The Virgin in question is Julia Livia Rufa, a pampered Roman virgin and the daughter of a powerful senator. The Barbarian is Wulfric, a Visigoth, and the story begins during the Visigoth sacking of Rome in 410 AD.
Wulfric saves Julia from a near rape at the hands of her own countrymen and decides that she will do nicely as his house slave - purely on impulse, as he later acknowledges to himself; for she is “neither the wife he should acquire nor the domesticated slave who would make life more comfortable.” Despite the attraction he feels for her, Wulfric is an honourable man who disapproves of rape and makes it clear to Julia from the outset that he has no intention of violating her.
Julia has always done as she is told; “shop here, wear this , go to this party, not to that one. Be friends with those girls, this one is unsuitable... Marry Antonius Justus Celsus. Yes father, yes mother. Whatever you say...” She has to, for the first time in her life, rely on herself, fight for herself if she wants to be free and return to her civilised world. Her stubborn rebellion is pitted against Wulfric’s implacable resolve and the two butt heads as Julia rails against her new life as a slave.
Reluctantly at first, she is drawn into Wulfric’s world, the world of the (to Roman eyes) uncouth, unsophisticated and primitive barbarians. As his slave, she learns to cook and clean the tent she shares with Wulfric and his young ward, Berig. She forms a close friendship with Una, a neighbouring kinswoman, and unsuccessfully fights her growing attraction to the gold skinned, musclebound barbarian who owns her. As the story progresses, Julia finds herself more at home amongst the Visigoths than she ever felt in Rome, recognising that her previous existence was lonely and sterile by comparison.
Julia and Wulfric’s mutual attraction and growing love is challenged by Wulfric’s eminent status among his people: as ‘king-worthy,’ he is a strong contender for kinghood once the ailing Alaric dies. Consequently, Wulfric knows he has to make a good marriage that will bring him key allies and ‘many spears.’ He cannot afford to marry a Roman slave if he hopes to succeed Alaric.
VS,BK follows the Visigoth’s sacking of Rome and the aftermath - the Visigoths’ journey to the south in search of a homeland. You could even say it’s a road-trip romance, with much of the story taking place on the move. There’s plenty of historical detail, enough to satisfy a reader who, like me, has a limited knowledge of the period. Indeed, there were times when I was more interested in domestic minutia or the inner workings of the famous public baths than the romance taking place between Wulfric and Julia.
As anyone reading my recent blog entries must know, I am currently disenchanted with my favourite sub genre - historical romance. In particular, I find myself gnashing my teeth over what I vaguely describe as the ‘wallpaper historical,’ which, to my mind equals at least one of three things: shoddy research, inappropriate dialogue or a too-modern sensibility (it is, I grudgingly concede, impossible to shed entirely our modern attititudes). My problem with Virgin Slave, Barbarian King was the sinking realisation, as I progressed into the novel, that I was reading a story about two very nice 21st century people supplanted into the year 410 and forced to enact a master/ slave paradigm about which both were very uncomfortable and mildly embarrassed.
In particular, I found Wulfric almost laughably perfect. This tall, golden, king-worthy warrior, wise in council, fierce in battle, loves animals and small children. Wulfric is the perfect man; sensitively appreciating when Julia might need space, holding her when she cries at night in her sleep, soothing her when she is sick. He - naturally - abhors rape and assures Julia she has nothing to fear from him. After taking Julia’s virginity in a (SPOILER!) consensual and mutually satisfying encounter, this gentle warrior - wracked by guilt - compares his action to plucking a lily and watching it wilt in his hands.
The problem was this: Allen has taken a situation ripe with conflict and then effectively removed the heart of the conflict. Julia’s initial resistance to her situation lasts about two days and is illustrated in a series of cheeky, defiant gestures that are easily quashed. As it says on the tin (blurb), “Julia realizes that she’s more free as a slave than she ever was as a sheltered Roman virgin.” This realisation dawning so soon in the book, I was left with two thirds of the novel left to read, and very little compelling me to continue.
In her excellent response to Bindel’s comments on Mills and Boon Romances, Robin says: ...”some of my favourite books are those that struggle with very difficult power imbalances and all sorts of attendant anxieties.” to which Sarah Frantz replied: “I absolutely think romances represent our attempts to work through some of the more threatening aspects of power imbalances in patriarchal society.”
