In my previous post I argued that as feminism progresses the women already interested in power will claim it for (patriarchal) domination, and not at all to help other women. I also spoke about the women who are complicit with patriarchy from subordinate positions because they seek male approval, on which they are dependent. Today, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it’s the turn of the women victimized by the patriarchal abusers. I aim to explain here how patriarchal masculinity, power, and entitlement work in order to try to raise empathy among the good men (and the complicit women), which is the best tool in preventing misogynistic violence.

Like many people today, I’m thinking of Diana Quer, who had the terrible misfortune of attracting the attention of a sexual predator when she was walking back home alone on a summer night, a few years ago, in a small town of Galicia. Her patriarchal abuser is being tried these days, and faces a life sentence. Yet, he is still lying about how he kidnapped, raped and killed Diana, and about how he later dumped her abused body inside the well of an abandoned factory. He kept silent about his appalling crime for 500 days, leading a normal life with his family, and was only caught after trying to kidnap another girl. During this self-confessed murderer’s declaration a few days ago, Diana’s father was expelled from the courtroom for telling him (not yelling, not screaming) “It could have been your daughter”. He has been himself accused of being an abuser by his ex-wife, a matter I will not consider if you allow me. I want to focus on the words he used to have his daughter’s brutal killer see what he did. As it turns out, this awful individual had re-tweeted an image of a t-shirt with the message (in Spanish) “Warning! Regardless of age, place, or job my daughter will always be my little angel. If you hurt her, I will take your life”. He has a young daughter aged 11. Diana was 18.

Men find themselves very often on opposite sides of the patriarchal divide, as perpetrators of violence and as secondary victims of the damage done to the women they love. The cry ‘It could have been your daughter’ can be certainly read from a patriarchal perspective, coming from one man telling his Other ‘come, we’re both men! How come you did this to me?” Bertrand Russell reminds us in Power (1938) that most so-called civilizations have treated women as property so that if a man’s wife, daughter, sister, or mother was killed by another man he could demand that the corresponding female relative be killed in revenge. This monstrosity is no longer endorsed by extant legislation, though, of course, it is still practised in obeisance to codes of honour routinely applied by recalcitrant patriarchs. Yet, going back to Diana’s father, I want to read his cry as a desperate attempt to appeal to the only feeling that his daughter’s killer might have: the capacity for empathy for any young girl, based on imagining another man harming his daughter in the same way he hurt Diana. This is not patriarchal, and the cry can be rephrased as ‘if you love your daughter, how can you hurt any woman?’ This is about feeling empathy.

I can hear some radical feminists raising sharpening their tongues against my argument and claiming that all men are patriarchal and none is capable of full empathy for women. If that is the case, then we women are doomed and campaigns like the one being run today all over the world are useless. Women alone cannot rescue women from patriarchal violence without increasing men’s empathy for our plight, there is no other way. Repressive legislation does not work, preventive education is not producing the expected results, and it’s now men’s turn to develop a mechanism to shame the patriarchal abusers. Telling the perpetrators of violence that they are abject monsters is not solving the problem, for many are proud of their patriarchal monstrosity. Sentencing them to prison is useless: placing them among men for long years can hardly teach them to value women. And that is the whole point: patriarchal abusers commit violence against those they despise, who are also those they consider weaker and inferior–mainly women and children, but also, of course, other men.

Patriarchal violence is, then, the expression of a feeling of superiority which emanates from a sense of entitlement to the power promised to all men by patriarchy. Many men reject that promise and never use violence, often suffering it themselves from the patriarchal men. Other men have so much actual power that they need not use violence directly, though they might exert colossal violence through the institutions of power, which include war. We tend, however, not to think of this kind of patriarchal man when speaking about the violence against women but of the men in the circles of family and friends surrounding the victims of patriarchal violence. Or the strangers who, like Diana’s abuser, strike at random, though they are rarer than the news and the abundant fiction about serial killers might make you believe.

Misogynistic violence stands out because it is, no doubt, gendered, regardless of what the deniers claim: women are killed by patriarchal men because they hate women, particularly those whom they see as a reminder of their inability to control their life. Why are so many of the victims women going through a process of separation? Because the patriarchal perpetrator hates them for making a decision affecting their lives, over which they have no longer control. Why do other strike at random? Because that is their chance to show who is master and act out their sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and lives. The patriarchal man is always afraid of being exposed as a powerless non-entity with no control over his life and so he uses violence to impress himself with his mastery over others, to the point of depriving them of their life. It has nothing to do with evil (which is anyway a patriarchal construction sustained by religion), uncontrollable urges conditioned by testosterone (please…), evolutionary hang-ups, psychopathologies, human nature and so on. It’s the patriarchal obsession with power.

