Oh The Irony

Well now there’s an odd thing. I think about Marion Zimmer Bradley for the first time in ages and re-post my musings on Rediscovery and not two days later I heard about the accusations made against one of my adolescence heroes by her daughter. Yes, I know, I’m about a month behind everyone else again, as Moira Greyland revealed Zimmer Bradley’s abuse at the end of June. I now feel what some British friends of mine must have felt when Rolf Harris was accused. I don’t know what to believe but I see no reason to doubt Greyland. Zimmer Bradley reveals strange ideas about sexuality in her novels – strange perhaps because they are set in different worlds but, in the light of the revelations sinister as well as strange.

Alyssa Rosenberg wrote an article for the Washington Post which I very much agree with and which could be extended to the Darkover novels. The idea of women being wedded and bedded without as much as a by-your-leave is horrible and, thank God!, governments have pledged themselves to end forced marriage. Yet on Darkover the idea is condoned even by apparently strong women for ideas of duty. Almost ironically, on Darkover rape is also seen as the ultimate crime – but only when committed against a Keeper, a female ‘sorceress’ (for want of a better term) who, it is believed, must be chaste to fulfill her duties. I have always thought that Zimmer Bradley’s ideas on sexuality were slightly strange yet other ideas, as I mentioned in my previous post, are great. Rape and abuse are a constant theme in the Darkover novels, yet they also deal with the psychological consequences of the crime. Yet this woman is also an author who writes with apparent understanding of the pain and the shame of being a victim of sexual abuse – only think about the Renunciate Guild, a guild where, it is said, all women have a story and no story is happy. Camilla n’ha Doria, one of the protagonists in the Renunciates Saga, had herself neutered because of sexual abuse. Having been raped she had no desire to feel feminine and desirable for men, yet her love for Magda helps her overcome the shame and the painful memory. The contradictions are evident which make the revelations even more ironic.

There is no doubt about her importance as an author, a female author in the sci-fi and fantasy genre. I can only echo the words of Jim Hines, who wrote ‘her magazine helped a lot of new writers, and her books helped countless readers. All of which makes the revelations about Marion Zimmer Bradley protecting a known child rapist and molesting her own daughter and others even more tragic’. Tragic is a good word. I love her stories, I love Darkover but child-abuse is an offense so horrific that I am rendered speechless. From an academic’s point of view this revelation gives me a new insight into her novels and ideas. As a young woman who read Zimmer Bradley’s work at an impressionable age I feel betrayed and ashamed – and can only say to Moira Greyland that my thoughts are with her because I cannot begin to imagine what she went through and is still going through. She emailed the Guardian saying she thought fans would be ‘angry’. I am angry that Zimmer Bradley wasn’t reported sooner, that Greyland had to go through this and that she should feel obligated to her mother’s memory. Yet the memories of other friends and collaborators reveal Zimmer Bradley to have been a friendly and loving person. I feel that a discussion of such a thing as ‘the dark side’ of a human being is too philosophical for this post, so I will leave it there. I am glad Greyland has found support after her revelations and I hope that it helps in the healing process.

Links to the articles I mentioned and to the Guardian’s report:

The original email from Moira Greyland is posted here on Deirdre Saoirse Moen’s blog: http://deirdre.net/marion-zimmer-bradley-its-worse-than-i-knew/

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/06/27/re-reading-feminist-author-marion-zimmer-bradley-in-the-wake-of-sexual-assault-allegations/

Jim C Hines: http://www.jimchines.com/2014/06/rape-abuse-and-mzb/

Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/27/sff-community-marion-zimmer-bradley-daughter-accuses-abuse

Marion Zimmer Bradley, Rediscovery

When you’ve be wanting to read a book for several years (or, in this case, reread it) then it sometimes takes on an almost mythical status in the mind. It becomes the best book ever written and then, when the book is finally there, it sort of falls flat.

Well, Rediscovery wasn’t quite that bad but, unfortunately, it wasn’t far off. When I was younger I devoured all the Marion Zimmer Bradley books I could get my hands on – starting from The Mists of Avalon when I was about 12 (usual The Lord of the Rings stage, I think). I loved the slightly mystical language, the feminist emphasis on the importance of women and of course the stories about princesses and magicians and all that. When I had finished all the Avalon books in print at the time I began to read the Darkover novels. The novels are a curious mixture of science fiction, space exploration and conquest and fantasy elements such as psi-powers and laran (the Darkovan word for telepathy). I pilfered the library for books and, when that source ran out, bought them in English for myself. However, for some strange reason, I could never get hold of Rediscovery in English. It was only available in German – until now.

So what is it about? Well. On the planet Darkover the inhabitants, descendants from an old crashed Terran spaceship, have been living in relative peace for a couple of hundred years. They have developed their own feudal society, led by the Comyn, a caste of mostly red-haired people with telepathic powers. And then the Terran (so people from planet Earth) turn up and want to colonize a planet they conceive of as backward and simplistic. Which it is most definitely not.

The story centers around two sets of main characters, a Darkover twin brother and sister and three Terran friends. The Darkovan twins are Comyn and the young man, Lorill, will some day become the most powerful man on the planet. His sister, Leonie, is going into a Tower, essentially designed to control and teach the use of telepathic powers and the base for all ‘magical’ activities on the planet. There used to be many Towers but by the time this story is set, they have all been destroyed – the Ages of Chaos is, a bit like the European Dark Ages, a period of which not much is known. By this time, however, there are only five Towers left and Arilinn, the Tower which Leonie joins, is the most powerful. As people who have read the other books will know, Leonie is to become a ‘sorceress’ and eventually she will become the most powerful woman on the planet. Not bad going. 

