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Pope Joan was first published in Greece in 1886, based on an account in The Lives of the Popes by the 15th century Vatican librarian Platina in which he speculated that it was ""not altogether incredible"" that the 9th century Pope John VIII was in reality a woman. In Emmanuel Royidis' elaboration Joanna becomes the daughter of an English monk and the goose-girl to a Baron. But unfortunately for the monk, Joanna is conceived some time after he has been castrated by the Franks to whom he has been sent as a missionary. As a child Joanna displayed great wisdom and the customary spiritual attributes common to the saints. In a dream she received a vision of the more subtle joys of the world granted to those who dedicated themselves to God and at 16 she joined a convent. Here she met and fell in love with a shy young monk named Frumentius and, in order to remain with him in his monastery, disguised herself as a man. The young lovers eventually leave Germany and after many hardships find themselves in Athens where Joanna (or Brother John) had gathered to herself a number of devotees because of her beauty and learning. Joanna abandons Frumentius in favor of the intellectual life in Rome where due to her diligence she becomes ""private and secret secretary"" to Pope Leo and succeeds him as Pontiff by common acclaim. Now in her forties she has an affair with Leo's young ""nephew"" but after ruling for only two years she dies during the pangs of childbirth while on her way to the Lateran to anathematise a plague of locusts. Pope Joan is a witty and irreverent recreation of what is basically a Rabelaisian situation. One would judge that Durrell's translation is excellent.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1961
Publisher: Dutton