Those who maintain that women are also capable of great violence against their partners and who complain that this is made invisible because a) men do not report their abuse, b) the feminazi media overreport violence against women, have a tiny point in their favour: violence is caused by an imbalance in power, with the victim being powerless and the victimizer feeling powerful. The question is that currently 95% of the victims are powerless women and 95% of the victimizers are men trying to feel powerful (mostly, these are men with no actual power in patriarchy). There is couple-related violence in lesbian couples, indeed, which proves my point: this is a question of power. Yet, as long as the figures are what they are we need (we MUST) speak of misogynistic violence. Just try to imagine a woman perpetrating the kind of crime Diana was a victim of but with a young man in her place and you will see immediately that patriarchal violence is gendered on both sides: the perpetrators are (mostly) male, the victims (mostly) female.

Empathy for women will grow only if women stop being presented and represented as objects. The perpetrator of patriarchal violence always dehumanizes his victims, so that he can feel no remorse: the Nazis believed all Jews were sub-human, which enabled them to carry out the Holocaust. It is far harder to kill human beings that you respect as such, though it is always possible. In any case, the rapist, the abuser, the killer already sees women as sub-human objects and it takes just one more step for him to see women as mere objects to be used and discarded. This is where entitlement comes into play: I don’t believe for a second that patriarchal abusers ever consider matters of right and wrong, personal freedom, etc. Most likely, they only think of their own sense of entitlement: Hitler thought the German nation was entitled to conquer most of Europe and eliminate the Jews, and he acted accordingly; all other patriarchal abusers act within their own sphere following a similar sense of entitlement. Whether they know the women they attack or not is immaterial: the main point is that the victims are seen as objects to which the attacker thinks he is entitled. To abuse, use, even kill, regardless of the possible personal cost in years of imprisonment. That’s how strong the pull of patriarchy is.

The men who reject patriarchy are usually capable of a high degree of empathy, which makes them see that women are human beings like them. Yes, I know: it’s really sad that half of mankind does not automatically feel that the other half belongs to the same species, and has the same rights. But please bear with me. Suppose for the sake of my argumentation that one third of all men feel genuine empathy for women, another feels less empathy but is little inclined to using any kind of violence, and the rest are the patriarchal abusers. Can these men with no capacity whatsoever for empathy be re-educated? And who should re-educate them? I really think that the hypothetical third who are empathetic and at heart anti-patriarchal should bear the main burden of re-educating the others by developing mechanisms based on persuasion, which also include shaming. I know that I am terribly old-fashioned but we need a new vocabulary that shows patriarchal perpetrators that they are not acceptable as men and as human beings. Monster, psychopath, madman and so on are not useful.

In the middle of his duel with Voldemort, Harry Potter tells this patriarchal villain ‘Be a man… Try for some remorse’ and these words, Rowling writes, make the Dark Lord angrier than ever. Remorse can only be felt out of empathy for the victims and is the foundation of repentance, which is a step necessary for re-education. Obviously, Voldemort cannot be re-educated and, so, Rowling plays a nice trick by which the villain technically eliminates himself, not understanding how he has been disempowered by Harry. Please, notice that since Harry cannot appeal to Voldemort’s better nature, for he has no good left in his split soul, he appeals to their shared masculinity. ‘Be a man’ does not mean here ‘be a patriarch’ but ‘be a human being capable of empathy and with no interest in power’ as Harry himself is. I do not care if I sound naïve but this is what we urgently need: more good guys willing to challenge the patriarchal abusers to be ‘men’ in the sense Rowling uses the word. Unfortunately, all too often ‘be a man’ means be brutal, callous, violent, homophobic, racist, misogynistic… patriarchal in one word.

