In the last recap, I’d mentioned that I had an interpretation of this book that was going to make it easier to get through. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with contemporary literary criticism, here’s the cool thing: authorial intent doesn’t have to matter. I don’t have to be constrained by what Johanna Lindsey was going for (since she isn’t sitting here reading it with me, it’s not like I know what she was going for anyway). (Also I’d die if Johanna Lindsey was sitting here with me. There’d probably be tears and begging forgiveness for cracking jokes at her work.)
So long as my interpretation is consistent with the text and can be well-argued, it’s as valid as any other interpretation. It’s this beautiful sort of anarchy. You want an interpretation where every character who isn’t explicitly described as having milk-white skin is a person of color? Do it. There is no central authority when it comes to how to read a book. If there isn’t anything in the text to contradict how you read it, nobody on earth is more “right” than you are. Not even the author.
My interpretation is that this is really a deconstruction of the abusive nature of romance relationships written during the ’70s. While my mom told me that romance novels of this era weren’t as rape-y as this book, that isn’t completely accurate. They were often full of rape–and some would argue popular romances today have it, too–but the rape wasn’t called rape.
This is a big part of rape culture. People will say that sexual assault is wrong and then not grasp that having sexual contact with an unconsenting person is, y’know, sexual assault. What’s interesting about this book is that Madeleine gave us a primer on what rape is before Tristan ever appeared on the page: rape is an unwanted sexual act. It couldn’t have been more explicit without copying the Crystal Clear Consent definition in the book.
And when Tristan sexually assaults Bettina, it’s called rape. This is what makes this book radical and shocking. It isn’t “seduction against her will.” It is what it is. Bettina is calling it rape, but Tristan says he’s “dishonored” her and shrugs off her accusations by saying she can call it what she likes. Jules references unwilling women, but doesn’t call Tristan a rapist. Bettina knows what’s been done to her, regardless of how the rape culture around her would try to dress things up. When Madeleine tries to downplay it and talk Bettina out of vengeance, she’s acquiescing to rape culture as well. She’s reminding readers of how this is supposed to go. Bettina’s virginity is gone so she can’t be defiled any further, might as well relax and enjoy it, hey? That’s the thinking. And Bettina defies that. Bettina is not going to quietly play her role as happy victim.
That in mind, let’s see how my interpretation holds up to the rest of the book. In the last recap, Bettina had fainted and Tristan was sad about how he only had about a week left to keep raping her.
Chapter nine opens with Bettina waking up and realizing she’s not dead. She’s sure that Jules has only spared her for the moment because he wants her awake and suffering through her torturous death, though–that is exactly what he told her–and starts to regret her rash actions before:
Why did I have to kill him? she thought miserably, covering her face with her hands. I would only have had to endure a short time with the capitaine; then I would have been free—free to enjoy a long life. It would not have taken too long to forget about this experience, to be happy once again. Why did I jeopardize my whole life just for revenge? After all, the man was a pirate. I should have expected no more than deceit and lies from him. Bettina moaned softly in her misery. What was going to happen now? Was the first officer preparing an even more terrifying death for her? She must escape this cabin, she decided. She would jump ship and end her life in the sea. She could swim, but being so far from land, exhaustion or sharks would soon claim her. Not exactly the way she would choose to die, but a kinder death by far than the lash.
Several of the negative reviews I read of this book talked about how obnoxious Bettina was and how the readers couldn’t stand her. Right now, after reading this paragraph? I want to marry her and have her weird little mood-ring-eyed babies. She recognizes that she could recover from being raped, that it hasn’t “ruined” her. There’s some guilt and self-blame, but not because she was assaulted. It’s because she didn’t think things through better. And then what does she decide? She decides that if she’s going to die anyway, she’s not giving these fuckers the satisfaction of doing it themselves.
Unfortunately, Tristan is still there in the cabin creeping on her. He also finds her fear when she notices him absolutely hilarious, “his eyes were gleaming with merriment, with devilry.” He’s embodying the sexy rogue archetype here, but instead of that little thrill the heroine is supposed to get, Bettina gets angry. Because even if she’s afraid, even if this man literally has power over her life and death, she recognizes he’s wronged her.
Bettina stiffened as rage filled her. “You!” she managed to scream at him. “You should be dead! But I will yet succeed, Tristan!”
“Do you really long to feel the lash across your tender flesh, Bettina?” he asked quietly. He set the tankard back on the table.
She paled visibly. Hadn’t she just asked herself why she had killed him? He was not worth that kind of death.
