Friday, January 04, 2008

Wulfric, Wulfgar--What's the Difference?

"Every poem," says Harold Bloom, "is a misinterpretation of a parent poem." Is every romance novel likewise a misreading, a creative revision, of some parent romance? Probably not, but Bloom’s approach to literary history was all the rage when I headed off to graduate school in the 1980s, and I’ve never entirely grown out of it. And Virgin Slave, Barbarian King can certainly be read as a text that rewrites—for better or for worse—one famous predecessor, Kathleen Woodiwiss's early bestseller The Wolf and the Dove (1974), and more confidently as a text that echoes and revises crucial topoi from the sweeping historical romances that revolutionized the genre in the 1970s. Allen borrows scenes and character descriptions familiar from, and made popular by, the “bodice-ripper” romance, but she tames them, drains their violence, and imbues them with more consoling, egalitarian values. Just as her Visigoths want to build a new society in the shell of the old, adding a dash of “Visigoth honour” to “the good things of the Empire” (147), Allen’s novel aspires to offer the best of both worlds. Whether you think it succeeds, comes across as nostalgic, or simply fails, a lamb in wolf’s clothing, may be a matter of taste. For now, description, rather than evaluation, is the task at hand.

[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!)
There is more to say, of course, about the Woodiwiss, but in the interests of time, let me turn now to Virgin Slave, Barbarian King.

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” [99]), 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.


  1. I think you should have linked to the dancing version of Business Time, so that it matched the dancing in the song from Bride and Prejudice.

    Well, with that serious matter aired, I'll continue.

    the reader who goes to Virgin Slave, Barbarian King for the strum und drang of a Woodiwiss novel will be disappointed

    I got the sense that this was behind quite a lot of the negative responses to the novel. Kathe Robin said that various elements of the novel "harken back to the classic '80s Indian romances"; on one of the threads at the SB's site, Imogen Howson said "I think, to be honest, that when I’m reading a book with the words virgin and barbarian in the title, I both expect and want a bit more fun sparkly trashiness than I got in this book."; Jayne said that "the name Wulfric is far too close to Wulfgar"; maybe one can even interpret SB Sarah's comment that "there is no villain" as also being an indication that she, too, had particular expectations which were perhaps more in the Woodiwiss-ish direction, which, as you point out, has the spectacularly evil villain Ragnor. Candy also makes reference to a Woodiwiss romance, and again I get the sense that while she didn't want something that merely reproduced Woodiwiss's gender politics, Allen's novel, in her opinion, went too far in the opposite direction:

    Wulfric is a politically correct hero, and hot damn, does that ever make him tiresome.

    On one hand, I really appreciate the move away from asshole rapist heroes in the genre. I really, really do. If I had to choose between a violent assmunch like the hero in
    The Flame and the Flower or a paragon of all things virtuous like Wulfric, I’d still pick Wulfric, tiresome though he is.

    It's as though these readers were expecting an updated version of Woodiwiss, or, given its title, a historical version of a Harlequin Presents romance with its "emotional intensity" but what they got instead was something that felt more like a historical version of something from the HM&B Romance line with its requirement for a hero who has "a strong sense of right and wrong, is reasonable and fair [...] He can laugh at himself and life; he's often understated and modest in manner".

    I had none of those expectations because I came to the genre long after the bodice-ripping era ended, and I've still not read a Woodiwiss. So I didn't know about Wulfgar, and I had no idea that "the erotic bathing scene" was a "familiar topos." I've only come across a bathing scene in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and that was rather different in content.

    Anyway, it does make me think that reader expectation shapes reader response, like if you're expecting an ice-cream sundae and instead get a chocolate biscuit, you're maybe not going to be very happy about it, even if, on its own terms, it's a fairly good sort of chocolate biscuit.

    each man needs to be chivalrized, and in the process, each must learn to love and respect the woman he has heretofore simply taken [...] At its heart, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King is a domestic, even domesticated romance.

    That's the other problem that a lot of the reader reviewers seem to be mentioning. They seem to feel VSBK is boring, flat, lacking in conflict and I suspect that's because Wulric (like his wolf) begins the novel already domesticated. And for readers for whom most of the fun in a romance is in seeing the heroine taming the hero, that means they're bound to be disappointed.

    I do think there's conflict there, and I'd agree with Victoria Dahl, who commented in the first of the SB threads that:

    I thought the forces keeping them apart were fer reals. I mean, how can you get past the “He can’t be king if he marries you?” That’s a pretty big obstacle.

    but I suspect that's not the sort of conflict/obstacle that a lot of romance readers are interested in. They want to see an alpha hero being tamed, not a man struggling to overcome his passion in order to carry out his duty.

