[Note: with her attention to historical detail, Allen probably has more in common with Roberta Gellis than with Woodiwiss as an author, and Woodiwiss, an American, may not have had nearly the impact in the UK that she had in the US. That said, as a text, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King strikes me as more profitably to be compared with The Wolf and the Dove--not least for the whole "wolf" thing--than with Gellis's Roselynde novels, and I am comfortable working by comparison and contrast even if no direct influence can be proved.]
As you may recall, The Wolf and the Dove begins with a deliciously campy "myth," impossible to read now without hearing the dulcet strains of Spinal Tap in the background.
"In times of yore," Woodiwiss writes, "when druids roamed the northern forests of England and held their sabbaths in the dark of the moon, a young man grew enamored with battle and violence and studied the arts of war until none could best him." This young man, nicknamed "The Wolf," angers the Great God Woden with his “impudence”; Woden therefore turns him into an iron statue of his namesake and leaves him waiting in the woods near Scotland for "times of war" to come. Then, only, then, will he be set free to prove that he can turn his strength into actual “valor.” The eponymous hero of this novel, Wulfgar, likewise must be changed, this time by love, from a bitter, violent man into a warrior for what is right and good. The comparison to “Beauty and the Beast” is obvious; less obvious, but just as crucial, would be the way that Woodiwiss here repeats the plot of E. M. Hull’s The Sheik, in which the hero must change from a cruel, self-centered man into a “preux chevalier.” To coin a term, each man needs to be chivalrized, and in the process, each must learn to love and respect the woman he has heretofore simply taken.)
As the prologue closes, it’s business time, or at least time for a clash of cultures, medieval-style. "William's hordes crossed the channel and Harold rode from the north and war drew near,” Woodiwiss writes; a page later, as the novel proper begins, the author posts a talismanic date: October 28, 1066, a day when "hewn bodies" litter the earth outside newly Norman Darkenwald Hall and an assortment of Saxon women--notably our heroine, Aislinn, her mother Lady Maidia, and the unlucky 15-year old serving girl, Hlynn--wait within to be brutalized by evil Sir Ragnor de Marte. In the first twenty-six pages, all of the women have been bound and kicked, snoods and bodices (well, gunnas) have been ripped, and Hlynn has been gang-raped. “You are mine, I am your master,” Ragnor slurs, drunken, into Aislinn’s neck as his naked body pins her down—and with that, the first chapter ends.
The sexual violence in these opening scenes serves a number of functions in this novel, and in others like it from the period.
- Structurally, it serves as a baseline of awfulness, against which the reader can measure subsequent events and encounters, especially sexual encounters. When we meet Wulfgar, we know that we’re supposed to prefer him to Ragnor; the latter is repulsive and a vile rapist while the former is attractive and, we’re told, his kisses and later sex with the heroine spark pleasure in her, first unwilling, and finally exultant. (The trajectory of the novel runs from sexual victimhood to sexual agency, from “unwilling” pleasure to actual enjoyment, with recurrent threats of rape from Ragnor and others to keep the book’s distinctions clear.)
- Politically, we might say that it gives us a justification for patriarchy and for particular negotiations with it. The alternative to Wulfgar is not freedom, not equality, but anarchy, to which women are particularly vulnerable. We might say that this subgenre of romance includes both a critique of patriarchal violence, or at least of male violence, as well as a vision of how to triumph, not over, but within those parameters, largely through connection with and transformation of the strongest male around. (Given the context of the early 1970s, we might say that such novels place themselves somewhere to the left of The Total Woman, but well to the right of Fear of Flying; they have My Secret Garden somewhere in their view as well.)
