Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Spectacle of Masculine Honor: Louise Allen's Virgin Slave, Barbarian King

The main theme of this novel, as I read it, was that of honor and the knotty questions of how to define it, how to live it, who was allowed to possess it, and how to deal with it in a love relationship. The honor projected in this novel was a particularly masculine honor, but then how female authors construct masculinity, how that affects the love story, and what it means for the reader are my particular obsessions. This novel, however, seemed almost tailor-made for my brand of analysis, especially as it comments on Bindel's analysis of the romance genre.

A few words about historical accuracy: I chafed against our choice of this book from the three Bindel commented on. I don't like reading novels set before about 1750, because our understanding of our own subjectivity, of love relationships, of individuality, of our socio-economic place in life, of what it meant to be human changed in the eighteenth century and historically accurate depictions of life before the eighteenth century would, in my opinion, be almost incomprehensible to modern readers because what it means to be human has changed so much. Take that back 1600 years to 410 AD, and my concerns are multiplied ten-fold. Modern subjectivity is a Romantic-era construct, to a large degree, and what has changed the most is the power and importance and expression of love between two individuals and its relation to marriage. So reading about a Visigoth and a Roman "falling in love" and finding their happy ending in marriage in ways that our modern sensibilities can understand is a complete historical anachronism and that bugs me. So I usually avoid novels set before 1750, and certainly this is the first romance I've read set before 1300 AD (and it's only Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart that sets that date back before the eighteenth century). I will state now that it is my belief that Allen's construction of masculinity has nothing to do with "real," historical Visigoths except in that she plays now and then with modern popular understanding of "barbarians." Rather, her depiction of Wulfric and of the Romans represent a completely modern representation of ideal masculinity.

That aside, Bindel could hardly have made a more ironic choice than Allen's novel when condemning popular romances as "misogynistic hate speech" that perpetuates violence against women. The first act performed by the hero Wulfric when he enters the action of the novel is to kill the two Romans who have killed Julia's female slave and are trying to rape Julia (10). He punishes violence against women swiftly and finally. Almost the first thing Wulfric says to Julia is in response to her fear of rape: "I do not approve of ravishing women, as you saw just now. You need not fear that" (16). When the reader enters Wulfric's point of view in Chapter Three, the first thing he reveals is his inability to explain his attraction to Julia: "Something about this dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned creature called to him" (33), but the second thing is a reiteration of his feelings about rape:
There was fear at the back of those brown eyes, fear that he would force her to do more than carry water, despite his pledge, and that angered him.

These Romans had no concept of honour, no respect for a man's word. (33-34)
Wulfric's horror and complete disavowal of violence against women, then, is tied to his concept of honor. Indeed, later this link is made even more explicit: "And he would not take what he so easily could, because his faith told him it was wrong and his honour despised the thought that he would force a woman" (69).

This is the same honor that is posited as the cause for the sacking of Rome in the first place. Berig, Wulfric's squire, explains to Julia:
"We keep our word, all of us. Your emperor is an oath-breaker." He put loathing into the words. "There is nothing worse. If you cannot trust a man's word, what can you trust? He is less than a man, he is not fit to lead."

"It is politics. Honorius must do what is right for the state," Julia protested. What am I doing, debating politics with a barbarian youth while the city burns around us?

The boy stared at her as though she had sprouted two heads. "Do Roman women understand nothing of honour? Your emperor gave his word. He broke it, now he must pay." (21)
Honor, therefore, is a particularly masculine trait, and is explicitly tied to what it means to be a good man. The barbarian men are consistently shown as possessing honor (even the men who challenge Wulfric do so with honor--there is no villain in this book), whereas the Roman men are shown as lacking in honor because they lack the desire to act like men (they run, hide, facillate, don't fight to defend their own, keep themselves fit for show not action, and lie in political situations).

Julia (and the reader) is indoctrinated into the definition of masculine honor through the first half of the novel by observing it in Wulfric's actions. He kills the Romans who are trying to rape her; he doesn't rape her; he acts as councillor to his king; he wins a challenge fight against a fellow barbarian. Everything he does, he does with honor, and this point is hammered home to Julia and the reader again and again.

