Hella Haasse, Threshold of Fire

by Frans van Liere.

During spring break I was asked by my church friend Phyllis Van Andel to conduct a book discussion for the Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning (CALL). It could be on any book I wished to discuss, she said. CALL classes are always fun to teach, because of the great enthusiasm of the participants, and the opportunity for Calvin professors to engage the community.

Cover of the book depicting a peacock next to a Roman temple.
Hella Haasse, Threshold of Fire (1996; trans. of Een nieuwer testament, 1966)

I finally settled on an historical novel set in fourth-century Rome, Threshold of Fire, by one of my favorite Dutch novelists, Hella Haasse. I had read the book for my literature exam in high school (a Dutch gymnasium that taught Latin and Greek), and at the time, it made a great impression on me. The CALL class seemed the perfect opportunity not only to revisit this intriguing short novel, but also to get an American audience acquainted with Haasse, the grande dame of Dutch literature. Fortunately many of her works are now translated into English.

Hélène Serafia Haasse (1918-2011) was born in Indonesia, the eldest of two children of the Dutch colonial civil servant Willem Hendrik Haasse. In the 1930s, Haasse moved to the Netherlands to study Scandinavian languages in Amsterdam. After a short while, she switched to theatre. Soon amateur theatre and radio entertainment were demanding most of her time and energy. During World War II, she met her future husband. They married in 1944, and their first daughter (of two) was born shortly afterwards, but died in 1947. After the war, Haasse devoted herself entirely to writing literature, while her husband worked as a judge in The Hague. After his retirement, from 1981-1990, the couple lived in France.

Cover of the book Oeroeg, showing an Indonesian native young man hiding behind green leaves
Oeroeg, by Hella Haasse (1949)

Haasse’s debut was the 1949 novel Oeroeg, reflecting her experiences in Indonesia, the struggle of the native Indonesians against the Dutch colonial regime, and her pessimistic realization that not even personal friendships could bridge the worlds of Dutch colonialism and nativist nationalism. Her magisterial The Tea Lords (2010), a historical novel also set in colonial Indonesia, is based on the private archives of one dynasty of Dutch tea planters. In between these works she produced her most acclaimed historical novels, In A Dark Wood Wandering (1949), and The Scarlet City (1952). Threshold of Fire (original title Een nieuwer testament,  “A Newer Testament”) was published in 1966.

The novel is set within a twenty-four hour period in the year 414 A.D. It consists mainly of the flash-back reminiscences of two men: the court prefect Hadrian, and Claudius Claudianus, a disgraced poet who has been living in hiding in Rome for ten years, after his condemnation by the same Hadrian in 404. The two share an entangled past: both are originally Egyptian (Claudius a slave boy, the illegitimate son of the Jewish owner of a plantation), and both moved to Rome in the 390s in hope of joining the political and literary elite of Roman society. Hadrian took on the role of the young Claudius’s protector and maecenas, until the latter wrote a satirical poem against him, leading to his condemnation and exile. Ten years later, Claudianus is arrested again and brought into the court of Hadrian, this time for being present at a house party of a Roman senator who is suspected of conducting pagan sacrifices. In the newly Christianized Rome, this was a capital offense.

Claudius Claudianus is a historical figure. He is considered the “last of the Roman” poets, and his works (especially De raptu Prosperinae, “On the Rape of Prosperina”) enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages. The “real” Claudianus was also known as one of the panegyrists of Stilicho, the Goth who served as the Roman Army’s supreme army commander at the time of Emperor Honorius (emp. 393-423). One of the challenges Stilicho faced was the “Gothic problem” – the rebellion of a large contingent of Visigoths within Roman territory. Anti-Gothic sentiment eventually led to the downfall and murder of Stilicho in 407. The result was disastrous: many of Stilicho’s soldiers joined the Gothic rebellion. In 410, roaming Gothic troops sacked the City of Rome. Nothing is known about the historical Claudianus after 404, and historians usually assume that he died shortly after this date. Not much is known about Claudianus’s personal life either. It is debated whether or not he was a Christian; on the one hand, he wrote a laudatory poem on “The Savior”, but on the other, Augustine mentioned him as a staunch pagan, perhaps because of the highly mythological content of his poetry.[1]

Painting depicting Emperor Honorius on his throne with a group of men in togas bowing nearby
The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883

In her historical fiction, Haasse creates a different narrative. Claudianus here is disillusioned with the ideals of classical, pagan Rome (now falling into ruins at the hands of the Goths), but he is also weary of the new religion, Christianity. Haasse makes a satirical poem that Claudianus wrote about the (otherwise unknown) prefect Hadrian into the reason for his “disappearance” in 404. In the background she depicts a Roman empire that, since 390, has become officially Christian. Christian bishops compose the emperor’s entourage; pagan rites and games are forbidden, and even the situation of Jews (traditionally tolerated under Roman law) would become more and more precarious – on one occasion, bishop Ambrose of Milan scolded emperor Theodosius for paying restitution to a Jewish community that had seen its synagogue burned by a Christian mob. For social climbers, however, Christianity provides quick access to a world of power and success. Within this world, Claudianus has to come to terms with his past as a provincial outsider, and his disappointments in the search for a father figure (both the Goth Stilicho and the Christian career opportunist Hadrian prove to be false leads). He finally discovers that only by both embracing and distancing himself from his past can he truly start to live, like the Phoenix described one of his minor poems. (The English translation takes its title from this poem.)

In one interview, Hella Haasse says: “We don’t really know what happened in the past. It is up to our interpretation and imagination to make sense of it.”[2] A novelist can do much more than a historian, who is not allowed such liberty with her materials, yet also must use interpretation and imagination to reconstruct the past. But literary authors can inspire historians to see the past with new eyes, and perhaps this is the reason that I always enjoy reading good historical novels. Unlike many other books in this genre, however, Haasse’s historical characters are not mere templates moving against an artificially constructed historical background. The real craft of her historical novels lies in the suspension of the feeling of historical distance, not in the artificial creation of it. This makes the difference between good and mediocre historical fiction. In Haasse’s novels, especially in this one, psychological and historical realities are interwoven; only through the personal reflections of the main characters does the reader gradually come to realize what is going on. All of this makes the book somewhat challenging to read. Haasse herself says about this novel: “I think this is the best book I’ve ever written, because it relates a complex reality in a very short time span. You cannot retell the book; it would become a hopeless tangle. This is really a book you should read.”[3] Or, as most of my CALL students concluded, read twice!


[1] 1902 Encyclopedia (that is, an on-line reprint of the 1902 Encyclopaedia Brittanica), “Claudius Claudianus”, http://www.1902encyclopedia.com/C/CLA/claudius-claudianus.html.

[2] Interview with the author, at the online Hella Haasse Museum, http://www.hellahaassemuseum.nl/objects/290.html

[3] Interview with Arjan Peeters, cited at the Hella Haasse Museum, http://www.hellahaassemuseum.nl/objects/290.html

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

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