Saturday, January 05, 2008

Multiple opinions of Louise Allen's Virgin Slave, Barbarian King

Here at Teach Me Tonight we spent a lot of time analysing Bindel's argument in considerable detail and also critiqued her methodology, in particular her use of back-cover copy to assess the contents of M&B romances.

We therefore decided to analyse one of the novels mentioned by Bindel, Louise Allen’s Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, and because we were joined by many other bloggers, this was an Internet Event of Stupendous Proportions.

Appropriately for the time of year and the historical setting of the novel, these posts, Janus-like, look back to a debate from last year, and look forward to a new era of romance scholarship which is based on detailed analysis of the primary texts in question. Allen’s novel also looks both back and forwards. The first chapter begins on the 24th of August 410 AD, the date of the fall of Rome, it looks both back to the Roman past and forwards into a Visigothic future.

Here are the posts from those of us at Teach Me Tonight. They're not reviews, so they do include plentiful spoilers.
  • Laura Vivanco, with a focus on myths.
  • Sarah S. G. Frantz, with a focus on Allen's construction of masculinity.
  • Rev Melinda's a frequent visitor to Teach Me Tonight, and on her blog she's analysed Allen's "exploration of what it means to be a family."
  • Eric Selinger, with a focus on Allen's revision of "bodice-ripper" conventions
There have also been quite a large number of reviews of Virgin Slave, Barbarian King:
  • CataRomance's Julie Bonello states that "Louise Allen’s historical romances are in a class of their own. Meticulously researched, wonderfully evocative and absolutely mesmerizing, her novels are a surefire guarantee of excellence [...]. Romantic, enthralling and atmospheric, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King is a powerful love story featuring two vividly drawn characters you will find absolutely impossible to resist." Star Rating: 4.5
  • Romantic Times's Kathe Robin gives the following summary: "Accurate political details, a noble savage hero, a heroine who comes to appreciate another culture and a jealous woman who schemes to win the hero's love all harken back to the classic '80s Indian romances. Allen proves that timeless themes always entertain." RT Rating: 3 stars
  • Mrs Giggles gives the following summary: "This perplexing politically-correct, sanitized, and rather bloodless story makes being a captive slave of a Visigoth barbarian come off like a walk in the park. File this one under It does not compute." Her review specifies that she finds the book unbelievable mainly because of issues of historical inaccuracy: "While this book is pretty readable, I find that there is too little in this story that feels remotely real for the setting and storyline." She gives it a rating of 65/100.
  • Terri Pray writes that "Ms. Allen has written a delicious novel that I found hard to put down. Wulfric is strong, compelling, honorable, and sensual. He makes some hard choices that put others first ahead of his own desires in life and love, and by doing so he won my heart in a way that few romantic heroes have done before."
  • Alicia Thomas at The Good, the Bad, the Unread gives the novel a B: "Virgin Slave, Barbarian King is fiction but the presentation of the principal parties involved (under light, quick inspection) rings true. So, with historical accuracy out of the way, what about the characters? Wulfric is a great hero. He’s exactly what you’d want a hero to be. He’s a little too perfect but it’s ok. Julia has a lot to learn and she changes and grows through the book. [...] a few things niggled at me. Over all, though, this book is a great read for any historical buff."
  • Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books "finished the book deflated and disappointed that a premise that could have yielded so much was flat, predictable, and ultimately a big yawn." SB Sarah touches on something TMT Sarah felt was the most unusual aspect of the book: "Beyond the cultural differences, which are easily mended with the Superglue of effortless assimilation and blithe acceptance, there is no villain, no issue to be overcome except that of choice and geography." Trashy Books Grade: D
  • Jayne and Jane at Dear Author give their opinions. For Jayne "There are parts I like which then got balanced with things that seemed to be taken straight from Romance Central and that I’d read 100 times before. The whole ends up being a C+". Jane managed to find "one positive thing I can say about this book [...] I didn’t find it to be advancing the agenda of the male patriarchy and the suppression of females." Other than that, Jane thought that "There was no serious introspection at the differences between Roman and Visigoth cultures. Instead, the cultural conflict comes down to Goth=Good and Romans=Rotten." She gave it a C- .
  • Candy at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books gives the novel a D and says that "Wulfric is a politically correct hero, and hot damn, does that ever make him tiresome. [...] he’s not a human so much as he is a Ken Doll, except instead of plastic, he’s molded from untempered wish fulfillment". Laura finds this highly diverting, since she'd been comparing Wulfric to Aeneas. Admittedly "The extent to which the Aeneid promotes or subverts the political program of Augustus is debated," but if you read it as "a national epic, a glorification and exaltation of Rome and its people", then Virgil really couldn't have got any more "politically correct" than that, and Aeneas has been described as being "handsome and strong, pious and brave, serious and wise, indeed just a bit too perfect in some people's eyes" (Janson 53).
  • Meriam at Rape and Adverbs thinks that "Allen has taken a situation ripe with conflict and then effectively removed the heart of the conflict. [...] some of my favourite romances deal with this imbalance beautifully - To Have and to Hold, My Reckless Heart, Voices of the Night, The Smoke Thief. These stories work so well because the imbalance is compellingly portrayed, before it is negotiated and then redressed to achieve a satisfying HEA (to put it very simply). Having failed to present a compelling power imbalance with suitably high stakes (incredible as it seems, in a master/ slave dynamic) the romance fails to take off in VS,BK. I was left thinking that the only other master/slave romance I have read - Johanna Lindsey’s Hearts Aflame, complete with spanking, chains and a giant Viking heroine - worked better as a romance." She gives Allen's novel a C+
  • Shannon C at Flight into Fantasy is of the opinion that "The characters are standard romance novel fare. Julia is a feisty, well-bred woman with a touch of the Mary Sue [...] Wulfric is equally derivitive. He’s a leader of men who is nonetheless kind to children, women and puppies, and he has the world’s most intelligent wolf as a companion and pet. [...] But the real disappointment for me was the setting. I really wanted to learn more about Rome and the Visigoths, and I felt that this rather colorful time period was rather underutilized. It’s obvious that Ms. Allen did some research, and while I didn’t really want pages and pages of it crammed down my throat, I’d have liked a bit more." She gives the novel a C+
Our internet extravaganza even spawned a couple of non-review responses:
  • Hotflashes51 does "the Bindel thing. I blogged about the book without buying it." Her comments, which have something of an "a plague on both your houses" feel ("Of this debacle the only one that holds my sympathy and admiration is Louise Allen. She has behaved elegantly. Very professionally. She is a writer, so she wrote a book to entertain the masses. She didn’t write it to change the world or perpetuate any kind of myth or behavior. Nor did she write it to be meticulously analyzed by all a thunder"), can be found at her blog, Hot Flashes Cranky Life.
  • A haiku, by Charlene Teglia.
And here are some concluding remarks from those of us at Teach Me Tonight, with a little bit of help from Northrop Frye:

