In Defense of Helen and Klytemnestra: A Review of Claire Heywood’s Daughters of Sparta

Vivian Nguyen ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

The legend of Helen of Troy is a well-known one. Immortalized by the Iliad and since portrayed in television, films, and books, Helen is often seen as a representation of the bored unfaithful wife and a selfish woman. Her illicit relationship with Paris, a Trojan prince who falls in love with her even though she’s a married woman, is often regarded as one of the most well-known romances in literature, up there in notability with Romeo and Juliet in terms of star-crossed lovers. Helen of Troy’s sister Klytemnestra, sometimes spelled Clytemnestra, is less popular but just as controversial. Remembered for her role as villainess to her own children in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Klytemnestra has become a symbol for womanly rage and vengeful mothers. Both sisters are often maligned for their actions leading up to, during, and after the Trojan War. But Helen of Troy is much more than the face that launched a thousand ships and Klytemnestra is much more than the grieving mother and angry wife who killed Agamemnon—those are unfair characterizations of the two women that have unfortunately stuck, plaguing the sisters in almost every retelling and adaptation of the Trojan War. 

Claire Heywood’s Daughters of Sparta follows Helen and Klytemnestra’s journeys, chronicling their characters from their childhoods to the pivotal moments that make them the legends they are today. The topics of femininity and womanhood are explored, as well as the complexity of sisterhood. The story is told from two points of views, both Klytemnestra’s and Helen’s, and Heywood seamlessly shifts between each sister’s different thoughts. Heywood does a wonderful job of explaining why the sisters make the choices they make, some being mind numbingly easy, and some being extremely difficult, while also never casting her own opinion into her writing. Heywood purposefully keeps her heroines morally gray as they grow up and lose their innate childhood innocence.

It’s no surprise that being a woman in Ancient Greece was hard. Girls were expected to be compliant, and were unable to forge their own identities because they were shackled to that of their fathers, first, and then their husbands. From the moment they weren’t born with the “right” anatomy, women were treated as property, chattel, or currency for men to use in their trades. And still, despite men getting away with everything, these women were expected or forced to stay quiet and let this mistreatment happen. 

In Heywood’s retelling of the Trojan War, the sisters of Sparta do not.

Spoilers ahead.

In Daughters of Sparta, Helen spends most of her childhood years yearning to finally become an adult, only to spend her adulthood chasing that blissful youthful innocence she once had. While Klytemnestra sees her as the lucky one, Helen’s life is sadder than one would expect from the most beautiful woman in Ancient Greece. She’s despised by her mother Leda, who sees her as a reminder of her shame of being unfaithful to her husband. Helen’s husband Menelaus is distant and cold, and she is unable to form an attachment to their only child Hermoine after suffering the trauma of her awful childbirth experience.  All alone and isolated in Sparta, Helen famously runs away with Paris when he comes on a diplomatic trip, and she thus becomes Helen of Troy. 

Klytemnestra, meanwhile, falls in love and then falls out of love with her husband Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother and a warmongering brute. The tension between the once happy couple is gradually heightened as the story continues, first starting with his infidelity and eventually reaching its peak when Agamemon, desperate for glory and fame, has their eldest daughter Iphigenia killed so he can sail to Troy. A mourning Klytemnestra makes a vow to the goddess Hera that she will kill her husband, and she intends to keep her pledge.  

The ensuing Trojan War sees the Daughters of Sparta’s main plotpoint occur. With the war being waged on the beaches outside of Troy, the two sisters find themselves on opposite ends of the conflict. Behind the city walls, Helen is a trapped bird in a gilded cage, forced to watch as everyday, without fail, more men die for her and more women want her to die. Helen confronts the truth that freedom has a heavy price to pay, all while she slowly begins to resent Paris, the Trojans, and most of all, herself. Back home in Argos, Klytemnestra grieves the tragic loss of her daughter, raises her other children, and rules a kingdom by herself, all while planning her revenge against Agamemon. When she meets Aegisthus and takes him as a lover, it’s hardly a surprise, not when she’s extremely lonely, resenting her husband, and extremely intrigued about Aegisthus’ mysterious persona.   

The narrative then jumps forwards in time in order for the last  section in the book to be about the final days leading up to the sack of Troy, starting with the loss of Paris’ older brother Prince Hector. With Hector’s death comes a sense of inevitable doom behind the city walls. Paris soon dies as well, and when Troy falls, Helen resigns herself to her fate, only to be saved by Menelaus, the very man she left behind. 

With the Trojan War officially over, Agamemnon sails home victorious with a captive Princess Cassandra as one of his war prizes. Unfortunately for him, in the ten years that have passed, Klytemnestra’s revenge plan is long set in motion, and Klytemnestra is not a person who forgives or forgets. She’s come to realize that her husband will never change and feels pity for Cassandra, even seeing Iphigenia in her. When Aegisthus kills Cassandra, Klytemnestra is truly sorrowful and heartbroken. It’s a far cry from the resentful and jealous woman she once was, reflecting the internal change in Klytemnestra’s character. 

The last few pages of the book takes a look at the fortunes of both sisters: Klytemnestra is a husband-killer who has perhaps traded in one evil for another, and Helen is on a boat back to Sparta with Menelaus, who expresses that he was also responsible in the breakdown of their marriage prior to Paris and implies that they can begin again. Daughters of Sparta ends with a hopeful tone for Helen’s future, while Klytemnestra’s is more brooding and full of foreshadowing for the events yet to happen in her life. Combined with the knowledge of what fate eventually befalls Klytemnestra in Oresteia, where she’s killed by her own son Orestes in revenge for Agamemnon’s death, it’s easy to understand why Heywood ends her book that way. 

Overall, Daughters of Sparta is an enjoyable read, especially for fans of Greek mythology or those who enjoy Madeline Miller and Pat Barker’s stories. Heywood’s writing flows smoothly and the story is easy to read and understand, even for those who have never heard of the Trojan War before. It’s an interesting tale from start to finish and readers will surely be hooked by the first few chapters at the promise of the drama to come. Claire Heywood does a wonderful job and the expectations have certainly been set high for her next book. 

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