Empathy, to sum up, is our most precious value: if you put yourself in the other’s shoes, if you shift perspective, then you can see the other as a full human being. The women trapped in violent situations are in no position to teach empathy to their victimizers but the rest of us, both women and men, need to work in that direction. Punishment is necessary and so are the measures for immediate protection, but education in basic humane values is far more important in the long range (not too long!). Today’s campaign seems a step forward but I hope that we soon see it abolished, in a very near future with no misogynistic violence thanks to much increased empathy.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


[This one is for Adriana and Violeta, with thanks for reading me]

I have always been of the opinion that one of patriarchy’s psychological masterpieces is the division of women into complicit collaborators and struggling feminists. It might not be a very good idea to publicize in any way the words of the servile collaborators but I’m still in shock, caused by Alicia Rubio’s declaration that “feminism is a cancer”. She is a regional MP in the Madrid Asamblea and a member of fascist party Vox. The photo illustrating her speech at newspaper La Vanguardia is worth checking for what it says about the patriarchal control of women in public positions: Funnily, this woman, and that is a respectful name she does not even deserve, has not applied her own lesson to herself, and there she is, spouting nonsensical bile instead of staying home to serve husband and kids. Amazing what one can hear and see in 2019.

I’m often asked these days why women have joined the ranks of ultra-right-wing, patriarchal Vox and I have two answers to that. Some women find it easier to play subordinate roles in patriarchy rather than be as active and in command of their life as feminism requires. Other women are power-hungry patriarchs who, ironically, are respected by their misogynistic male peers because, essentially, they share the same outlook on domination. Some of these patriarchal women, I must say, are also found on the left-wing parties and the feminist organizations, but they tend to be mostly right-wing and see life from a privileged upper-class position. I know that what I’m saying calls for some explanation, so here we go.

I may have already mentioned that I’m looking for texts by anti-patriarchal men who have aided in the struggles for liberation for a variety of reasons. They are hard to find. Instead, I have come across a book by Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace which considers an issue not really dealt with in depth by current Gender Studies: the volume is called Their Fathers’ Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity (1991). The author follows Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1975) and quotes a key passage we all should consider carefully: “The longevity of the oppression of women must be based on something more than conspiracy, something more complicated than biological handicap and more durable than economic exploitation (although in different degrees all of these may feature)”; the italics are original. Oppression “maintain[s] itself so effectively” because “it courses through the mental and emotional bloodstream”. Mitchell does not quite say that women are willingly complicit with patriarchy but there is that “something more” hinting that this might be the case.

As for Kowaleski-Wallace, her research is split between two fronts. On the one hand, she highlights class issues as the reason why, unlike Wollstonecraft, More and Edgeworth did not want to see education extended to all women (that was their own class privilege). On the other hand, she offers a psychoanalytical reading of why these women’s strong bonds with their patriarchal fathers made them patriarchal women (with great distress, as shown by their constant ill-health). As for the fathers, Kowaleski-Wallace does not present them as the enlightened anti-patriarchal men I thought they might be but as patriarchs very much scared when they discover that their little girls are absorbing their education like a ton of sponges; they react, therefore, by making their wise daughters emotionally dependent on their appreciation to the highest possible degree (which is another cause for their ill health). Despising their uneducated mothers, Kowaleski-Wallace argues, educated, privileged women despise all other women. I think that this analysis possibly explains the collaborator: she is a woman who is dependent on male/patriarchal approval, even when she is a successful professional, and is, therefore, incapable of showing any solidarity towards other women. See the MP above.

The other type, the aspiring patriarchal leader, is even more problematic. I’m in the middle of reading Bertrand Russell’s volume Power (1938) and it is really amazing to see that when he writes ‘men’ he really means ‘men’ even though he never mentions patriarchy. Women are seldom discussed, on the assumption I guess that they are collectively disempowered, but Russell does name us among the groups of subordinated individuals manipulating the powerful men behind the scenes. We are all familiar with the figure of the wife or mother who lives a vicarious patriarchal life by encouraging husband and sons to excel in the military, politics, the Church, business, etc while hampering the progress of their daughters. I have been arguing for a while that feminism has allowed these women to abandon the uncomfortable area behind the scenes to claim a share of power for themselves instead of pouring their patriarchal energies into the careers of the men in their families. I have also been arguing that patriarchy will gradually evolve towards a gender-neutral construction regulated by sheer power.

This does not mean that power-hungry women are necessarily masculinized but that they will converge with their like-minded male peers into a hierarchical structure that will discriminate other persons on the grounds of the degree of individual power they possess, not for gender reasons. The fictional example I have chosen to explain my theory is that of Alma Coin in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, whose transition from rebel leader to anti-democratic villain is facilitated by the gender equality of the faction she leads. Reading the trilogy one may think that Katniss is fighting patriarchy as embodied by the sinister President Snow but she soon realizes that her worst enemy is Coin, a woman like herself but an even worse patriarch than Snow.

