This is it folks. This is a chapter I do remember. As I recall (remember, I was like ten when I read this), Bettina does not get whipped at all. Tristan comes out and saves her before any harm is done. He starts to be humanized and the first sparks of romance form. That’s still creepy as hell, since he’s kidnapped her, sexually assaulted her, and then threatened to make it extra painful when he assaults her a second time, all within the course of a few hours. But if you’re willing to get rape fantasy in your romance, it kinda works?
In a horrifying way, I mean.
ANYWAY. Let’s see how well my childhood memory holds up to the real thing.
For those joining us, we’re re-reading A Pirate’s Love by Johanna Lindsey, a historical romance novel first published in 1978. When last we left Bettina, she was about to be whipped to death for “killing” Tristan.
Chapter eight begins with Tristan waking up from his head trauma and stumbling out of his cabin and…
Jules was stopped barely in time, and he turned to see Tristan coming toward him, holding one hand to his aching head.
“Mother of God! Have you gone mad, Jules,” Tristan asked when he reached them, an angry scowl on his face at the sight of Bettina’s bared back.
“God’s truth, Tristan, I have never been more pleased to see you! Davey, that fool of fools, said you were dead—that the wench killed you!”
Tristan grinned now, but only slightly, for his head was throbbing painfully. “Didn’t it occur to you, old friend, to check for yourself?”
THAT’S WHAT I WAS SAYING. Doesn’t it frighten you that your crew are this astoundingly stupid and quick to action, Tristan? I’d be a little worried about leaving these people unsupervised, especially with cannons lying around. They might decide to declare war on Jamaica because a bird shit on the deck.
So when Jules had cracked the whip near her without actually striking her yet, Bettina had fainted and she’s still unconscious. She’s (physically) unharmed so far. Tristan has her untied and is going to take her back to his cabin, which Jules thinks is fairly dangerous, considering she tried to kill him. Tristan thinks it’ll be okay, though. Not because he’s going to be kind to her and try to make things right, though.
“Thanks to you, old friend, I know that she has a deathly fear of the whip. Didn’t she faint before you laid one stroke?”
“Well, that’s just the kind of information I need to put her where I want her.”
I’ve read noncon erotica that’s more romantic than that. What the actual fuck? He’s going to continue lying and manipulating her, using threats to force her to be submissive to him, so he can continue to rape her. I guess we’re supposed to be impressed because he wouldn’t really have her whipped and wouldn’t really have prisoners tortured to death, but since he’s using these threats to mentally terrorize a woman he’s keeping as his sex slave, that doesn’t exactly improve matters.
Rape fantasies are common and I understand them. Horror erotica is its own genre and while it’s not my thing, I know why mingling fear and arousal is hot. But even if I can’t remember all the details of this book, I know one thing: it ends with Tristan and Bettina in love, living happily ever after. And that’s what I don’t get. An emotionally damaged hero that might be a bit of a jerk, but the heroine’s love heals him? Not a healthy blueprint for a relationship, but a damn fine fantasy and one that I share. (Seriously, I read Loki fanfic, FFS. I get the appeal of the tortured asshole.) (Er. No pun intended.)
I don’t understand the fantasy here, though. Whatever people enjoy is what they enjoy and so long as it’s not hurting anyone, more power to them. I just don’t get it. Was this the best women in the ’70s could fantasize about for romantic happily ever afters? An attractive man who lusts for you so much he can’t help raping you, and maybe he mentally abuses you and constrains your freedom, but he’ll never actually hit you?
Back to the book. Tristan takes Bettina to his cabin and lays her down on his bed, with Jules and Madeleine following him in. And then he has this…er…tender moment:
Would she awaken still frightened, or with renewed fury at finding him alive? He hoped for the fury. He wouldn’t care to see this beauty cower before any man, not even himself. He would enjoy trying to break her in what little time he would have her, but somehow he knew that Bettina Verlaine could not be broken, not as long as there was life in her. She could be made to submit to him, but no one could break her will.
How romantic. While Madeleine tends Tristan’s head injury, he asks her a bit about Bettina’s backstory. Since we got all of this in big chunks of exposition at the beginning of the story, it’s not particularly interesting to read it again. This could have been helped a lot by trimming down the start of the book and letting us learn these details from dialogue like this. Tristan thinks it’s hilarious that Bettina was schooled in a convent, because he thinks she’s such a “hell cat.” Madeleine tries to defend her.
“I have never seen her so angry as she was today. Bettina is kind and gentle by nature, just like her mama. When she finally gave up trying to win the love of her papa, she was quite happy with life. Just her smile can make others feel as she does.”
“I have yet to see this smile or this kind and gentle nature,” Tristan remarked.
“You alone would know why, Capitaine. You have—have—”
“Dishonored her? Yes, so I’ve been told.”
YOU. RAPED. HER. Why is there any shock over her being angry? Why is it some kind of character flaw on her part that she wants vengeance against this man? Out of curiosity to see if the fact that it’s rape gets swept under the rug or not later in the book, I searched for every instance of “rape”, “raped,” “rapes”, and “raping” in the text. Do you know how many times those words are used? Sixty-two. SIXTY-TWO TIMES IN A 388 PAGE BOOK. That’s one variation of “rape” every 6.25 pages.
Romance novels need to have conflict, both internal and external, to keep the lovers from their happy ending until the very end. I don’t think “he raped her and for some silly reason she’s angry at him” makes a particularly satisfying conflict, unless it’s resolved with an ice pick through Tristan’s eye. I have a theory about what Lindsey was going for here, which I’ll get into later. Whether it’s what she was trying to do or not, it’s an interpretation that might help me finish this book without sobbing.
Because, seriously? This is depressing as hell to me. This isn’t just some cheesy old romance novel published before I was born. This is the first one I ever read. This is a book I loved. This book set me on the path to eventually become a writer. Literally, I am who I am today because of this book. So it feels a bit like being betrayed by a loved one–maybe even a parent–to return to it and see this stuff.
As the chapter ends, Tristan is left alone with the unconscious Bettina and watches her, musing about how awesome it is to rape her and how weird it is that she’s angry about it:
Tristan poured more of the wine into his tankard, leaned back in the chair, and fixed his gaze on Bettina. It would not take very long to reach Saint Martin, probably less than a week if the winds were favorable. That wouldn’t give him very much time to enjoy this beauty. In all his twenty-six years, he had never met a woman as beautiful as Bettina Verlaine, nor one with such a maddening temper.
I think I preferred the version of this chapter that I’d confabulated in my memory. We’ll see how chapter nine goes tomorrow.