Burning Cross Publications is noted for its line of children's cookbooks and its eccentric forays into genre fiction. These ventures do not make money for the firm and are not expected to; they are handled by the publisher's nephew who is working on his PhD in English literature. The firm makes its money by publishing hard-core pornography on non-stick paper. Prior to Childe Martha Burning Cross had not published a gothic novel, a sword and sorcery novel, or a feminist protest novel. This may be why they jumped at a chance to publish an novel which combines all three genres.
Bringing the book out with three different dust jackets so that it would be displayed in three different places in bookstores was an ingenious marketing ploy. It might be objected that this little marketing ploy is a fraud on unsuspecting readers, that the consumer of gothic romances has the right to expect that a work packaged and sold as a gothic romance will in fact be the desired product. There is some justice to this viewpoint and perhaps some budding consumer activist will seize upon this moneyed lack of ethics as the spearpoint of a brilliant campaign of consumer protection. On the other hand who cares?
There are two questions that spring to mind about such a work - why was it written and how was it done. The dust jacket claims the novel represents a natural organic upwelling of the deepest forces of the author's personality, much as though the book were a superior variety of home grown cabbage. An inquiry with the publisher has elicited the information that those who know the author felt that it was only natural that she would write a book like this.
One can imagine Borges writing a fictional review of such a work with an ingenious description of how it was written so as to appear to be a gothic novel to a reader of gothic novels, a sword and sorcery novel to S&S devotees, and a feminist protest novel to someone expecting a feminist protest novel. Borges could write such a fictitious review, if he chose, and could make it plausible. Only he could write such a review, however, and no one could write the book in that manner. Wisely, the author does not try.
Instead she attempts something more complicated and ingenious. Upon the first reading the books appears to be a rather long and complicated fantasy romance. On the whole it is satisfactory although the complexities of the plot make it seem disjointed at times. The characterisation is somewhat obscure which may be why The New York Review of Books called it "Don Quixote without the windmills". It is only upon rereading that one realises that three separate novellas in entirely different genres have intermingled in a single novel.
Briefly the plot runs as follows: In the prologue the village is sacked by barbarians and its women are raped. One of the victims becomes pregnant, has twin daughters, and dies in childbirth. The daughters are named Ruth and Martha, the latter name being chosen from a prophecy which said that the land would be rescued from its oppressors by a female warrior named Martha. Martha, whose name is auspicious, is adopted by one of the local gentry. Ruth, whose name is not, is adopted by a local peasant.
The book resumes seventeen years later. As may be expected Ruth has had a hard time of it and Martha has been treated well and gently. At this point the book begins for S&S fans with the appearance of Ferric the Red. Ferric has left his homeland and is working his way south as a mercenary. There is just a hint that Ferric's father may have been the barbarian that raped Ruth and Martha's mother. The incestuous implications are never made explicit but they are used a background for some complicated and irrelevant symbolism which impedes the plot but which allows the author and her readers to congratulate themselves for catching all of the subtle tricks.
We follow Ferric for a few fracases which establish his credentials as a genuine sword and sorcery hero. He eventually comes to the area where our heroines reside and takes service with local count, Vladimir, The Almost Certainly Evil. In the meantime Martha is hired by Count Vladimir as a governess and Ruth is forcibly seduced by Ferric. Since Ruth is a peasant this is regarded as an unimportant event by all parties involved.
We are now at the point where everything is a S&S novel from Ferric's viewpoint and is a gothic romance from Martha's viewpoint. The events of this section (some 70% of the total) are of no particular importance. The Count is found to be practising vile sorcery and Martha is threatened with a fate worse than death. Ferric kills the Count, marries Martha, and becomes the new Count. Ruth's story is also followed; her lot is one of indignities and is the setting for some savage commentary on the treatment of women. The main section ends with the death of the almost certainly evil count, the marriage of Ferric and Martha, and the birth of Ruth's child, all on the same day. Ruth names her baby daughter Martha after her aunt and all ends happily for the moment.
Two epilogues follow. The first, which takes place about five years after the big finale, shows the beginnings of the corruption of Ferric and Martha. Ferric is becoming a whimsical tyrant given to bursts of rage. Martha's gentility is shown to be a small minded selfishness; place and power haven her mind scope for becoming less. The second epilogue occurs sixteen years after the big finale. Ferric and Martha have become inhuman creatures of vice, corruption, and barratry. They are swept from the land by the armies of the Childe, Martha, daughter of Ruth. Childe Martha has rallied the people and liberates them. She dies in the moment when she plunges her sword into the bodies of the tyrants. So much for the plot.
We have only touched upon Ms Von Basingstoke's subtleties. The lives of the three protagonists are in a correspondence with one another. Ms Von Basingstoke set up the symbolism of the gothic romance, the sword and sorcery novel, and the feminist protest novel so that a symbol in one corresponds to a symbol in another. If we look at the stories of the lives of three protagonists we discover that they are the same story interpreted through different sets of symbols. It is as though she were saying that all stereotyped lives are essentially equivalent.
The three central characters all have distinct personalities. Ms Von Basingstoke has gone to great lengths to ensure that they are all distinct. I am not sure why. There may be a deep symbolism here that has escaped me. On the other hand it may simply have been an accident.
One of the interesting things about the novel is its preoccupation with the themes of innocence, grace, and messiahhood. Childe Martha is a messiah figure. In depicting her Ms. Von Basingstoke follows rigid conventions which she mentions in her book. A messiah is the focus for a messianic event and has no real history prior to the event. They usually die as the culmination of the messianic event which takes care of the history afterwards. We cannot legitimately write a novel about a messiah or even use one as a real character. Messiahs are not people; they are events like hurricanes. This is why Childe Martha only appears at the end of the book when she performs her prophesied deeds. Even then she is not seen directly - the final epilogue is told by one of the soldiers in her army.
We are all born innocent; we all lose aspects of our innocence along the way. Ms. Von Basingstoke focuses on the little events that mark the beginning of the loss of innocence. Grace, unlike innocence, can be gained and regained as well as lost. Ferric and Martha are each offered grace and each unwittingly rejects it. Ruth begins in a state of grace, loses it, and then regains it in the final epilogue as a gift from Childe Martha. This preoccupation with the themes of grace and innocence suggests that Ms. Von Basingstoke is quite familiar with the Victorian transcendentalists. I do not think that this is a fourth genre for the novel, however. If it were the correspondences would be greater.
It is hard to place this novel and judge it. If it were poorly written one could dismiss it. Considered as an S&S novel or as a gothic romance it is a failure - these genres are quite rigid in their formulas. It is hard to judge this novel as feminist protest novel. Although there are formulas for protest novels their use is not obligatory. One must judge the book in ideological terms - does it present a correct viewpoint, does it have the right slant? It appears to, insofar as I can judge, but I don't think that matters. It seems to me that treating feminism at the same level as another sexist genre fiction is an ultimate ideological sin that overrides formal correctness.
It goes without saying that this novel cannot be Literature. No work of fiction in a commercial genre is eligible to be considered as Literature. Even though the novel is not in an identifiable genre it takes genre fiction seriously which amounts to the same thing. We may also enquire if it is enjoyable to read (granted that this is irrelevant to literary criticism but there may be some who wish to know.) For them I quote the Archbishop of Canterbury who said "It's a helluva good read".
Reprinted from Proper Boskonian #18 by permission of the author.
This page was last updated September 13, 1996
It was moved April 5, 2010