In the scene in which Julia understands the importance of the long hair of Visigoth men (and the Samson and Delilah imagery is glaringly obvious here!), masculinity is presented as THE defining characteristic of subjectivity for Wulfric: "she could see it went to the heart of what he was as a man" (76). Realizing what she almost did by cutting his hair, she thinks, "she could not imagine killing someone's soul, their sense of themselves. It seemed Wulfric knew that about her, just as she knew, deep down, he would never force her, never harm her" (76). The barbarian symbol of masculinity--their long hair--is a symbol of "their sense of themselves," defining who they are as people. And again, that iconic masculinity is joined with Wulfric's inability to rape Julia.

Besides NOT raping her, Wulfric allies his brand of honor and his relationship with Julia in important ways. After a particularly explosive sexual encounter, Wulfric realizes that Julia trusts him: "Somewhere there was a trust in him and in his honour. He should not care, but it seemed that he did and that the thought warmed him, deep inside where he kep the emotions that a leader could not show" (69). Wulfric's emotions for Julia are paired with his belief in her trust in his honor. if he didn't know that she knew that he was a Good Man, he wouldn't be as attracted to her as he is. He spends a lot of time unsure of his own feelings, unable to name them when he feels them ("What in Hades was wrong with him now?" he asks himself when he's worried for Julia's safety (122), and admits to himself that "I have no idea what it means" that he is angry about his concern for her safety when she disappears (123)), but when he finally admits to himself that he loves her, he connects it again with his honor: "To liken a man's honour in battle to his feelings for a woman just showed how far he had fallen into love with this brown-eyed Roman" (196). The very thing that defines him as a man--his willingness to fight for "his kin, his tribe, his king, his family, his God" (183)--is conflated with his love for Julia.

Which is not to say that Bindel's concerns aren't still valid. Bindel wrote, "But rather than becoming a "new man", it seems he has become even more masculine and domineering in order to keep the heroine in line. This is how the rape fantasies so integral to the plot have been able to persist." Wulfric certainly fits this mold as well. The first few sexual encounters between Wulfric and Julia are almost violent, and Wulfric is invariably described as dominant and dominating, but also unable to control himself around Julia.

One of their first kisses is told from Julia's perspective:
They were both angry. She had no idea whether she was more angry at him than herself, but there was no mistaking that Wulfric was furious with her, and utterly determined to bring her panting and pleading to his feet.

His grip on her was punishingly hard, his mouth plundered without any mercy, lips and teeth and tongue possessing and taking with a power that seemed to only increase as she refused to be cowed by it. He plunged his tongue into her open mouth, hard and hot. Innocent of a man's body she might be, but Julia knew what this invasion mimicked. (66)
After their encounter, she "saw on Wulfric's face nothing but male arrogance and the desire to dominate" (66). The power in these sexual encounters, however, is balanced with the absolute belief in Wulfric's inability to rape (when they finally do have sex, Julia's consent is explicitly sought and given: "'Certain?' he asked quietly. 'Certain.' She nodded" [125]), and with domesticity.

While the Visigoth's attacked Rome because the Roman emperor had no honor, what they had been promised and never given was land of their own that they could settle on. Wulfric and his barbarian horde are depicted as wanting domesticity more than anything else. Wulfric thinks, "They had taken the greatest city on earth, they held the sister of the emperor, they could strip Rome of gold and slaves and treasures. But were they any closer to what they needed, their safe homeland?" (34). Julia observes:
Through the open doorway, Julia could see the bustle of camp life as the sun began to set. Men were beginning to come back to their home fires, children running out to met [sic] them, womenfold standing up from tending their cooking pots to wave, or to exchange a kiss with the big, long-haired warriors. So fierce, so savage looking, and yet, apparently, so domestic. There seemed real affection there." (38)
This domesticity allows Julia to feel at home in the Visigoth camp on her first night there: "Hazily there was the realisation that she was not feeling lonely, she was feeling warm and safe and at home" (45).

