From the Attic 3: Journeys to the Underworld

A survey of classical sites in Italy associated with the ancient Sibyls, this is a really odd work from a woman who was a publishing phenomenon in the late Eighties. Fiona Pitt-Kethley came to attention as a poet whose racy subject matter – blow jobs for example – combined with a prim exterior that hardly hinted at the volcanic passions that apparently lay beneath.

Appropriately for a travel-book-cum-memoir (and indeed cum memoir) we learn quite a bit about its author, who at the time of writing is skint (par for the course for a poet) and living in Hastings. She seems to have been contracted to write the book, but if there was an advance it was a small one, as much of ‘Journeys to the Underworld’ involves taking budget train journeys, walking for miles and cadging lifts. As a solo female traveller she is certainly intrepid.

‘Casual sex is much more in my line [than drinking]’ she claims early on. ‘Most women on package tours pick up the waiters at the hotel… I’m more into picking up the guides and archaeologists working on sites or in museums.’ Furthermore ‘I only have sex with good-looking men… “Slag” I feel doesn’t really fit me… I’m not cheap, I’m free.’ The author biog describes her as ‘a female Casanova’. You can imagine the chaps at the TLS getting all excited when the book was published in 1988.

About the Sibyls she is well-informed, full of erudition and consistently interesting. She travels through Italy, starting in Naples (in a chapter called ‘Neapolitan Erections’ where a man springs out at her ‘wildly wanking’) via Rome, Sicily, Herculaneum (a chapter entitled ‘Men’, where she encounters a foot fetishist), Mantua, city of Virgil and finally Orvieto: ‘Etruscan tombs are a great place for trying to rape tourists.’ It’s not that there is a massive amount of sex, or that it is particularly explicit – quite the contrary. It’s just that the juxtaposition with scholarship is more jarring than exciting. Also, 30 years after publication, it looks like narratives which were daring in their own time might be the quickest to become dated.

Pitt-Kethley’s frankness about sex might have felt refreshingly fearless back then, but post MeToo and many layers of consciousness-raising later, she can seem inappropriately jaunty, as when she speculates that Italian children might be less at risk from paedophiles than British ones. Due to national prudishness, she claims ‘it’s probably easier for [British men] to mess around with their own daughters. Of course, keeping it in the family is also cheaper. They never have to buy their girl a drink.’

She accepts a lift to Caserta from a pestering rock musician. He must have been one of those good-looking men because ‘We made love,’ although at the beginning she refuses because ‘A girl has to say no for the first two minutes.’ It’s surprisingly conventional attitude from a self-professed female Don Juan, and one that has continued to wreak havoc and misunderstanding around issues of consent.

But we can’t blame Pitt-Kethley for writing within her own historical period. The quality of ‘Journeys to the Underworld’ lies firmly in her shrewd encounters with the ancient world, and anyone seeking raciness would be much better served with the torrent of franker, fresher accounts of female sexuality that have been published since.

Pitt-Kethley comes across less as a female Casanova than a lone woman who is constantly solicited, hassled, and sexually harassed and who every so often succumbs to the pressure. She has no interest in women beyond the Sibyls, and when male bores and time-wasters take her on lengthy detours and fail to fulfil their promises of private tours and free meals, she seems too meek even to protest. It doesn’t feel much like liberation – or libertinism.

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