- Psychologically—well, here things get dicey, for me. Had I but world enough and time, I’d use Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination to discuss this deployment of sexual violence. Briefly, if to be a woman in this context is to choose between bad choices, hawk and wolf (as Aislinn puts it on p. 43, forced to pick either Ragnor and Wulfgar) then it’s both logical and tempting for the heroine to affiliate, or even identify, with a man who claims to respect one’s fighting spirit, who insists on “taming a shrew” (56) through pleasure as well as force, and so on. Yet this does little to explain the appeal of such scenes to the reader, or the use of them to affect the reader. Is there some clue to be found in Laura Kinsale’s essay on “The Androgynous Reader,” or in Deborah Lutz’s notion that the “dangerous lover” serves as a distant mirror of the heroine, who “finds her most authentic self at the heart of what seems at first most foreign and outside her way of being—an arrogant, hateful other” (xi)? Perhaps a fantasy of resilience is at work: the heroine endures, resists, and triumphs over horrors, and we identify with that? One last, less fraught explanation might come from the well-documented psychological phenomenon of “misattributed arousal.” Through fear the text triggers an adrenaline rush—pounding heart, physiological excitement, emotional frangibility—and for some readers that excitement then gets associated with the hero / heroine relationship, perhaps. (Clearly I need help with this—but I don’t think I’m the only one who does!)
You don’t have to read very far into Allen's novel for it to feel a bit familiar—not a bad thing, in romance aesthetics—or for its softening, revisionist moves to begin. Let me start with the familiarities, the signals this novel sends that it has an older, “bodice-ripper” version of historical romance somewhere in its ancestry.
Like Woodiwiss, Allen begins with a date--"24th day of August, AD 410"--, which marks a moment of crisis. In both novels an invasion has occurred, and in both war has stripped away the veneer of civilization, revealing the sorry truth that Hobbes warns about in Leviathan, quoting the Roman author Plautus: in the absence of authority, homo homini lupus est, man is wolf to man. A nameless slave, about Hlynn’s age, has already been the first victim, here killed before she could be forced. Before the second page is through we see the requisite, genre-defining tug at our heroine’s neckline: “His fingers grasped the neck of her tunic and yanked downwards, his sweaty hand sliding over the bared flesh” (8). When our hero appears, he is again a leader of the pack: a figure who is not simply powerful, but also (the narrator assures us) “alien, utterly male” (10). Within a few chapters we hit such familiar topoi as the erotic bathing scene (62-5), a hero who is “angry enough to turn [the heroine] over his knee” (60) and who wonders whether he will need to “break her spirit” in order to “bend her to his will” (61), a pervasive rhetoric of ownership (“mine,” “my woman,” “”you are mine” declared “with the arrogance that never failed to take her breath away” ), and any number of scenes in which sexual passion is described as “savage” (193), laced with “violence” (164), and so on.
I do not, I should emphasize, list these as a criticism of the book; rather, I see each as a generic marker, a set piece, even, that places this novel in the sub-genre of erotic historical romance. They offer Allen an opportunity to repeat and vary generic conventions, just as the set scheme of a pentameter line allows us to spot and savor metrical substitutions. Allen seizes this opportunity, revising her material through a series of substitutions and gestures of containment.
Consider, for example, the wolf we meet in the opening scene. It is not wild, nor does it attack, although it may guide and warn. “The animal had [Julia’s] arm between its jaws,” Allen writes in the opening chapter. “It was not biting, just holding on with a pressure that would not crack an egg, yet which had all the potential to rip her flesh from her bones” (17). Obviously this serves as a figure for Wulfric, powerful enough to rape or kill Julia yet bound by honor and simple kindness, never threatening either. (Wulfric starts, as a character, with the traits that Wulfgar must struggle to achieve.) Less obviously, I take it that the wolf’s hold is a figure for the “hold” that the rhetoric of male strangeness, heroic arrogance, sexual power struggle (see 66), and erotic possession has over the reader, or at least over the genre. In their wild state, uncontrolled, these would be terrible; to be useful, they must retain just enough strength to lend a shiver of the illicit, the lawless, the extreme. The novel invokes them repeatedly, along with familiar claims about impulses that are “fundamentally” male and female—but the reader who goes to Virgin Slave, Barbarian King for the strum und drang of a Woodiwiss novel will be disappointed. The novel may gesture towards the high drama of sexual difference, but it treats this material awfully sweetly, lightly, even naively. It’s costume jewelry, like the chains--“light, and of a precious metal, naturally”--that Julia imagines in a brief, soft-focus fantasy of herself as a “sex slave” (107-8). Or, to draw another metaphor from the book, it’s like the dormant volcano on whose slopes the couple first make love. When Julia comes, she wonders, “Did the volcano explode?” ( 130). It hasn’t, it doesn’t, and the erotic “force beyond her understanding” it represents doesn’t really seem that far beyond her understanding, after all (130).