Once again, this innate quality in Wulfric is soon turned to the service of the love story. Wulfric comes to view "home" and the stability it offers as residing in Julia, rather than in a particular place:
He had given up calling anywhere home years ago, clinging instead to the vision of a villa somewhere in Gaul, shady courtyards, lush fields, a vision that Alaric's orders to go south had dashed to fragments. It had become an impossible dream and yet now one slender girl with brown eyes and the courage of a warrior had given him a home wherever she was." (150)
The suspense at the end of the novel is located in the uncertainty over who will succeed the dead king, with Wulfric depicted as one of the best men for the job because he's the only one who doesn't want it. But the reader is not privy to the resolution of that tension because Julia is taken home by the Roman army after they attack the Visigoth band. She is in Rome when the new Visigoth king is named and all she knows is that it's not Wulfric, making her fear that he's dead. He comes to rescue her, however, just as she's ready to rescue herself. But he cuts off his hair, the symbol of his masculinity, of his leadership, and his "sense of himself," in order to be able to blend into the Roman crowd. Once they are together again, he tells Julia, "I want to go north into Gaul, not wait for Honorius and Athaulf to talk endlessly for years. I want to buy land, no wait for it to be given. I want to settle, learn to live with my Roman neighbours. I told my kin that, and said that if that is not what they wanted, then I released them from their fealty" (286). So the main tension of the novel is resolved off-stage, as almost a side issue, because after Wulfric's decision to find his domestic space by himself, the issue of who is king and what that means to the Gothic tribes is unimportant. Wulfric is creating his own reality, and while "a king must keep his hair . . . in this new world, a leader need not" (286). When they escape Julia's parents' house and find their ox carts hidden in the streets, Julia settles on is and tells Wulfric, "now I am home" (291). Wulfric agrees: "So am I. Do you know, I thought I would never have one until we found a place to settle. I did not realise all that I needed was to be where my love was. So simple, so hard to find. You are my home, Julia, my love" (291).

Ideal masculinity, then, is embodied in a man who is a natural leader, but unambitious, a fighter and warrior who just wants a home where he can farm, a barbarian and "savage" who finds violence against women abhorrent, a man whose personal sense of honor is paramount but who will sacrifice its symbol to recover his lover, and the construction of this image is the heart of this novel.

Image of the Visigoth warrior borrowed from here.


  1. The honor projected in this novel was a particularly masculine honor

    I'm not so sure, possibly because I read the book as being about the differences and similarities between the Romans and the Visigoths. To me the Visigothic concept of honour, as depicted in this novel, recalled the concept of honour as embodied in some earlier Roman heroes of myth/legend. The Romans in Allen's novel, however, are depicted as having become "over-civilized." In other words, I have a feeling that Allen is portraying the Visigoths as having the good qualities of earlier mythical/legendary Romans, such as Aeneas (known for his adherence to duty to family). One might also think of Regulus, who returned to captivity and certain death, rather than break his word.

    her depiction of Wulfric and of the Romans represent a completely modern representation of ideal masculinity. [...] Ideal masculinity, then, is embodied in a man who is a natural leader, but unambitious, a fighter and warrior who just wants a home where he can farm

    Actually, I'm not sure that this is "completely modern." The description in this quotation would also fit Cincinnatus, another early Roman hero.

    accurate depictions of life before the eighteenth century would, in my opinion, be almost incomprehensible to modern readers because what it means to be human has changed so much

    Again, I'm not so sure. I can see that an accurate depiction might not seem romantic to some modern readers but I think you're underestimating modern readers if you think we can't understand what life was like before the eighteenth century. Certainly as a medievalist by training, I have to hope that I do understand, at least a little, the attitudes held by the elite of 15th-century Castilian society.

    Take that back 1600 years to 410 AD, and my concerns are multiplied ten-fold.

    This seems to imply there's a linear progression, whereby the further back from the Enlightenment one looks, the more different life and attitudes become. There are a couple of problems with this:

    1) it feels as though there's some assumption being made about the homogeneity of "modern readers." Yet it may be that some modern cultures are actually as different, or more different, from yours than the culture of the late Roman Empire. I suspect that you were simplifying, so that your post didn't get as horrendously long as mine did ;-)

    2) without wanting to depict the early Middle Ages as a "dark age" of barbarism and total lack of civilisation (because it wasn't), I do think there was a certain amount of discontinuity and so an approach which seems to imply that there's a direct relationship between chronological distance and cultural difference is a little problematic.