    Re the pervasive rhetoric of ownership (“mine,” “my woman,” “”you are mine” declared “with the arrogance that never failed to take her breath away” [99])

    I noticed that the word is also present, but in a context that suggests much greater equality, in the final pages:

    'Mine,' he said fiercely. 'My love, always.'
    'Mine,' she echoed, pulling his head down again so she could kiss him

  2. Hi, Laura!

    Briefly, since the post was so long, about that final "mine," I thought it was a lovely echo of the Biblical "Song of Songs," which repeats the line "Ani l'dodi, v'dodi li" on a couple of occasions: "My beloved is mine, and I am his." That's an old text, at the very latest a Hellenistic Jewish one, and possibly much older--clearly the ideal of mutual possession, mutual belonging, goes back quite far!

    As for giving up the throne vs. being "tamed," I take it that most of those readers wouldn't find the tale of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson very romantic. Maybe the plot has a different resonance for American readers than for British ones? (Not that Wulfric gives up his throne--but he does choose private life over leading his people, which sounds not "arrogant" but rather humble, unpretentious, and quite appealing to me!)

  3. I don't find Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson romantic either, but that's because I can't get past the fact that it seems likely they were Nazi sympathisers.

    Brian Walden here suggests it was "rather a touching" episode, and he also suggests that

    The King was passionately, abjectly in love with her. And the emphasis must be on the word "abjectly." The King needed to be dependent on a woman. He needed her to be the dominant partner in the relationship. He wanted to do nothing but submit to her slightest whim

    I think Wulfric's rather different. He doesn't actually give up his ambitions because of Julia. Instead it's events which put both him and Willa out of the running.

  4. "I think Wulfric's rather different. He doesn't actually give up his ambitions because of Julia. Instead it's events which put both him and Willa out of the running."

    Ah, yes--that's true. Although he did seem willing to back Willa at some point, as I recall.

    I'm sorry to hear that about the royals--the Nazi sympathies, I mean, rather than the submissiveness, about which I am scrupulously neutral. Maybe someone could write a BDSM novel about them, in manner of The Syndicate? (Just kidding, Sarah!)

  5. I don't think ANY Brit finds, or ever found, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson romantic, even apart from the possible Nazi taint. The fact that many Americans do find them romantic is one good example of an enduring cultural gulf between us.

  6. Bourgeois barbarians--I love it! They're just like Darcy and Elizabeth, except not so well dressed.

    I wrote an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT discussion of the book for SBTB, but their blogger ate it. Too bad--no other analysis even comes close.

    It does seem that the more I read about it, the less I want to read it. I am put off by the absence of a villain, too: I don't really read many romances--just a few favorite authors, romantic suspense, and Regencies. I don't find the relationship between hero and heroine the most interesting part, which is why I prefer mysteries or SF/fantasy with strong romantic plots to romances pure and simple (or even impure and complex). I like the couple to be doing something, not just sitting around examining their feelings, snarling at each other, or making mad, passionate love in the broom closet.

    Another point is that several commenters have mentioned that Julia adapts to the Visigoth lifestyle with suspicious ease, and it's pretty much skimmed over. But one of the things I like best about books which put characters into strange environments is watching them learning things--new social mores, new skills (especially magic), new languages. The book has been compared to "noble savage" romances; the only one of those I've read is Dream Catcher (1996) by Kathleen Harrington, which I enjoyed for the heroine's learning the ways of the Cheyenne. One of the things I like about Mercedes Lackey's books is the emphasis on learning and/or doing new stuff. As a kid, I liked books in which people learned to do things like making a canoe out of birchbark, use a bow and arrow, and all that good stuff. I also enjoyed reading my grandparents' set of The Book of Knowledge cover to cover.

    I think one of the principal reasons people like SF and fantasy is just this sort of thing--despite Jenny Crusie's fulminations against "infodump."

    As for the Windsors, they are rather a hobby of mine. The Establishment wanted to get rid of Edward not just because they didn't want the head of the Church of England marrying a twice-divorced American, but because he was a weak character, who wanted the privileges of royalty without the duties and responsibilities, and because he was a security risk. He is known to have mentioned secret government policies to his German Nazi cousin; and confidential government papers sent to him for perusal came back from his holiday home with rings from cocktail glasses all over them. (One of my "I'd like to write a book about this someday" ideas is an alternate history in which the Germans did invade Britain and put them on the throne, with Oswald Mosely as Prime Minister.)

    My English history professor used to say (possibly quoting someone like Mencken) that Edward "gave up being commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy to become the third mate of the Baltimore Belle." If you read The Windsor Story by J. Bryan III & Charles J.V. Murphy, you'll see that neither participant in this "grim fairy tale" was an admirable character. The only truly heroic characters are George VI and his Queen, who stepped into public roles they hated, and served their country nobly during the Blitz.