At its heart, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King is a domestic, even domesticated romance. I mean by this not only that its treatment of eros and sexual difference tends to moderation, not extremity, but also that the novel consistently longs for and valorizes a particular version of “home.” Julia has no real home as the novel begins—we are repeatedly told that she is lonely in her life in Rome, that she has no network of relationships to make her happy there, and still worse, no work to do that anyone values, that matters to anyone. (Allen frames Julia’s captivity as an opportunity for her to prove her strength and learn to fight (20), to show her strength, as she would never have done in the safe confines of Roman society.) Among the Visigoths she finds all of these—it’s as though she had been carried off to a bourgeois Forest of Arden, and as though the reader were carried off, while she reads, to a similarly supportive community, not all that different, finally, from “real life.” Wulfric has a place among the Goths, friends and family and work to do, but the community itself is homeless, nomadic, and he’s essentially a public figure there, with no separate private, domestic life. (No life without wife, as Mr. Kohli says in Bride and Prejudice.)
The foundation of the home this couple creates lies partly in their demonstrated care for one another, and partly in a sexuality for which we have, I think, a less famous, less elaborated, less dramatic, and potentially less sexy rhetoric to draw on: a mix, as the novel puts it, of “innocence and trust and desire” (124). What shall we make of this combination, their “esteem enlivened by desire,” to quote the poet James Thomson, from The Seasons (Spring)?
In her essay on the novel’s account of masculine honor, Sarah refers to what she sees as its jarringly anachronistic version of marital love. Whether or not it is in fact an anachronism, their notably egalitarian, affectionate love match fits quite nicely into the book as a “new foundation myth,” as Laura puts it in her own impressive piece. Just as Milton writes a (for his time) modern notion of companionate love into the story of Adam and Eve, the origins of mankind, Allen inscribes companionate love into a deep, foundational moment in European culture, “the basis of the Europe we live in today” (294).
As history, this may be bunk. I’ll need to spend a day or two with Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage: a History and Jean Hagstrum’s Esteem Enlivened by Desire: the Couple from Homer to Shakespeare to judge, and even then I’d probably be bluffing. (More on this anon.) As literature, though, such transpositions serve a worthwhile purpose, and even have a fancy theoretical name, courtesy of Harold Bloom, the critic I came in with. In Bloom, a move like this is called a “metaleptic reversal”: a rhetorical turn whereby something later (a text, an idea, whatever) claims to be in fact earlier than its temporal precursor, or even manages to seem the original, with the previous text simply a falling off or secondary instance. Surely it’s no accident that Allen’s hero and heroine end up living together in Provence, home of the troubadours, or that their imagined villa lies “in the shadow of Mont Ventoux” (294), a mountain internationally famous thanks in large part to the poet Petrarch.
In Allen’s foundation myth, as in Milton’s, companionate love is older than troubadour fin amors or unrequited Petrarchan longing--just as, to be too clever by half for a moment, her novel's merger of cultures antedates the one enacted in the Woodiwiss novel. In fantasy, it is not a new turn in marriage, circa 1750; rather, it is at the very least contemporary with the colder-hearted thought that marriage is a move in the struggle for power, with every wife, in Julia’s words, “a gaming piece on the board where family and civic status was decided” (103). It is, therefore, an original version of love, perhaps the original, and thus the one to which subsequent "revolutions "actually, and quite properly, return.