An important problem is that patriarchy is still too widespread and too dominant for us to use new vocabulary. Since the suffix -archy is used in combined words that name who is in power (patriarchy, oligarchy) or the desire that all forms of power cease (anarchy), I don’t know what to call the social construction based on power itself unless I call it ‘archism’. If you follow my drift, an ‘archist’ would be the individual who supports the idea that human beings should be organized socially on the basis of their empowerment or disempowerment, regardless of any other identity factor. The ‘ideal archist’ (take a deep breath…) would be a person who would not care for gender, race, ethnicity, age, nationality, ability, etc but who would favour any individual interested in power. This is why I find the idea of empowerment so suspicious, particularly when it is endorsed by feminists, for it smacks to me of archism.

I have already mentioned here, I think, how J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes between power for domination (accrued by the villains Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman) and power for creation (enjoyed by the Elves until they discover possessiveness). I quite like the idea of power for creation because it is fundamentally a celebration of positive individual and collective expression of an artistic kind. Even so, I want to celebrate instead another concept, which is not at all popular these days: service. In Spanish my title is ‘funcionaria’, which means that I’m a public officer carrying out specific duties (or ‘funciones’). I much prefer the English label ‘civil servant’, a concept introduced in 1767 (according to Merriam Webster) at the same time as ‘civil service’ (I assume that by opposition to ‘military service’ but who knows…?). As a ‘servant’ privileged with a tenured position it is my duty to give back to society what I am paid to produce: knowledge. Sadly, I see around me much ambition for personal empowerment (much archism) rather than a genuine wish to serve.

I’m probably writing nonsense at this point in the post but, for me, service is the antithesis of power and, as such, a potent anti-patriarchal tool. I mean service not in the sense of being subservient to a higher power (though I do work for the Spanish Government) but in the sense of putting yourself at the service of the community for its improvement and its good. Possibly many patriarchal tyrants have told themselves that they were serving the community, and many patriarchal women have convinced themselves and their daughters that (domestic) service should be their goal in life. I don’t mean that. What I mean is that the only way to break away from hierarchy and the dominant notions of power is by aiming at collaboration based on unselfish service. “How can I be of service?” seems to be a far more positive question for the common good than “How can I empower myself?” And, yes, I know I’m ranting and sounding very much like a lay preacher, convinced atheist as I am.

The women who are complicit with patriarchy tell the other women that they should be happy to serve but they want to be themselves on the side of the masters. Some are happy to act as the villain’s minions, and others want to be villains themselves, but with their attitude they uphold not only patriarchy but what I am calling archism. The doubt I have is how they explain to themselves their position within the current patriarchy. Kowaleski-Wallace reports that Hannah More lost her own home because of the riotous behaviour of her servants. She concludes that “The fact that More did not command the respect and obedience that would have allowed her to remain mistress of her own home highlights the vulnerability of all women who shelter themselves within a patriarchal discourse” as “privileged guests”; their position will always be “provisional, subject to arbitrary interruptions or cancellation”. I believe that she is right: not even Maggie Thatcher was safe from sudden dismissal from power. Seeing, however, how abruptly some men have been expelled from top positions in Spanish politics (from Mariano Rajoy to Albert Rivera) perhaps that is the very nature of archism: a constant struggle for empowerment under constant threat of sudden disempowerment. But, then, I’m sure that patriarchal collaborators like that woman I started the post with will be happy to return home and do what women are supposed to do in a well-ordered patriarchal regime if they are suddenly disempowered.

The better I understand the world, the less I like it. That a woman should question the very feminism that has allowed her to have a career is really beyond me but, then, these are dark times, my sisters (and brothers).

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Working these days on an article about speculative fiction author Vandana Singh, I tried to find an American-born, white woman author to whom I could compare her case. Singh was born in Delhi but lives in the USA since the late 1980s, where she works teaching and researching Physics. The collection by Singh I am examining –Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018)– has been published by Small Beer Press, an independent publisher, and I found among their books one that appears to be the perfect comparator I need: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012). Johnson, a white Iowa native born one year before Singh, has a higher reputation, based on her having received more nominations and awards and having published novels. Yet, this is also useful as I am looking into the causes why Singh is not better known. I was not looking specifically into the thorny question of cultural appropriation but it has surfaced, hence my post today.

