CULTURE

The hidden history of a writer’s legend

Since the first decade of the 20th century, generations of Greek children have been raised with the books of Penelope Delta (1874-1941), the distinguished novelist who breathed new life into children’s literature. A highly cultivated woman, Delta was sensitive to a child’s world – possibly because of her own strict upbringing – but was also very interested in Greek history and involved in the tumultuous political events of her own time. This is how as a writer she was able to narrate the scenes of Greek history to children without being didactic or simplistic. Her famous novel «In the Years of the Bulgar-Slayer,» for example, is set during the reign of Emperor Basil II. Her work on that novel involved correspondence with Gustave Schlumberger, a historian who specialized in that period. «The Secrets of the Swamp» (1937) takes place during the Macedonian struggle and «A Tale with No Name» (1911) was inspired by the Goudi 1909 rebellion. Delta, the older sister of Antonis Benakis, was raised in Alexandria and later moved to Athens, where she married the Phanariote entrepreneur Stephanos Deltas. Still, Ion Dragoumis, then the vice consul of Greece in Alexandria, remained her true love. Until her rumored suicide in 1941, the Delta family lived in a mansion in Kifissia, where she wrote her best-known novels, such as the «The Life of Christ,» «Mangas» and «Trellantonis,» the last of which was inspired by her brother Antonis. The mansion belongs to the Benaki Museum (one of Delta’s three daughters made the donation in 1989) and is now officially one of the museum’s new branches. It opened recently to the public with a small exhibition that pays homage to Delta’s work and personality. The mansion is also where the museum’s unique collection of Greece’s historical archives have been moved. The exhibition Held in one of the ground-floor, bare rooms (the only other space open to the public is the adjacent room in which a wooden, Byzantine icon screen owned by the Delta family is the only object on display), the exhibition includes display cases with the books that Penelope Delta wrote, her diary and other documents. The latter include the correspondence that Delta had with intellectuals and writers who supported the use of the demotic language – among them Yiannis Psicharis, Costis Palamas, Manolis Triantaphyllidis and Demetris Glenos – a contentious issue. A large panel reproduces family portraits and traces the long genealogy of the Benaki family. Delta was friends with some of the most distinguished intellectuals and politicians. Her father had been a political associate of Eleftherios Venizelos and had served as finance minister in the the first Venizelos administration. One photo shows Venizelos standing at the entrance to the Delta mansion; the photo was taken shortly after Venizelos escaped an assassination attempt in Paris. The Historical Archives of the Benaki Museum, a separate department since 1955, moved recently to the premises of the Delta house. It is one of the richest archival collections in Greece and comes, for the most part, from the personal collection of Antonis Benakis. The collection documents Greece’s history over the last three centuries. The period of the Greek War of Independence is amply represented in the archives of some of the war’s heroes. Important archives refer to the period of King Otto’s rule and the 1843 revolution, the period of the Venizelos goverment and the subsequent period of the national resistance. A separate section includes archives and manuscripts of Greek composers from the 19th century to the mid-20th century and of poets and writers, among them Dionysios Solomos, C.P. Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos and Gregory Xenopoulos. Historical Archives Department of the Benaki Museum – The Delta House (38 E. Benaki, Kifissia, 210.807.98.78). Open: Mondays, Wednesdays-Fridays 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., Tuesdays 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.