Historical Context of Mara, Daughter of the Nile

The germ of this story is a strange sequence of events which took place between 1510 and 1456 BC — nearly 3500 years ago. The trouble with events so distant is that all we have left of them is a skimpy residue of clues. We have evidence of happenings, but no records of them, and we can only guess at the human motives behind them. We have hints, sometimes provocative, sometimes baffling; but we have no facts.

Egyptologists have for years been piecing together such hints and clues in an attempt to arrive at a solution of the mystery of the Thutmosid succession, but each scholar's explanation differs from all the others. This book is not an attempt on my part to give yet another answer; if any Egyptologists are listening I beg them not to accuse me of rushing in where they themselves so warily tread. I am not saying, "This is how it happened." I am not even saying, "This is how it might have happened" — though for all anyone knows, it might. I am only saying, "What if it had happened this way?"

. . . History, therefore, has served only as a springboard for a work of fiction. I cannot claim to have written truth; in fact, I wish to make very clear that I do not claim it. But within the limits of this novel and these characters, I hope I have written truly.

Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Foreword to Pharaoh, 1958

Although this foreword was written for her novel Pharaoh, it applies to her earlier novel, Mara, Daughter of the Nile, as well. In reviews of Mara, casual conversations, and even in the comments on the join form for this very fanlisting, one thing comes up over and over again: "But you know, Hatshepsut wasn't really like that in real life." It is as though people feel they must excuse themselves for liking a book that portrayed Hatshepsut as a villain, as if that were the only notable thing within the book. Often, people blame the author, as though she were writing today and simply chose to ignore modern scholarly analyses of Hatshepsut's reign in favor of a "sexist" portrayal. Thus, in this section I would like to defend Eloise Jarvis McGraw, and demonstrate that any "historical innaccuracies" should not be attributed to poor research, but to the time period during which she was writing.

It's very easy for modern readers, with all of our "up-to-date" knowledge, to look back on a novel written 57 years ago (at the time of this writing) and see what's wrong with it. But what we need to take into consideration is that this book was written in 1953. Egyptology (or even archaeology in general) did not begin to emerge as a major field of study until the 19th century; what we would consider acceptable scientific techniques of study did not become common within the field until around the beginning of the 20th century. When you combine this with the fact that history was an almost entirely male-dominated field, it's little surprise that the portrait of Hatshepsut painted by the historical texts in the 1950s would be very different from the one we see now—we simply did not have enough information, and the information that was available was skewed by the prejudices of scholars. As Christiana Koehler, professor at Macquarie University, Sydney, stated, "Just as she might have been subjected to the prejudices of a predominantly male royal court culture during and after her lifetime, Hatshepsut’s historiography has equally suffered from the tangible, underlying gender biases expressed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, which may make any historiographical assertions about her rule more revealing of the prejudices afflicting scholarship at different points in time than of the actual nature and significance of Hatshepsut's rule on the throne of the pharaohs." (Source)

Indeed, in the same article, Koehler points out that Hatshepsut "has traditionally been viewed as a schemer who usurped the throne and had a disastrous reign." It was not until relatively recently (Koehler cites a work published in 1996, although my own studies about the historiography of Hatshepsut indicate that scholarly opinion about the pharaoh began to shift in the 1970s—20 years after Mara was published) that this opinion began to be seriously questioned by the academic community. With this in mind, is it any wonder that Hatshepsut was characterized as she was in Mara? Does not this traditional perception of Hatshepsut, as described by Koehler, sound awfully similar to the woman we encountered in Mara?

From reading her other historical novels, it is clear that Eloise Jarvis McGraw did a lot of research before she wrote. As someone who studied Egypt as a history major in college, it is remarkable to me how perfectly EJM nailed what life was like in New Kingdom Egypt—from clothing to architecture, religion, even the language reflects someone who had a very thorough understanding of what it was like to live in ancient Egypt. Thus, I find it frustrating to see her and the novel picked apart for "historical inaccuracy," when the novel was in fact very historically accurate—for the period in which it was written. Really, the only "inaccuracy" that puzzles me is Thutmose being referred to as her half-brother when he was her stepson. This detail was fixed in her novel Pharaoh five years later, however, indicating that she was clearly continuing her research past the time she wrote Mara, and keeping up on the latest research on the subject as it was being published.

But really, all of this accusing and defending really is senseless, because I think we are all missing the point here, the point EJM so eloquently explained in her foreword to Pharaoh: this is a work of fiction. The question should not be, "Is this how it really happened?" but rather, "What if it happened this way?" The problem with historical fiction is that, often, we focus too much on the "historical" and not enough on the "fiction." I believe that this is what EJM was trying to explain in her foreword to Pharaoh; perhaps, even in 1958, she was already feeling the pressure from an audience that expected her fiction to serve as a replacement for historical study. I can't help but wonder if her words here were not written only with Pharaoh in mind, but if she desired to make a point about her earlier work as well.

No one can deny that Mara is an incredibly well-written and engaging story. (Indeed, at the time of this writing, the novel has 168 positive reviews and only 5 negatives on Amazon, indicating how highly most people think of this book.) We should enjoy it for what it is: a novel with a strong heroine, a unique love story, an exciting and fast-paced plot, a fascinatingly realistic setting, and supporting characters that are just as engaging as the heroine and the hero. These are the things that we should remember about Mara, because these qualities are the true aspects of note about the book.

* If you'd like to read more about the historiography of the reign of Hatshepsut, I recommend:
Hatshepsut: Queen of Egypt by Christiana Koehler
Hatshepsut: Wicked Stepmother or Joan of Arc? by Peter F. Dorman
Hatshepsut: The Queen That Would Be King by Elizabeth B. Wilson
A Woman's View of Hatshepsut's History by Jone Johnson Lewis