In three stories of her collection –“Fox Magic”, “The Empress Jingu Fishes”, “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”– and in her novels The Fox Woman (2001) and Fudoki (2004) Johnson uses ancient Japan as her background though she has no direct personal link to this country. Scholar Joan Gordon (white, American-born) defends her choice on the grounds that “Rigorously researched historical narratives enable [Johnson] to avoid trivializing or exoticizing the complexity of another view of the world, and it may be that casting one’s narrative into the remote past, as Johnson’s stories do, avoids some of the difficulties of power inequity”. However, I came across a review in GoodReads by Minyoung Lee, an American female reader of Korean descent, who has a very different opinion. She is deeply offended by “The Empress Jingu Fishes” because, Lee claims, Johnson’s research is inadequate, and this leads to serious mistakes in the representation of still unsolved, complex conflicts among the Korean, the Japanese, and the Chinese.

Apparently, Lee even exchanged letters with Johnson about this but far from feeling appeased her impression that outsiders “not immersed in the subtle nuances” of the foreign culture they describe will inevitable offend insiders was confirmed. Lee wonders why anyone would “write about another person’s culture and history that you only superficially know about when you have a rich and fulfilling story of your own that cannot be told in the fullest by someone else?”. This suggests that rather than speak of cultural appropriation perhaps we should speak of cultural depletion in the case of white authors who feel no strong attachment to their own cultural background and use parasitically other cultures. Just an idea. I didn’t expect, however, to come across a case of (possible) cultural appropriation within the context of the Native American cultures of the United States…

On Friday I finished reading Jack Fennell’s edited volume Sci-Fi: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2019, to which I have contributed an essay on the aliens in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. The book has an article called “Indigenous Futurisms” (by Amy H. Sturgis), which was a total eye-opener, for I know nothing about Native American literature beyond having read a couple of novels by Louise Erdrich. Sturgis deals among other authors with Rebecca Roanhorse and what I less expected is that I would meet her the following day, Saturday. She was a guest of honour at the ‘Seminari de Gèneres Fantàstics I’, beautifully organized by Ricard Ruiz Garzón of the Associació d’Escriptors en Llengua Catalana. Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” was offered as a souvenir in the excellent Catalan translation by Miquel Codony. Independent publishers Mai Mes presented the Catalan version of Trail of Lightning (as El raster del llamp), the first translation into another language of Roanhorse’s first novel. Later, I had lunch with the author, an activity which as you know from a previous post is a ‘necessary encounter’, and I learned a few things, for which I am very grateful.

Rebecca Roanhorse (, born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, is the daughter of an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo mother and an African-American father. She lives now in New Mexico, together with her Navajo/Diné artist husband, Michael Roanhorse (, and their pre-teen daughter. Both were present in the seminar and the ensuing lunch. I was very much surprised to read that Trail of Lightning has been criticized as a very negative example of cultural appropriation by Saad Bee Hozho, the Diné Writers’ Association, mainly on two grounds: Roanhorse is not Navajo herself and the values presented as Navajo in her novel are not acceptable as such because her work is violent whereas Diné culture is peaceful. The extensive open letter published online created quite a controversy, extended to other websites, mostly siding with the critique.

I was, therefore, very curious to see how Roanhorse would approach the matter in her talk with interviewer Alexandre Páez. When he asked about cultural appropriation, without alluding to this episode, Roanhorse simply replied that this kind of accusation is inevitable and one must face it as best one can. However, since she had not explained to the audience that she is part of the Navajo nation by marriage but not by birth her reply somehow suggested that the problem was white authors’ appropriation of Native American heritage. To be honest, I was not very happy with her reply and, although I feared very much stirring a nest of hornets, I was getting ready to ask the really uncomfortable question I had in mind when Catalan author Víctor García Tur asked Roanhorse again about cultural appropriation. Only then did she explain how she connects with Navajo culture, noting that about 30% of the readers were fine with her choices, 30% had criticised her and the rest had problems to make up their minds. She did not allude to the Navajo authors’ letter.

My personal opinion is that writers should be free to explore any topic and culture they feel germane to their interests. However, I think that they should make their own position as clear as possible (why not write a preface or a note?), and I certainly believe that respect for the culture visited is fundamental. Also, impeccable research. What was worrying me in Roanhorse’s case is that she was not clarifying her position before the audience and, so, most were assuming that she is Navajo. For me this is the equivalent of, say, someone from Catalonia writing about Extremadura and concealing this vital information from a foreign audience meeting someone from Spain for the first time. This type of nuanced information is very important. Authors, whether they write fiction or academic work, should avoid any misconceptions about who they are and must totally avoid, in my humble view, speaking for a whole collective to which they do not belong or only are members of in part. This can be a bit ridiculous, if you see it that way, but in my own article about Vandana Singh I have included a paragraph detailing my own position (colour, gender, nationality, age, occupation) so that readers know from which position I speak. Even so, I think, there is a world of difference between Johnson’s choice of ancient Japan, which is exoticizing no matter how lovingly done, and Roanhorse’s choice of Diné culture, which she knows through her personal experience. Or maybe I’m wrong.

