12+ Joan O'Hagan was born in Australia but studied Latin, Greek and Ancient History in New Zealand. O'Hagan lived and worked overseas for most of her life – including 30 years in Rome, working at the Australian Department of Immigration.
But first, a confession: I am not an avid reader of historical fiction, nor books whose titles suggest 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 drew upon her classical education, Roman surroundings, and work at the Immigration Department in Italy 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).
Jerome and His Women
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. However, 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 them is Paula, a wealthy widow who forms a close intellectual and spiritual relationship with Jerome. She assists with his translation of the Bible and shares his dream of monastic life in the desert, eventually funding their travels to the Holy Land, where they build monasteries and a hospice for pilgrims in Bethlehem.
A Labour of Love
Jerome and His Women was a twenty-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.'
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That's the twin gift of Jerome and His Women: it is an insight into extraordinary times and people and a talented researcher and writer.
© 2016 Robert Fairhead
This review was originally published by Writing NSW (2016). I was fascinated by the tale of Jerome and his woman, its biblical and historical setting, and of the Joan O'Hagan's 20-year labour of love in writing and publishing the novel. You might like to read my review of another of her ancient-world whodunnits, A Roman Death (March 2018).
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Australian Writers' Centre's Furious Fiction writing competition.
Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.