The illustration is of Janus, "the Roman god of gates and doors (ianua), beginnings and endings, and hence represented with a double-faced head, each looking in opposite directions" and this month takes its name from him. I've borrowed the picture from the University of Memphis's Cognitive Computing Research Group.


  1. I enjoyed it, and it kinda brought me out of my reading funk. It was simply an easy read. Like strawberry Jello. One phrase I had to laugh at -when Berig leaned against the wagon and "caught a breather." :-) And I liked that Wulfric was not a domineering, chest beating, club wielding Ahole of an alpha hero.

    All that said, I couldn't meet the cashier's eyes as she scanned it-that title-*shudder*.

  2. I've decided to be the control Mole in your experiment--I shall not read the book but get my ideas about it from your comments. (After all, why should real life be any different from graduate school?)

    The first thing that I notice is that the "feisty" independent behavior of Julia, praised by Laura, is just what Mrs. Giggles condemns in her main review as being anachronistic. Even the Tigress, also going by comments only, thought she sounded more like a Classical Roman than an early-medieval one.

    And I'll have to rely on you for this answer: Why is Wulfric sending Julia away? If it's because he's required by his rank to make an advantageous marriage, I can imagine few more advantageous unions for a Visigoth chieftain than the daughter of a powerful Roman senator!

  3. I love your Janus illustration, Laura, and your commentary on it and our analysis of the romance genre. Fabulously done! I'll be getting my analysis up tomorrow sometime, depending on how much the baby lets me get done when.

  4. Oh Mole, you are cynical. I read all the primary texts I was set during both my undergraduate and postgraduate years. However, I'll accept the challenge and try to give you my counter-arguments to what Mrs Giggles said:

    I smack the palm of my right hand against my forehead when Julia, upon being rescued by the fellow who has identified himself as one of the folks who are besieging her city, asks him whether he can escort her to the Basilica so that she can find her father.