These comments struck me because 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. Johanna Lindsey!
Does the provocatively titled, limply portrayed Virgin Slave, Barbarian King challenge Bindel’s assertions? Is this misogynistic hate speech? Does it promote patriarchy and fuel rape fantasies? This is particularly interesting because, of course, women did not fare well in Greco-Roman thought and many of these misogynistic attitudes were prevalent in early Christian society. I have no idea whether Wulfric was a particularly enlightened Visigoth or if the Goths as a whole had a less repressive attitude towards women. In any case, Julia’s ‘feisty’ and ‘stubborn’ behaviour is approvingly considered Goth-like in the story. Indeed, Wulfric declares that women of spirit and courage are valued among his people, ready to defend their hearth or settle ‘insults.’ Julia uses her wit, her strength and her courage to return to Wulfric when he tries to send her home. She fights a tougher, stronger woman in self-defense (earlier on Wulfric fights a much larger man). Over the course of the novel, she wins over the surly Berig so that he becomes her champion. Her character is developed so that she becomes a worthy mate to the king-like Wulfric. She finds her place within his world and feels she belongs for the first time in her life. Of course, this is in the capacity of a house slave - cooking, cleaning and mending for her master. Her close friend, the fecund Una, is mother to a small tribe and a happily married woman - the ideal? Julia’s options throughout the novel are domestic options - she can return to Rome and become the wife of an influential senator, or stay with Wulfric and keep his home, most likely as his slave.
Wulfric, for all his qualities as a leader, is a man in search of a home. Always on the march, he has clung “to the vision of a villa somewhere in Gaul, shady courtyard, lush fields...” and finds that Julia has “given him a home wherever she [is].” In the end, he achieves this vision. Although Julia and Wulfric’s happy-ever-after is predictable and breaks no new ground - marriage with kids on the way - it is not achieved without sacrifice. Julia gives up her life in ‘civilised’ Rome, her parents, her powerful fiance and a position in the top reaches of society to be with Wulfric. Wulfric gives up his claim to the kingship. His more symbolic gesture, the (SPOILER!) cutting of his ‘sacred’ hair for Julia is huge. “You might as well cut off his balls,” says Berig earlier on in the novel. That’s some symbolic castration for you, and an element of this - civilizing the barbarian hero, or ‘taming’ the bad boy/ rake, is evident in every romance Bindel might choose to pick up. As Sarah Frantz asks over at TMT: Who is the subjugated?
To conclude, Bindel’s comments have brought to the forefront issues about the genre I’ve never considered before in a serious or critical way. To be sure, Bindel echoed many of my own prejudices about Mills and Boon romances (particularly the Presents line), which I am now keen to reevaluate. Moreover, it has forced me to make a stand in my own mind about what, if any, role romance has in promoting a patriarchal agenda. All popular culture is guilty of promoting the dominant ideology of any time, and romance is most definitely not exempt from this. There are recurring themes in the romance novels I read, enduring trends that remain popular - the alpha male; bliss in domesticity; the almost ritualised mistreatment (emotional or physical) of the heroine before a moment of enlightenment; male as the sexual aggressor - that would make it impossible to argue otherwise. I am left with a comment that struck me over at Teach Me Tonight (I love you guys!):
Bindel's article made me think that a Romance doesn't have to be like those horrid twenty M&B books she read to be patriarchal. All it has to do, imo, is be written by someone who's not actively trying not to be patriarchal. The unexamined assumptions are just going to come through, whether in a "funny" conversation where the hero razzes his male friend for being "like a girl" to show male bonding... or where the hero's allowed an active sex life, and the heroine must be a virgin to be worthy, or where the hero "tames" the heroine by forcing sex on her... whatever, it's going to be there to a greater or lesser extent. Much like the way that racism is... going to be in any work created in a racist culture, if only in the complete unrealistic absence of people of color, or the fact that the behavior of the token of a particular ethnicity follows racist assumptions.
In Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, Louise Allen is certainly not guilty of ‘unexamined assumptions.’ Indeed, in her painstaking care to ensure a level balance of power between slave and barbarian, paradoxically - tellingly? - something crucial is missing from the romance.
This gets a grade C+ from me. In order to ensure my review was pure and uninformed by the opinions of the Witty and Wise, I have refrained from reading the plethora of reviews gracing blog-land for this novel. I'm now off to see what the others made of it.