I asked Roanhorse about something completely different also on my mind these days. If you read academic work on non-white authors (how I hate this adjective!…) it might seem that they are progressing following traditions isolated from white authors’ work. In Vandana Singh’s case she has often referred to Ursula le Guin as a mentor, writing in her tribute following le Guin’s death that “it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote”. Le Guin not only personally encouraged Singh to publish her first story, she also provided her with crucial instances of non-white characters she could identify with. Indeed, in le Guin’s masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), there is not any white character, a point often missed. During the seminar there was some comment about whether le Guin could get away with this choice today, or would she be accused of cultural appropriation… Anyway, Roanhorse noted that Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) was a major influence for her as a writer. I asked her how she connected with other white male writers, whether they read each other and so on, and she explained that fellow New Mexico resident George R.R. Martin had helped her very much, and so had John Scalzi, possibly the most popular SF author right now. Scalzi, she told me, is particularly generous in promoting the work of non-white authors. Other white male authors, Roanhorse added, are going in the right direction in their fiction by being more inclusive (paying no attention to cultural appropriation issues…) or placing women in the role of the protagonist. I must say that this is what I missed in the Sci-Fi Companion: an overview of what the ‘white boys’ are up to these days. For they are still there, dominating sales and pleasing readers –including non-white women.

Allow me to recommend Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (, an uncomfortable story that has plenty to say about cultural appropriation and what it is like to be a dispossessed Native American (man) today. Don’t miss the readers’ comments! I have not read The Trail of Lightning (yet) but I’m told it is an exciting novel. You may not like its hero, Navajo monster-slayer Maggie Hoskie, whom Roanhorse herself describes as an “unlikeable woman”, but what is there not to like in the opening up of fantasy and science fiction to as many cultures as possible?

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


The admirers of Sir Walter Scott will find nothing but commonplaces in what follows regarding his novel Ivanhoe (1820). Yet those who wonder why anyone would want to read this once very popular romance might find, hopefully, something of interest in my choice. This is motivated by my interest in understanding how the old values attached to chivalry conditioned the rise of the 19th century gentleman. Others, like Mark Girouard in The Return to Camelot (1981), have told this story but not from a feminist perspective like mine.

Scott is credited with having re-introduced the values of medieval chivalry into Romantic Britain as a model of civil masculine conduct, and not just as a code for the upper-class men engaged in military action as officers. In his “Essay on Chivalry” (1818), published two years before Ivanhoe, he gives a most thorough account of the origins and development of this code, to claim that it survives “in the general feeling of respect to the female sex; in the rules of forbearance and decorum in society; in the duties of speaking truth and observing courtesy; and in the general conviction and assurance, that, as no man can encroach upon the property of another without accounting to the laws, so none can infringe on his personal honours, be the difference of rank what it may, without subjecting himself to personal responsibility”. This is chivalry in a nutshell but also gentlemanliness.

Unfortunately, Scott adds, the barbaric custom of duelling, a relic of Gothic times, he notes, still persists. This kind of interpersonal violence is a sign of the palpable tension between the ideal and the practice of chivalry which colours both Scott’s analysis in the “Essay” and his novel Ivanhoe. You might assume that both are an enthusiastic celebration of this code of manliness but it is quite surprising to find that this not at all Scott’s attitude.

In case you are not familiar with Ivanhoe, allow me to explain that the central subplot narrates the constant threat of rape that Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jewish moneylender Isaac of York, must endure from the lascivious knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert. In his article “Irresolute Ravishers and the Sexual Economy of Chivalry in the Romantic Novel”, Gary Dyer stresses that in Ivanhoe “Scott’s attraction to chivalric ideology must confront its inadequacies; for a sceptical reader, analysing the ‘resolutions’ in the novel serves to delegitimate the narrative resolution that results, one that the novel needs in order for its ideology to cohere” (343). Seeing how Bois-Guilbert is lapsing, the master of his Order has Rebecca judged as a witch (also because she is a very competent healer). She is given the chance to ask for a champion to defend her innocence in combat against Bois-Guilbert but when Ivanhoe appears this is, Dyer adds, “an attempt to rescue the novel from its drift into this cynicism” (347). In fact [SPOILERS AHEAD], Scott cannot solve the dilemma of how chivalry and the misogynistic violence of rape connect and he has the villain die of a mysterious mortal seizure (perhaps apoplexy) and not because of Ivanhoe’s blows.

