggan was born in Buenos Aires in 1903 and moved to England at 2. Well monied through his late father and well connected through his mother’s second marriage to Lord Curzon, he was at times a rake, a marxist and a Catholic. His first foray into literature was in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time which described his expulsion from Eton. At Oxford he was the centre of the fast crowd, protected by his connections to Lord Curzon. Evelyn Waugh writes of his early friend ” Of all my contemporaries he seemed one of the least likely to succeed”.
He wrote his first novel at 47. Between Oxford and this novel, he had travelled extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean helping at archeological digs. It was this travel which grounds his novels in realistic detail. From 1950 until his death at 61 in 1964, he published roughly a novel a year.
Yet he never received his audience. A New York Times review says of him “he has been too clever for the tastes of most”. In many ways this fate was unfair. The historical details in the novels inform the plot but do not overpower the narrative flow. The characters inhabit the worlds in which they live, they struggle against the limits prescribed to them by circumstance and question the contemporary morals from the viewpoints of their own backgrounds. All this was informed by a deep knowledge of the periods of which Duggan wrote and an insight into human nature, possibly, gleaned from his dissipate days.
He deserves rediscovery or at the very least a Netflix series based on one of his books.
A ripping read and real page turner. This books stands up there with books by Robert Graves, Gore Vidal and others.