A Meeting of Minds: Amelia and Bethesda (first in an occasional series)

Am I the only one old enough to remember Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds? It aired on PBS from 1976 to 1981, and each episode featured guests who were historical characters from diverse periods in history (played by actors, of course). For example, the first episode brought together Teddy Roosevelt, Cleopatra, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Paine. Quite a diverse group!

crocodile on the sandbankJust as Steve Allen’s scripts brought together greats separated by time and geography, I have often fancied the idea of bringing together fictional characters from different authors, enjoying the thought of their virtual tea parties. The first such pairing that occurred to me was the meeting of two strong-minded women from different periods of history: Amelia Peabody, featured in the Egyptian novels of Elizabeth Peters, which begin during the 1880s, and Bethesda, the companion of Steven Saylor‘s Roman detective Gordianus. I have often speculated on how interesting it would be to construct a parallel series to the Gordianus books, narrated from the distaff point of view. Bethesda would make an interesting narrator!

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters or the first two novels of the Gordianus series (Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis), hasten at once to repair those deficiencies and only then read this post.

The novels narrated by the indomitable Amelia Peabody display a heroine whose intelligence and strong independent streak enable her to rise beyond the feminine conventions of her day, working side by side with her husband, Emerson, on their archaeological digs. Nonetheless, her sensibilities remain firmly entrenched in Victorian culture and mores, during the early books, at least.

roman bloodIn the novels of Gordianus, on the other hand, Bethesda remains on the sidelines, an enigmatic and elusive, though intriguing, presence, her character filtered through Gordianus’s male sensibility. Though she continues throughout the series, first as his slave and mistress, then as his wife, Gordianus (and hence, the reader) always finds her something of an enigma: beautiful, imperious, fascinating, sexual and desirable—but ultimately mysterious. One of the reasons that Gordianus so readily gained my sympathies is that despite Bethesda’s initial status as a lowly slave, it is clear from her first appearance that she is the one who really rules the roost, that Gordianus, despite his rather endearing befuddlement when it comes to understanding the woman he had purchased as a slave in Alexandria, fully appreciates not merely Bethesda’s sexual charms, but her astute judgment and her quick mind.

In addition to temperament, Amelia and Bethesda are linked by their affinity for cats. In the Gordianus books, Saylor frequently shows Gordianus likening his lover to the cat that she has adopted as a pet: beautiful, mysterious, clever—and deadly if need be. Though centuries later cats would become commonplace as pets in Rome, during the years when Gordianus lived, the last years of the Roman Republic, it was something of an oddity, an Egyptian custom, Gordianus notes, brought from his wife’s native Alexandria.

The cats that parade through Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia books have Egyptian origins as well—yet another tie binding Amelia and Bethesda. Though Amelia’s initial reaction to “the cat Bastet” (named for the Egyptian cat goddess), is rather guarded, she soon comes to appreciate the feline’s qualities. (Bastet first appears in The Curse of the Pharaohs, book 2 of the series).

If such a meeting were to take place, would Bethesda, often distant and aloof, unbend enough to have a true woman-to-woman chat with Amelia? And what would they talk about? Husbands (and how to manage them), murder investigations each has been privy to, the status of women, cats . . . ? (Having Bethesda’s current cat come into the room and jump on Amelia’s lap would certainly be a good way to break the ice and gain Bethesda’s trust: “Bastet never sits with strangers. She does you an honor.” “I have always found cats to be most discerning of character,” Amelia might reply. “We have a cat named Bastet, too.”)

What other topics might come up? And what characters from different authors’ books would you like to bring together?

Let me know what you think!

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