Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

DEADLY WOMEN

I got Vampire Lover in the post recently, which I bought for a dazzling £0.01 (how is that even possible?!)

The cover impressed me immensely: how cool is the cover? I love that it's the heroine who is biting/ drinking at the hero's neck, I love what it suggests about the power dynamic in the relationship. I love that she might be the 'vampire lover' in question. (I haven't read it yet, so I have no idea how truly subversive/ innovative it is. Right now, I'm simply content to anticipate).

Trying to find an on-line image of the cover led me to the discovery of another picture, called The Vampire by Sir Philip Burne-Jones (1897). I love this image, too. The senseless, supine man laying helplessly as the vampiress straddles him, neck arched and teeth bared. It might have been a direct inspiration for Vampire Lover.


It certainly inspired Kipling’s popular poem of the same name:
The Vampire
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair--
(Even as you or I!)

Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste,
And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent,
(Even as you or I!)
Honour and faith and a sure intent
(And it wasn't the least what the lady meant),
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(Even as you or I!)

Oh, the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn't know why
(And now we know that she never knew why)
And did not understand!

The fool was stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you or I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside--
(But it isn't on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died--
(Even as you or I!)

``And it isn't the shame and it isn't the blame
That stings like a white-hot brand--
It's coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing, at last, she could never know why)
And never could understand!''

As it turns out, this notion of the Vampiress, or the femme fatale was at its height towards the end of the 19th century; besides Kipling and Burne-Jones, there was Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler, the art of Klimpt and Audrey Beardsley to name a few. (Edvard Munch’s painting Love and Pain is more commonly referred to as ‘Vampire’ and depicts a helpless man in the embrace of a red haired ‘medusa like’ woman.)

The Victorian obsession with the femme fatale has obvious roots: prostitution and syphilis, feminism and the New Woman, which led to a fear of female sexual power and its potential malevolence. As Meier observes -
The myth of the femme fatale, a female character that erotically fascinates and enchants a usually male partner who eventually is ruined or destroyed by this relationship, seems to be a male myth from the very beginning. The various explanations of its origins converge in the concept of patriarchal fear in the face of the suppressed female principle in general - and of female sexuality in particular.

Which brings us to the flip side. Far from empowering women, feminists have long noted that there is an underlying misogyny inherent in the early depictions of femme fatales, a hostility stemming from fear, be it of economic marginalisation or the threat of that ‘dark continent,’ female sexuality. Bram Dijkstra goes so far as to suggest that these images represent the transition of women from victims to the victimizers of men.

So where does that leave me? I love the idea of the empowered, sexually confident vamp, the anto-heroine. But is she a male creation, a combination of masochism and wish fulfillment? A cautionary tale? I can think of hundreds of femme fatales in romance - most of them evil, and punished in the end for their rapacious sexual drive, for shamelessly exploiting men with their sexuality.

Is there a place for the femme fatale in romance as a heroine, and can you think of any good examples? (though I am loath to admit it, Shannon McKenna’s Tamara springs to mind).


The Climax
"Salomé", Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley (illus.)
1907 ed.

10 comments:

Tumperkin said...

This is a great post Meriam. (I love your posts).

Vampire Lover is an interesting book. I didn't love it as a romance (I read it when it came out) but I always remembered it because it was so convention-busting. Another interesting element - aside from the female as sexual aggressor - is the fact that the heroine has the sort of unjustified opinion of the hero that heroes often have of heroines in romance novels - basically that he's a heartles slut. And she is proved wrong. (I know I go on about Charlotte Lamb a lot but she was a very interesting writer who did occasionally 'subvert' elements of the genre in her books.)

But back to your post. Femme fatales are thin on ground as heroines but Bab Childe is definitely one (from An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer) and I found her to be an incredibly sympatheic character. I thought Heyer did a brilliant job of portraying her mercurial, thrill-seeking personality yet giving her a degree of insight into herself, a sense of humour and an opportunity to redeem herself through crisis. Just brilliant stuff.

I'm struggling to think of any other examples. Oh - Coco from Judith Ivory's Sleeping Beauty?

Meriam said...

Thanks, T. That is very kind of you. I started off wanting to post a couple of cool pictures, but got sidetracked by all the information and analysis on femme fatales. I barely wrote anything of note. It's an area I've never looked into before, but I found it fascinating.

I ought to finish Vampire Lover shortly and I'll let you know how it goes (I suspect I'll agree with everything you said).

You're right about Bab - she's a brilliant character and a perfect example. (what a great writer Heyer was; we talk of her range of heros, but she had a huge variety of heroines, too).

I haven't read Sleeping Beauty yet! I've heard it's one of her best...

Also, maybe it takes a truly great writer to a) be brave enough to write a femme fatale and b) do it sympathetically and convincingly.

Brie said...

Meriam, really great post.

Off the top of my head I can not think of any femme fatales. I'll have to give it some thought and come back.

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