23rd November 2018 6490 views

In 1962 I was living down Abingdon Road, Oxford, in a house owned by a short single middle-aged chap called Frank Hadrys who worked on the railways  and who polished his lino by skating with dusters fastened to his feet. Since many Welsh people are called Rhys, I assumed for a while that Mr Hadrys was Welsh until I discovered that he was actually Franciszek Hadrys who came to England with the Polish Free Forces twenty years earlier. Occupying another room in the house was a middle-aged anorexic solitary lady with scanty dyed red hair and a pancake of white face powder, named Miss Green—”UPSTAIRS BACK, PLEASE RING VERY LOUD AND WAIT,” as a scrap of paper pinned by the front door bell urged. Miss Green was a bit batty since you can ring an electric bell longer but never louder and her location was irrelevant if you had to wait for her to come downstairs to the door. I don’t think that many if any punters ever rang the bell. After a while I wondered whether she paid her rent to Hadrys in the flesh.

Quite soon I renamed Miss Green as… Phryne—and began to write a mini-novel about her.  Well, a novella—it only took an hour or so to read the completed work aloud to the Balliol College literary society, a “literary powerhouse since the thirteenth century,” gosh.

I’m reminded about this by watching the delightfully Deco series from 2012 of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on TV, set in Melbourne during the 1920s, based on many novels by Kerry Greenwood kicking off in 1989 with Cocaine Blues, Phryne impeccably played by Essie Davis.

Miss Fisher’s fictional father had intended to christen his daughter Psyche but out of his mouth instead came the name Phryne, she being a famously beautiful Athenian “companion” of the 4th century BC, a “hetaira“, which was much classier than being a “porny“.  Painted by Apelles, no less.  Sculpted by Praxiteles. Can’t get better more upmarket and prosperous than that. It’s said that when she was put on trial for impiety, counsel for the defence whipped off her robe, exposing Phryne fully nude (or just her breasts), convincing the court that justice required her prompt acquital—evidently Phryne was a version of the goddess Aphrodite.

This scene (here lovingly delineated by Jean-Léon Gérôme) is undoubtedly a complete fabrication by randy ancient historians. But it’s worth noting that Phryne’s birth name probably was Mnesarete, meaning “celebrating virtue”, and nowadays a genus of damselflies (not ‘damn selfies’.) ‘Phryne’ comes from phruna, meaning ‘toad’, a slang name for prostitutes back then. I think that Phryne (Φρύνη) was pronounced froo-neigh, whereas Miss Fisher favours fry-knee. Her knee is well visible above.

Some years after typing Phryne I destroyed the typescript (and the carbon copy) in a proud, stupid fit of purging. Who knows in what way I might have reused the text nowadays?

For more about this if you’re interested, see “College-days” posted in 2014 on this website.

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