    I think this does make sense, in context. 1) Wulfric has disposed of the men who were attempting to rape Julia and had murdered her slave 2) He's not attempting to do anything nasty to Julia so 3) she's used to giving orders and she's got nothing to lose by asking that he do something more to help her and 4) As it happens, in other circumstances (i.e. had he not been attracted to her) Wulfric wouldn't have taken her prisoner, so this approach would probably have worked.

    with Julia often openly sassing and defying Wulfric during her captivity, I don't know whether to think of her as someone with a death wish or someone who is just pretty dim.

    Of course she doesn't have a death wish. She knows that Wulfric won't hurt her (if he'd been going to do that, he'd have done it when they very first met). So I don't think she's being "dim": I think she's being assertive. And as a senator's daughter, she's used to thinking of Visigoths as barbarians and her inferiors. She says later, when trying to trick a Roman lady, that

    I was assertive, naturally - one has to be, don't you find, with non-Roman peoples? They respond well to firm direction

    By that point, Julia thinks nothing of the sort, but initially I think she might have had a bit of that kind of attitude. Which would make her snobbish and ill-informed about Visigothic culture, but not "dim."

    Speaking of contemporary-sounding lines, these people use phrases like "make love" and "have sex" in their conversations, so if you're big on historical accuracy, you may want to watch your step when you read this book.

    This criticism is ludicrous. The conversations are taking place in Latin. Should Allen have tried to make them sound like medieval English? Shakespearian English? Regency English? Seems to me that a choice to use fairly modern sounding English to render Latin (or Visigothic) is actually a good choice. Eric recently quoted both the Latin and the English versions of one of Martial's epigrams. Can't get much more "contemporary sounding" than that.

    Wulfric is a nice fellow. I don't know how he turns out so nice and gentlemanly - maybe his barbarian daddy sent him to a civilized boarding school in England using some time-machine, who knows

    Two of the key issues in the novel are (a) the Romanisation of the Visigoths, and (b) their notions of honour. No need for recourse to time-machines when both cultures were "civilized", and had concepts of honour and "gentlemanly conduct."

    Why is Wulfric sending Julia away? If it's because he's required by his rank to make an advantageous marriage, I can imagine few more advantageous unions for a Visigoth chieftain than the daughter of a powerful Roman senator! (203)

    It's to do with internal politics. There's a power struggle going on to decide who will succeed Alaric, king of all the Visigoths, whose health is failing. Marriage to the daughter of the head of another powerful Visigothic clan would strengthen Wulfric's position. The other contenders are Alaric's brother-in-law (who plans to marry the Emperor's sister - a much better match than a mere Senator's daughter like Julia) and Willa (who is ruthless, which is why Wulfric would need extra Visigothic allies in order to defeat him).

    And thanks for the compliments, Sarah! I'm looking forward to reading your piece and finding out what your take is.

  5. SB Sarah touches on something TMT Sarah felt was the most unusual aspect of the book: "Beyond the cultural differences, which are easily mended with the Superglue of effortless assimilation and blithe acceptance, there is no villain, no issue to be overcome except that of choice and geography."

    I think that SB Sarah is underestimating how romanised the Visigoths were depicted to be in the novel. They spoke Latin, had Roman artefacts, lived in tents based on Roman military designs etc.

    As for the final bit about the lack of a villain, that wasn't a problem for me. In fact, if anything, I liked it. And if there's "no issue to be overcome except that of choice", given the characterisation, that was a big enough issue to interest me.

  6. Hi Laura,
    Hope my email to you goes through. I posted a review of sorts at this link:

    Let me know what you think.

  7. Thanks, Melinda! As you can see, I've added a link in the body of the post itself. I think your analysis makes it really clear that family (attitudes towards it, the way it operates) is one of the biggest differences between the Romans and the Visigoths in Allen's depiction of the two cultures.

    I know there's a saying about "the family that prays together stays together", and it seems to me, having read your piece, that there's a variation on that hiding beneath the surface of this novel. The novel could perhaps rather literally be seen as depicting the "works" rather than the "faith" version of Peyton's motto (i.e. "the family that works together stays together"), because as you demonstrate, in Allen's novel "working together" is such an important way in which the Visigoths show care and love for family members.

  8. I'm really struck, Laura, by how many reviews and comments on the novel seem to echo this one, posted in response to SB Candy's review:

    "I, for one, love the idea of slave + “barbarian” king. But skip the modern angsty internal dialogue and just be about the business of dirty, accurate storytelling; it’s ever so much more compelling than Renn Faire Drag. Give me a barbarian who’s never heard of women’s rights any day over Gary Sue/Ken Doll. At least wacking Wulfric over the head with something heavy and made of iron would be a lot more satisfying."

