Penelope Delta (Greek: Πηνελόπη Δέλτα; 1874, Alexandria, Khedivate of Egypt – 2 May 1941, Athens) was a Greek author of teenage literature. Practically the first Greek children's books writer, her historical novels have been widely read and influenced Greek popular perceptions on national identity and history. Through her long-time association with Ion Dragoumis, Delta was thrust in the middle of the turbulent early 20th-century Greek politics, from the Macedonian Struggle to the National Schism. She committed suicide on the day German troops entered Athens in World War II.
Delta was born in Alexandria, in the Khedivate of Egypt, to Virginia (née Choremi) and the wealthy cotton merchant Emmanuel Benakis. She was the third of six children, her two older siblings being Alexandra and Antonis Benakis, whose Tom Sawyer-like mischiefs she immortalized in her book Trellantonis; her younger siblings were Constantine, who died at the age of two, Alexander, and Argine.
The Benaki family temporarily moved to Athens in 1882, where she later married a wealthy Phanariote entrepreneur, Stephanos Delta, with whom she had three daughters, Sophia Mavrogordatou, Virginia Zanna, and Alexandra Papadopoulou. Stephanos Delta was a nephew of mathematician Constantin Carathéodory. They returned to Alexandria in 1905, where she met Ion Dragoumi, then the Vice-Consul of Greece in Alexandria. Dragoumi, like Penelope Delta, also wrote about the Macedonian Struggle and his personal recollections of it in his books. Penelope Delta formed a romantic relationship with him for some time. Out of respect for Delta and her children, Delta and Dragoumi decided to separate, but continued to correspond passionately until 1912, when Dragoumi started a relationship with the famous stage actress Marika Kotopouli. In the meantime Penelope had twice attempted suicide.
Delta moved to Frankfurt, Germany in 1906, when her husband went to run the offices of the Khoremis-Benakis cotton business there, and her first novel Gia tin Patrida (For the Sake of the Fatherland) was published in 1909. The novel is set in Byzantine times, and Delta started corresponding with the historian Gustave Schlumberger, a renowned specialist on the Byzantine Empire. Their continued interaction provided the material for her second novel, Ton Kairo tou Voulgaroktonou (In the Years of the Bulgar-Slayer), set during the reign of the Emperor Basil II. The Goudi Pronunciamento in 1909 inspired her third novel, Paramythi Horis Onoma (A Tale with No Name), published in 1911.
In 1913 the Deltas returned to Alexandria yet again, and then in 1916 she settled permanently in Athens, where her father, Emmanuel Benakis, had been elected Mayor. While there, they became close friends with Eleftherios Venizelos, whom they entertained regularly at their opulent mansion in the northern suburb of Kifisia. Penelope's father had been a political associate of Venizelos since his move to Athens in 1910, and had served as Finance Minister in the first Venizelos administration.
Her long correspondence with Bishop Chrysanthos, Metropolitan of Trebizond, provided the material for her 1925 book, The Life of Christ. In 1925, she was diagnosed with polio. In 1927, she started writing the trilogy Romiopoules (Young Greek Girls), a thinly-veiled autobiography, which she did not finish until 1939. Set in Athens, the first part, To Xypnima (The Awakening) covers the events from 1895 to 1907, the second part H Lavra (The Heat) covers 1907 to 1909, and the final part, To Souroupo (The Dusk), covers 1914 to 1920. The political events of this tumultuous era are given first-hand treatment in this book, as she experienced them in the most personal level: her father was almost executed for treason by the Royalist Party, whereas Ion Dragoumis was actually assassinated by the Venizelos factions in 1920. Delta wore nothing but black after that.
In the meantime she published her three major novels: Trellantonis (Crazy Anthony; 1932), which detailed her mischievous elder brother's Antonis Benakis childhood adventures in late 19th century Alexandria, Mangas (1935), which was about the not dissimilar adventures of the family's fox terrier dog, and Ta Mystika tou Valtou (The Secrets of the Swamp; 1937), which was set around Giannitsa Lake in the early 20th century, when the Greek struggle for Macedonia was unfolding.
While Penelope Delta got the credit for transcribing the memories of that war, the actual narratives were collected in 1932–1935 by her secretary Antigone Bellou Threpsiadi who was herself a daughter of a Macedonian fighter.
She would famously forbid her grandchildren from visiting her during the day, when she was writing, but would then spend the entire evening with them, reading to them what she had written that day, in lieu of bedtime stories.
During the last year of her life, and as her paralysis was advancing, she received the diaries and archives of her lost love, Ion Dragoumis, entrusted to her by his brother Philip. She managed to dictate 1000 pages of manuscripted comment on Dragoumis' work, before deciding to take her own life. She committed suicide by taking poison on 27 April 1941, the very day Wehrmacht troops entered Athens. She died after several days on 2 May 1941. At her request she was interred in the garden of the stately Delta mansion in Kifissia. Chrysanthos, by then the Archbishop of Athens, officiated at the funeral. On her grave, in the garden of her house, the word σιωπή, siōpē ("silence") was engraved.
The Delta mansion was inherited by her three daughters, Sophia, Virginia, and Alexandra, who added a guesthouse they named "Sovirale", after the initial letters of their first names. Virginia married politician Alexander Zannas, and their daughter Lena was the mother of contemporary politician Antonis Samaras; their son, Pavlos (Paul) Zannas (1929–1989) was a prominent art critic and the translator in Greek of Marcel Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdu". In 1989 Alexandra, then the last living Delta daughter, bequeathed the mansion to the Benaki Museum. It now houses the History Archive of the museum.
Works in English translation
- Secrets of the Swamp, translated by Ruth Bobick, Peter E. Randall Publisher,Portsmouth, NH 2012, ISBN 978-1931807876
- In the Heroic Age of Basil II: Emperor of Byzantium, translated by Ruth Bobick, Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth NH 2006, ISBN 978-1931807524
- A tale without a name, translated and illustrated by Mika Provata-Carlone Publisher Pushkin Press, London 2013 ISBN 978-1782270287
Notes and references
- Modern library of Alexandria (BA), Cairo. Bibliotheca Alexandrina News, Conference about Penelope Delta at the BA, at 2009-05-04:
- "Biography of Penelope Delta". Benaki Museum. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
- Roderick Beaton (1999). An introduction to modern Greek literature. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2009-04-23.
- Paul Stephenson, The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, Cambridge University Press, 2003, page 120
- Marii︠a︡ Nikolaeva Todorova. Balkan identities. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. Retrieved 2009-04-21.