Actually, there is very little in Ivanhoe of the civil code of chivalry that fed gentlemanliness but plenty about the military version. In the “Essay” Scott informs us that chivalry originates in the ancient German forests, where the Gothic tribes that fought the Romans started giving privileges to the combatants rich enough to fight on horseback. Once the Roman Empire fell, the French (actually the Franks later conquered by the Normans of Viking descent, who eventually conquered England) codified the tribal system established to honour violent men into what became chivalry (which meant “merely cavalry”, Scott points out). The ‘chevalier’ mixed on English soil with the Saxon ‘cnicht’, a similar type of feudal soldier, to produce the knight. The institutions of chivalry and knighthood merged thus in a single code, which was increasingly idealized through the French romances, epic poetry in different languages and (later) drama. Don’t forget El Quijote!

As Scott further points out, the knight was no patriot but a lover of personal freedom. “Generosity, gallantry, and an unblemished reputation were no less necessary ingredients in the character of a perfect knight”. The problem (as Scott shows with a mixture of melancholy, impatience, and disappointment) is that the Order of Chivalry was founded on principles too pure and unrealistic. Unable to comply with it, “the devotions of the knights soon degenerated into superstition, –their love into licentiousness, –their spirit of loyalty or of freedom into tyranny and turmoil, –their generosity and gallantry into hare-brained madness and absurdity”. Bois-Guilbert is supposed to embody this degeneration, with his lusting after Rebecca being attributable, besides, to the vow of celibacy he must obey as a monk. On the other hand, Scott is very clear in Ivanhoe that King Richard I the Lionheart was a disastrous monarch because in him “the brilliant, but useless character, of a knight of romance, was in a great measure realized and revived”; his “feats of chivalry” inspired bards and minstrels, but brought “none of those solid benefits to his country on which history loves to pause, and hold up as an example to posterity”.

This is possibly the clearest instance of the cynicism which Dyer sees in Ivanhoe but there is far more. Scott’s comments on the famous tournament of Ashby-de-la-Zouche which occupy so many pages in his novel are not at all positive. Honourable chivalry is expressed in a horrifying bloodbath which “even the ladies of distinction” see “without a wish to withdraw their eyes from a sight so terrible”. The values are reversed: instead of the women refining the men’s sensibility through the conventions of courtly love, the men’s ruthlessness debauches the women. In this competition, “one of the most gallantly contested tournaments of that age”, Scott writes, “only four knights” died, “yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several more were disabled for life; and those who escaped best carried the marks of the conflict to the grave with them. Hence it is always mentioned in the old records, as the Gentle and Joyous Passage of Arms of Ashby”. If this is not cynicism and contempt against the brutal old ways of chivalry, then I don’t know what it is.

It seems that many women readers of Ivanhoe were disappointed [SPOILERS AHEAD] because the hero Wilfred of Ivanhoe marries his childhood sweetheart, the Saxon Lady Rowena, rather than the real protagonist of this novel: Rebecca. Scott defended his choice in the prologue of the second edition, claiming that the marriage of a Christian knight and a Jewess would be just unthinkable. As Rachel Shulkins points out, however, “Though Scott portrays Rebecca as charitable and self-sacrificial, the acute rendering of her sensuality sets her apart from the aspired ideal of English femininity, advocated during Scott’s time” (5). This is a judgement with which I agree and disagree, for Shulkins sexualizes Rebecca even more than Scott. Unlike the bland Rowena, Rebecca is a spirited lady but, despite her crush on Ivanhoe, she never really tries to seduce him, aware as she is of the religious barrier. She heals him from his wounds very proficiently, which requires close intimacy with his body, though not of a sexual kind. By describing her as a sexy woman, Shulkins sees her through Bois-Guilbert’s eyes, as a woman who elicits desire despite herself and who acts out on it, which she never does. Even Bois-Guilbert sees eventually that her courage and intelligence are more outstanding than her beauty, which is why he proposes to Rebecca that she becomes his mistress with her consent, rather than his victim without it. Logically, Rebecca cannot give that consent for the obvious reason that she cannot love her would-be rapist.