    And just a moment ago, this one:

    "That’s what I’m talking about… pull my hair, bend me over but buy me something pretty first.

    I too am a woman of basic needs.

    I think that a lot of the angsty internal dialogue stems from the illusion of evolved civility that we operate under.

    I want to be able to indulge the fantasy without the analysis or having to rewrite history."

    All prurient interest aside, I think we academics need to come up with a way to talk about this reaction, this preference--or, at least, someone needs to send me over to one that's already out there. (Maybe SEP's account of romance reading as a victory-fantasy, from Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women? Or was that Jayne Ann Krentz's?)

  9. What I find most interesting about those comments is the assumptions they make about historical accuracy:

    "dirty, accurate storytelling"

    "I want to be able to indulge the fantasy without [...] having to rewrite history"

    Because, presumably, there would be no need to rewrite history to ensure that supposedly-historically-accurate brutish rapists were at all likely to be tamed by the women they'd raped?

    I can't help but conclude that some people's view of historical accuracy is just a little bit skewed in favour of their favourite fantasies.

    I couldn't find much about the Visigoths one way or the other, but the reputation of the Vikings seems to have been much exaggerated:

    The Vikings have a bad reputation, and it was no different on the Continent in the middle ages where they were regularly portrayed as brutally cruel, devilishly cunning and of superhuman stature. This article examines the evidence for the Vikings’ supposed cruelty, cunning and remarkable height and investigates how true the stereotypes were. What emerges is that all three contained a grain of truth, but led to exaggeration and distortion in later medieval texts and even some ninth-century sources. There were, for example, tall individuals among the invaders, but little difference overall between the height of the average Frank and the average Dane. There were likewise instances of Scandinavian brutality, but not on a large scale, and they were no worse than acts carried out by the Franks in the same period. Nor, surprisingly, is there clear evidence of Viking rape: certainly they were not known for ‘rape and pillage’ in the ninth century. Finally, though the invaders were capable of duplicity, Carolingian parallels are once again not hard to find. In sum, tales of tall, treacherous and brutal Northmen can be shown to have grown in the telling, and there is an evident gap between the Vikings of myth and the Vikings of history. (Abstract of Simon Coupland's "The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History." History 88.2 (2003): 186-203.)

  10. My own review of the book is here. I didn't have the strong reaction the Smart Bitches seem to have had. I'm still reading over the commentary, though, which is quite fascinating.

  11. I'm somewhat amused to find that on other blogs, people seem to think that academics blogging about romance novels resembles women preaching, according to Sam Johnson: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

    However, over here it IS done well!

    But some nasty little corner of my mind, amid all this serious discussion, can't help wishing that Julia had been abducted by Vandals rather than Visigoths, and had spent her time learning to TP trees, egg chariots, soap windows, and leave paper bags full of flaming dog poop on doorsteps....

  12. OK Talpianna, you've got me where I live and I'm laughing out loud. I spent yesterday analyzing VS,BK--today writing a sermon (on an unrelated theme, thank goodness--though now that I think of it there ARE virgins, slaves, barbarians, and kings in the Bible--hmmm, maybe there's a sermon title in there somewhere)--and tomorrow I'll be in the pulpit, preaching in pumps. I'll be thinking of Sam Johnson as I preside over communion!

  13. You might get a more logical sermon topic out of Paul's failure to object to slavery and even enjoining slaves to be more servile. And of course, one of the reasons Christianity so despised at first was that it was considered a religion for slaves.

    Word Verification: uhqrjrfg

    Isn't that the name of the Visigoth girl Wulfric was supposed to marry?

  14. "And of course, one of the reasons Christianity so despised at first was that it was considered a religion for slaves."

    That and the cannibalism, LOL. (Wasn't that Pliny?--it's really late here and my brain is slightly fried.)

  15. Melinda, remember that Dr. Johnson also said: A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek.

    Why don't we invite Eric to justify that statement while us militant feminists practice the martial skills we learned from those wussy barbarians down the road a piece and look for someone we can really use them on?

    (I'm thinking now of one of the stories in the first Chicks in Chainmail anthology in which a band of robbers attack a village full of women warriors--the men are off somewhere doing some duty--all of whom are simultaneously experiencing PMS....)

  16. I've contributed a review haiku.