Study Guide

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party The Transit of Venus

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The Transit of Venus

Ah, Venus… Goddess of Love, sex, romance—all things female and attractive. She's about as irresistible as they come, though she packs a mean punch too when folks get on her bad side. Sound like anyone from our book a bit to you? If you're thinking of Cassiopeia, then go ahead and give yourself a gold star, because you're on the money with this symbol.

Cassiopeia and Lord Cheldthorpe Sitting in a Tree…

Like the slow transit of the actual Venus—it takes the College men over five hours to see Venus eclipse the sun—the romance between Cassiopeia and Lord Cheldthorpe takes a while to develop and pass through its different stages: attraction, flirtation, physical contact, and—finally—dissolution.

Even Lord Cheldthorpe—who's definitely not the brightest guy around—knows that "'Venus… is the planet of love'" (1.25.14); but this book belongs to Octavian, so let's check in with our main man to really understand the symbolic work this planetary trajectory does in the story.

What's With the Drama Anyway?

Unsurprisingly, it's Octavian's philosophical—and somewhat romantic—take on the transit that reveals the deeper meaning of it as a symbol.

On one hand, the whole Venus deal just seems like one huge, dramatic spectacle—maybe even too dramatic for someone as rational as Octavian. Check out how he describes it:

It is with awe that I treat of the event—so minute, so silent here upon the Earth—but there—one can scarce imagine the roaring of that vast orb through those frigid depths, tumbling, flung through the plane of our orbit; the glaring heat, the searing glare of Sol—and the gargantuan prodigality of that body, consuming its own substance ceaselessly while planets whirled like houris, veiled and ecstatic around the throne of some blast-turbaned, light-drunken king. (1.25.1)

Sure Octavian feels "awe" at the whole thing, but his description of the sun (or "Sol")—with its huge, physical mass and the way other planets revolve like "houris" (read: virginal young women) around it—sounds a lot like the way Cassiopeia flirts with Lord Cheldthorpe. It's all a little too much, kind of like a Harlequin romance cover playing itself out right in front of everyone. All the descriptors—vast, glaring, searing, gargantuan—signal excess, and it almost seems like Octavian's a little embarrassed by the spectacle

Now let's look at how Octavian relays a scene between Cassiopeia and Lord Cheldthorpe:

My mother laughed at [Bono's] jest, and seemed to agree that Cheldthorpe was a prancing fool; yet she did not shun any opportunity to converse with His Lordship; nor did she make an unfavorable impression upon that lively individual, having all the graces of intellect, as well as the beauties of her person, at her command. She did not avoid him when he returned, slicked with sweat, from the hunt; she did not excuse herself when over wine by the campfire His Lordship told his tales of what the day had brought. I saw by her gaze that she did not find his person unattractive. (1.22.3)

Though it seems perverse to say this—since Cassiopeia is clearly brighter than Cheldthorpe—if we understand him as the sun and her as Venus eclipsing it, then we understand that Cheldthorpe is the one with the power. The sun, after all, controls Venus's orbit. So the adoration of the sun that's referenced in the first excerpt, and mirrored in Cassiopeia's response to Cheldthorpe in the second excerpt, exposes the ridiculousness of the power structures in place.

In other words, by all accounts, Cassiopeia with her beauty and intelligence should be running this show… but instead Lord Cheldthorpe is because he's a rich white man. The excess from the first passage no longer looks so much like admiration when we think about it in this light—instead it looks a lot more like desperation to survive.

An Anachronistic Aside

Do you know who Saartjie Baartman is? She is also known as Sara Baartman… or the Hottentot Venus. Though alive slightly later than the time period of this book (1789-1816)—she was enslaved and taken to Europe, where she was displayed as an oddity. People paid to see her partially naked body and she was generally used to support the racist belief that white Europeans were superior to black people, and even assessed as a living link between humans and animals.

Though Baartman never comes up in our book—she wasn't alive yet, so it wouldn't make sense for her too—it seems fair to assume that Cassiopeia as a character is at least a shout-out to this real world woman. Not only are they both aligned with Venus, but upon their deaths (and Baartman may have died of small pox, just like Cassiopeia, though people aren't certain) both women were dissected.

In other words, they are both women who spend their lives being marveled at, only to have the fundamental disrespect of their situations highlighted by the way their bodies are treated after death. Men may swoon over Cassiopeia, but she is a captive, not a free woman or their racial equal—and her subtle alignment with Baartman makes this abundantly clear.

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