  2. Very interesting review, Sarah. I do have one question. Can you explain the term "subjectivity" as you are using it here. It seems to have a different meaning in the field of literary analysis than I am used to.

  3. Sorry, I started off by being picky, rather than saying that I completely agree with this:

    Bindel could hardly have made a more ironic choice than Allen's novel when condemning popular romances as "misogynistic hate speech" that perpetuates violence against women.

    As you pointed out, it could hardly be made clearer in the novel that Wulfric is anti-rape.

  4. Ah, yes, Pacatrue. Sorry--it took me months in grad school to figure out what they were saying when they talked about subjectivity. Now it just assume it! I guess most simply it's the state of valuing oneself as a subject, not in the imperialist sense of being a subject of another or being subject to another's rule, but as the subject of a sentence--the doer, the actor, the one who is primary. One's subjectivity is one's understanding of oneself as a person with the ability to act.

    And Laura, not necessarily linearly progressive, but I think that Roman/Visigoth culture is still completely alien to us, especially in relation to marriage and love. That doesn't mean we can't come to understand it, but I think Allen gives us a much more modern version of the sensibility of the culture, even if her depiction of the actions in the life of a Visigoth is accurate. Kinsale, for example, did a fabulous job of making the unfamiliar explainable in For My Lady's Heart, but it's obviously a completely different way of being in love. Allen doesn't show that.

  5. I think Laura makes some important comments above. One of the central tasks of trying to understand the past is to try to work out the ways in which humans in past cultures were like ourselves and the ways in which they were unlike us. Of course, we can never get it right, but it is absolutely fundamental to realise that there were elements in chronologically fairly remote periods that may have been more like 'today' than elements in more recent ones.
    In general, I should say that most of us would find it a lot easier to fit into early Roman society (late-Antique is more problematic) than we would into, say, the 12th-13th century in Europe. The changing parameters are very complex, and mere chronological distance is but one of them.

  6. May I recommend, on this point, L. Sprague de Camp's time-travel novel Lest Darkness Fall? It opens in Rome, on the verge of World War II; an American archaeologist visiting the Pantheon somehow falls back in time to the sixth century A.D., where he takes actions that result in preventing the Dark Ages. It is primarily action/adventure with a great deal of humor, but it shows an educated 20th century man interacting with people of that age and doing quite well at it. And it's a fun read. The only thing I don't like about it is its depiction of Cassiodorus as a villain.

  7. I'll weigh in at length on Friday, I reckon. DePaul classes start tomorrow, and tonight my long, manly hair is still snarled in syllabi and class preparation.

    Superb work from both of you, Laura and Sarah! I'm eager to join the fun--

  8. DePaul? Isn't that an inferior imitation of my own alma mater, De Pauw?

  9. Wasn't "De Pauw" St. Vincent's dog?

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Eric, I retract my surrender. I just looked it up, and De Pauw was St. Vincent's CAT!!!

  12. Why should I, or any other man, wish to become one of these "new men"?

    I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have never harmed, nor given any woman cause to fear me. You infer that men are somehow sub-human without female influence. That sounds like a ver insidious form of "dominance" to me.

    I may be ill.

    For HONOUR! Your "sensitivity" would rob me of my vitality.


  13. B, you seem to have misunderstood the purpose and meaning of this blog post. It was Julie Bindel who used the term "new man" but she didn't define it. Sarah Frantz outlined what she thought was being presented as an ideal of masculinity in one particular novel by Louise Allen, but that ideal does not seem to be identical to that of the "new men" mentioned by Bindel.

    This post was a work of literary criticism, looking at one particular text and at no point did Sarah offer her own opinion on either set of ideals.

    As we are literary critics, not medically trained doctors or psychologists, we are not qualified to offer any opinion on whether or not you are "ill" but I do think you have misread this post if you think it implies "that men are somehow sub-human without female influence."