History Tidbits

The little girl at the Royal Academy

The girl with her parents at the Royal Academy in Chapter 31, who is admiring Ziyaeddin’s painting of Libby, is meant to be Louisa Dunnell. Years later Louisa became the mother of Elizabeth Garrett. In 1873, Garrett was the first woman in Britain to win the battle to qualify as a physician and surgeon — as a woman. Garrett went on to become the first dean of a British medical school, among other notable firsts.

Louisa’s attendance at the exhibition is purely my invention. But extraordinary women often learn to fight for their rights from other extraordinary women — mothers, sisters, friends, strangers — and I couldn’t resist.

The quotation on Ziyaeddin’s watch

The quote on the watch that Ziyaeddin gives Libby is from an epic poem Shahnama, translated as “Book of Kings.” Written in the late tenth or eleventh century by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the land that is today Iran, the poem is a national epic, a mingling of Persian history, legend and myth, and it was regularly recited everywhere for entertainment. Over centuries it was also gorgeously re-illustrated by the greatest artists of the ages and presented to Iranian rulers. As art historian Kishwar Rizvi describes regarding one illustrated version of the poem, the epic positively effervesces with “drama, romance and morality.” Rizvi adds that the poetry and the illustrations “emphasize the importance of humility in the person of the shah.” This notion — that of a great king as a man of humility — suited Ziyaeddin’s character so well that I drew from the poem other qualities for my hero: his intellect, spirit, strength, and honorability, even his “lustrous” eyes.

I discovered the poem through Professor Rizvi’s article “The Suggestive Portrait of Shah ‘Abbas: Prayer and Likeness in a Safavid Shanama,” Art Bulletin, Vol. XCIV, No. 2 (June 2012). The complete verse is:

“Now do as princes do

When prudent, pious, and beneficent—

Serve God and him alone in good times and bad.”

A beautiful recently illustrated edition of the poem is Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, illustrated by Hamid Rahmanian, translated and adapted by Ahmad Sadri, and edited by Melissa Hibbard (Liveright Publishing, 2017).