Look at what she’s thinking there. Not that killing him would be bad. Not that he doesn’t deserve death. Just that this fucker isn’t worth her risking herself. If you’re trying to read their interactions as romantic–which is reasonable in a romance novel–this could be very frustrating for a reader. Bettina isn’t reacting the way she should. Her hate is too real, her suffering too on the nose. It’s like an actual human being got shoved into a pirate rape fantasy and she refuses to play her role.
He demands to know if she’s going to attack him and risk the lash again. There is this beautiful moment as she’s thinking over her response:
Her eyes were dark and fiery emeralds, caressing him with her hatred. There were other ways to take revenge, and she would find one. But she would wait until she was safe.
Incidentally, this is one of the most sensual passages in the book so far. His rape of her was described in stark, almost clinical detail. But now? Her eyes caress him with her hatred. Delicious, delicious rageporn.
He yells when she doesn’t answer him right away. Finally, she tells him that she isn’t going to try to kill him, not even when he says he’s going to keep her in his cabin for his further pleasure. Ugh. She does say she’ll fight him and hurt him if he tries to rape her again, though. He takes out the whip and cracks it at her, assuring her that she will not fight. So. Fucking. Romantic.
Tristan makes her eat, implying that he’s going to rape her when she’s done eating. Bettina purposefully eats slowly, trying to take back whatever small amount of control she can have over the situation. After a bit of this, he finally becomes impatient and tells her he can’t wait any longer. At his order, she goes to him to avoid being whipped. He rips her dress off and twists her arms behind her back when she starts to resist.
“You are hurting me!” she cried, trying to pull free.
“Don’t you want to hurt me?” he asked, but he released her arms. “I know that you wish to fight me, Bettina, but know now that I will not allow it. For every time you strike me, you will receive ten lashes. For the slightest resistance, you will receive five lashes. Do you understand me?”
As terrible as this is, isn’t that really just making the subtext into text? This is what’s really going on in every bodice ripper, in every “forced seduction.” She’s not fighting because the consequences of fighting are too awful. Beauty goes to the Beast’s castle because the alternative is worse. As Mallory Ortberg put it in that linked story, “Her ‘no’ wore the shape of a ‘yes,’ and this lie was good enough for everyone involved.”
His tearing off of her clothes and threats and her protests continue. She begs him to at least snuff out the candles so she doesn’t have to be on display to him, but even this he denies her.
“You are cruel beyond reason, monsieur.”
“You may think so now, but were I to keep you for my own, then you would change your opinion of me,” he said. “You would look forward to my taking you in my arms. Although you didn’t reach fulfillment when we made love the first time, you can’t deny you enjoyed the feeling I gave you.”
Body betrayal is a real thing rape victims of all genders experience and doesn’t mean they wanted it. Bettina refuses to give him the satisfaction of using this against her and starts insulting him when he tries to foreplay up his rape. His response is to stop trying to arouse her and just get off. I’m reluctant to post any of his assaults in this space, but I think it also provides some important context when I talk about how starkly detailed they are. So an extra big TW before this bit. This is right after she snapped at him about his groping:
With that, he climbed on top of her and entered her quickly, and a bit painfully. He rode her hard, with deep, penetrating thrusts, and despite Bettina’s desire to resist, a growing, unbelievable pleasure began to spread through her body, until it was cut short by Tristan’s final deep thrust.
Just two sentences, highlighting pain and her resistance. Where most bodice rippers would focus on sensuality and how she-really-wants-it-even-if-she-says-no, this can’t be read as anything but an assault. He hurt her. She didn’t want it. Yes, her body reacted, but it was against her will.
He collapses on top of his victim when he’s done like the pig he is and she’s trapped there under him for several minutes. Finally she starts trying to get away and says she wants to at least be able to sleep in peace. He makes it clear that she’ll have to sleep in his bed with him and, hey, she could just sleep while being crushed beneath his massive romance hero bulk. She’s not having it and starts putting up a fight. And…
“If you don’t stop wiggling, you will be raped a third time this day. Would you prefer that to sharing my bed?” he asked, his eyes gleaming with devilry.
Bettina’s response is to freeze in terror. Her eyes widen, “pleading silently with him for mercy.” He finally relents and moves off of her so she can sleep without being raped again or having her ribcage crushed by his weight. What a gentleman, eh?
Sorry this recap wasn’t particularly funny, but it was pretty difficult to find the humor in any of this. I’m, strangely, still able to take some enjoyment in all this awfulness in part because I think Bettina might be the only person in the world who hates Tristan more than I do. Of course, sadly, I know that she’ll end up in love with this worthless piece of shit.
Next chapter will be up tomorrow morning.