A confession: I am not an avid reader of historical fiction, nor of titles suggesting romantic themes. However, after a little Google research on the author and reassurance on the subject matter, I was keen to read and review Jerome and His Women.
Joan O’Hagan was born in Australia, studied Latin, Greek and ancient history at university in New Zealand, and lived and worked overseas for the best part of her life – including 30 years in Rome, where she worked at the Australian Department of Immigration.
O’Hagan drew upon her classical education, Roman surroundings and experience at the Immigration Department to write internationally acclaimed contemporary and historical crime fiction. She published her first novel, Incline and Fall: The Death of Geoffrey Stretton in 1976, and went on to publish two more novels set in Italy, Death and a Madonna (1986) and A Roman Death (1988), and one in Australia, Against the Grain (1987).
O’Hagan’s fifth and last novel, Jerome and His Women (2015), is set in Ancient Rome, at the end of the fourth century AD. It is a time of upheaval for the Roman Empire, with internal rioting and external threats, and pagan beliefs and gods giving way to the spread of Christianity and the worship of a new, monotheistic God.
The Pontiff, Damasus I, commissions Jerome, a priest and foremost theologian and scholar, to translate the Bible from Greek texts into a single definitive Latin version. While he has the Pontiff’s favour, and is even rumoured to be a possible successor to Damasus, Jerome is deeply unpopular with others in the Church hierarchy and Roman aristocracy for railing against their wanton ways and, in particular, for extolling a celibate, ‘virgin life’ outside of and within marriage.
‘His women’ are a circle of well-educated widows and their daughters from aristocratic families, all of whom have turned their backs on luxurious Roman life – selling off properties and valuables to donate to the poor and the Church – in exchange for chaste lives of prayer and poverty, and the study and discussion of the scriptures.
Among the women is Paula, a wealthy widow, who forms a close intellectual and spiritual relationship with Jerome, assisting him with his translation of the Bible, sharing his dream of a monastic life in the desert, and eventually funding their travels to the Holy Land, where they build two monasteries and a hospice for pilgrims in Bethlehem.
Jerome and His Women was a 20-year labour of love for O’Hagan, started in the British Library in the 1990s and completed in a Sydney hospital shortly before her death in 2014. In a North Shore Times review upon its publication, O’Hagan’s daughter, Denise, commented, ‘I never knew my mother not writing.’
That’s the twin gift of Jerome and His Women: it is an insight into extraordinary times and people, and into a talented researcher and writer.
Robert Fairhead is a mid-life dad and dog owner. He is currently working on a blog and writers website. You can follow him on Twitter at @tallandtrue.