Ivanhoe is not up to her standard, either; theirs is a love story that could never happen but for other reasons. I find that the most interesting scene in Ivanhoe is the conversation they have in the middle of the siege in which Wilfred cannot participate because he is wounded. Rebecca cannot understand why he wants to inflict on other men the violence that has hurt his own body and he replies that it is “impossible” for a man “trained to actions of chivalry to remain passive as a priest, or a woman, when they are acting deeds of honour around him”. Wilfred continues enthusiastically: “The love of battle is the food upon which we live—the dust of the ‘melee’ is the breath of our nostrils! We live not—we wish not to live—longer than while we are victorious and renowned—Such, maiden, are the laws of chivalry to which we are sworn, and to which we offer all that we hold dear”. He names glory as the knight’s greatest reward, she speaks highly of “domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness”. Increasingly irritated, Wilfred complains that, not being a Christian, she cannot understand “those high feelings which swell the bosom of a noble maiden when her lover hath done some deed of emprize which sanctions his flame. Chivalry!—why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection—the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant—Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword”.

Scott closes the scene with some rather vague comments about how Rebecca’s feelings are conditioned by the sad situation of the Jews, and the lack of military heroes to admire in the midst of their diaspora. But, and in this Dyer is absolutely right, if a reader is minimally sceptical of chivalry s/he will easily side with Rebecca’s view–supposing this is not what the author himself unwittingly defends, or even Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Desperate to have his master King Richard expel his brother Prince John from the throne he has usurped but unable to persuade the wayward monarch, “Wilfred bowed in submission, well knowing how vain it was to contend with the wild spirit of chivalry which so often impelled his master upon dangers which he might easily have avoided, or rather, which it was unpardonable in him to have sought out”.

To sum up: Walter Scott, the author who re-introduced chivalry into society and thus caused Romantic and Victorian gentlemanliness to borrow traits from the knight, was himself unconvinced by his preaching. Either that, or the fault lies with his readers, who could not see that Richard I was a deplorable king, Wilfred of Ivanhoe a rather silly young man (besides being a traitor to his Saxon family), and Brian de Bois-Guilbert the very embodiment of knightly corruption. There is not in this novel any solid model of manly behaviour (even the Saxon claimant to the throne Athelstane is a dim-witted glutton), whereas Rebecca offers in contrast a womanly model of resistance. Lady Rowena may please Scott’s fantasies of wifely submission (though she also resists as much as she can her guardian Cedric’s plans to marry her off to Athelstane), but Rebecca is the one who dismantles the fabric of chivalry. Her defence of civil rather than military virtues, her talent as a healer, and her ability to defend herself against the attacks of Bois-Guilbert and of his Templar master are far more likely to attract contemporary readers than any knight.

The women readers of Scott’s time wanted to see Rebecca rewarded with a happy ending linking her to Wilfred for life, but Rebecca would soon have found her husband too basic an individual for the depth of her mind. Scott dispatches her to the Kingdom of Granada, “secure of peace and protection, for the payment of such ransom as the Moslem exact from our people”, she tells Rowena –make what you wish of this comment. Since there are no Jewish convents, Rebecca intends to withdraw from ordinary life (that is to say, from the search for a husband) by becoming one of those Jewish women “who have devoted their thoughts to Heaven, and their actions to works of kindness to men, tending the sick, feeding the hungry, and relieving the distressed”. Scott intended Rebecca’s future to be a sort of penance for her sexual feelings towards Ivanhoe, but her fate reads today as freedom to a much higher degree than married Lady Rowena might ever enjoy. If it were up to me, I would rename Scott’s novel Rebecca of York, and if I had the talent, I would write the tale of her adventures in Granada. William Makepeace Thackeray’s spoof Rebecca and Rowena (1850) goes apparently in a very different direction; regrettably, it’s not the story of how the two ladies abandon Ivanhoe to set up home together…

One must always marvel at how texts suggest what authors never intended, as Jacques Derrida defended. I have never been a fan of deconstruction but it does have its uses indeed. The pity is that by subjecting Scott’s Ivanhoe to this method I’m tripping myself up: if Wilfred is not a true manly ideal, where is he to be found…? I mean in men’s fiction, don’t you dare mention Darcy now.

Works Cited
Dyer, Gary. “Irresolute Ravishers and the Sexual Economy of Chivalry in the Romantic Novel”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 55.3 (December 2000): 340-68.
Girouard, Mark. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981.
Scott, Walter. “Essay on Chivalry” (1818). Miscellaneous Prose Works, vol. VI. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1834. 1-126.
Schulkins, Rachel. “Immodest Otherness: Nationalism and the Exotic Jewess in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe”. Nineteenth-century Gender Studies 12.1 (Spring 2006): 1-22. Online.

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