The three Terrans are very different. David and Elizabeth are a young couple of anthropologists looking for a planet to settle down on, marry and have lots of children. Their best friend Ysaye is a young woman of African heritage (this is important for the story) who is a computer tech on the spaceship. She is allergic to almost everything and loves the sterility of the spaceship. Because all the members of the original ship that landed on Darkover were Caucasian, none of the Darkovans have ever seen a person with dark skin before which leads to some rather amusing incidents. However, the overall tone of the book is quite somber and the story raises some interesting questions.

As referenced previously, Darkover’s history is defined by a period known as the Ages of Chaos, when the misuse of telepathic powers led to wars and massacres. Since then the Darkovans have observed the Compact which forbids the use of long-distance weapons. Every weapon used must bring the user in equal danger to the one he or she is using it against. Therefore, swords and short bows are allowed whereas the Terran guns are not. Although the Terrans see themselves are far more civilized and progressive, their weapons are seen by the Darkovans as cowardly and weak. Bradley raises interesting questions about weapons of mass destruction here, I think, which, set in the fantasy world of Darkover, only seem transgressive when one seriously thinks about that subject.

Then there are the fires. Darkover’s climate is akin to that of Scandinavia or Siberia. The hills are covered with resinous trees which burn very easily. Therefore, when a forest fire breaks out, feuds are forgotten as everyone tries to save the country from burning up. Bandits join the law-abiding folk in the fire truce but, again, the Terrans don’t look too good. Spoilers here so I won’t tell you what happens though yet again Bradley challenges the modern individualism that seems prevalent in Western society.

Whilst I found it a less easy read than when I was younger and, I continue to appreciate the detail and the intricacy in Darkovan society. I can see that some ideas might challenge a modern reader but, somehow, they also make sense. Although the language is not up to Tolkien’s high literary standard, Marion Zimmer Bradley has created a world just as interesting and fascinating. And that’s why I read and reread her Darkover novels.

A Nancy Mitford post

This is another post I wrote a while back but as I haven’t posted for a while I need to update it and I’ve just been so busy that I haven’t had the chance to finish a book, let alone write a blog. A friend of mine recently reminded me of Nancy Mitford so I looked up this post and here you go:

After I’d finished Deborah Devonshire’s memoir, I thought it might be interesting to actually read some of her sister Nancy Mitford’s novels. I didn’t expect them to be this good or this funny. I think that they might actually be some of the best novels I’ve read in a while. The three novels were collected in an omnibus edition and they go together well. They are all set in the interwar period, in the world of debutantes, dukes and affairs. The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are both narrated by the same person, a young woman named Fanny, whose aristocratic parents are uninterested in her and so she grows up with her aunts and cousins. Fanny herself is a shadowy character. It is obvious that she is there as a narrative means. Every so often she divulges something about herself (she was a debutante; she married a professor; her house has this sofa). Furthermore, she narrates scenes set in Paris and southern France with such certainty that, although she explains her knowledge with detailed letters, Fanny remains a thinly disguised stylistic means. As for the main characters – they really deserve to be in the centre because they are fascinating.

The Pursuit of Love is about Fanny’s first cousin Linda. The girls are very close friends and are debutantes together. Linda marries a stuck-up banker’s son which completely contrasts her own upbringing as an aristocrat’s daughter. To me, as a middle-class girl, it seemed that rich people would all think similarly and such a difference between aristocracy and the nouveau riche, as I suppose one would have to describe Linda’s husband, never occurred to me. I don’t want to give much away. The novel is short and easy to read and is excellent partly because of its style and wit and also because of its twists. The end is surprising but, somehow, inevitable. Having thought about it again there really is no other way the book could have ended.

Love in a Cold Climate is about Linda’s neighbour, Polly (or Leopoldina) Montdore. The main focus here is the lack of Polly’s love life following her time as a debutante. Fanyn has moved to Oxford with her husband and narrates the story from there. Eventually Polly marries a most surprising candidate, who was never really a candidate before. It seems strange to say that nothing really happens until then; however, somehow it seems as if there are so many things happening that the reader can hardly keep up. Although Love in a Cold Climate is more critically acclaimed, I think I preferred The Pursuit of Love because it is a novel of extremes: funny, shocking, sad.

The Blessing was, I thought, the most comical and satirical but also the most frustrating novel of the three. Every so often I come across a character whom I would like to strangle. Emma Woodhouse is one. Sigismond de Valhubert is another. He is the blessing referred to in the title; more specifically he is the oldest son of Grace (an English rose, an only daughter) and Charles-Edouard (a Frenchman whom Grace marries whilst her fiancee, Hughie, is away on a tour of duty somewhere during the Second World War). For a while the couple are very happy. Sigi is born while his father is fighting in the war. After the war Charles-Edouard (a sign of his ‘poshness’ and sophistication – he has no nickname. And he is never just Charles) takes Grace, Sigi and Nanny to France. Grace loves the country house she stays in but Charles-Edouard prefers Paris (because that’s where his mistresses are…) and so they move there. Grace is presented as naïve and gullible; she doesn’t suspect Charles-Edouard of having mistresses, because he apparently loves her so much. Now, in Charles-Edouard’s mind these things are perfectly compatible. He loves his wife, therefore he has mistresses. Right. By this time Sigi is about eight and already a pain. Eventually Grace catches Charles-Edouard and mistress two in flagranti and moves back to Britain. Sigi goes with her and, manipulative sod, manages to thrwart his father’s attempts to contact Grace. Eventually Sigi goes to live with his father and enjoys an immense hold over him. Grace’s ex-fiancee Hughie, who is in love with one of Charles-Edouard’s mistresses, turns up as well to make things easier for Sigi to continue to obstruct his parents’ reconciliation.

SPOILER!!!!! Thank goodness the sod gets his comeuppance.SPOILER END!!!