Rome and Veii - 406. B.C. Eighteen year old Caecilia, the orphaned daughter of a plebian Tribune and his patrician wife, is given in marriage by her maternal uncle and adoptive father Aemilius to Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna. The political marriage is ostensibly intended to cement a shaky truce between the two warring cities. Caecilia has formed attachments to two young Roman patricians, her cousin Marcus and his best friend Drusus; she feels no attraction to Mastarna, a battle scarred enemy twice her age. Moreover, she justifiably fears entering an alien culture where she could be held hostage, or suffer a worse fate if war breaks out, but duty, honor, and Roman law command her obedience. Caecilia submits, but not without some protest and strong reservations she must keep to herself.
The distance from Rome to Veii is only twelve miles, but during that short journey Caecilia displays courage when the small caravan is attacked by Gallic marauders. Impressed by his bride's fortitude, Mastarna dubs her bellatrix (female warrior). But Caecilia is no comic book heroine; she's an intelligent, innocent, and frightened young woman in dangerous territory--a psychologically complex, three-dimensional character, as is her patient yet sometimes truculent and brooding Etruscan husband.
Once in Veii, Cecilia is cast into a social and political vortex among those who welcome her and those who despise her, those who are true and those who deceive. Brought up in the Stoic tradition to be a virtuous daughter of Rome, she is at first scandalized and then tempted by Etruscan hedonism, the ancient equivalent of a "Sex, drugs and rock and roll" culture. She is also attracted to cult worship and the gods of her new home, including the claims of her haruspex (one who interprets omens) brother-in-law that he can "postpone" fate. And this brings us to the overarching theme of fate or Fortuna, which Storrs weaves into the rich tapestry of her story like a strong red thread.
The wedding shroud is a mantle covering the couple in the Etruscan wedding ritual, symbolizing a united destiny (univir) in life and in death. Throughout the novel Caecilia is presented with momentous choices, and at each fork in the dark and perilous road she must choose: Will she submit to her fate, or confront it and try to change it? As innocence turns to experience, and the promising girl grows to womanhood, I was reminded of the Nietzschean aphorism: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." I also recalled Henry James' Victorian heroine Isabel Archer who "affronts her destiny" and stoically chooses to live with the consequences.
There are references in The Wedding Shroud to Lucretia, the virtuous daughter of Rome who chose death over dishonor, but I believe Caecilia is a universal heroine, transcending the sometimes black and white world of antique myth and legend to enter into the greyer shaded realm of existential heroism.
The Wedding Shroud is a compelling story meticulously researched, replete with memorable characters, vivid descriptive details, and elegant prose sparkling with poetic metaphors. I highly recommend it.