The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) raping the Duchess (Keira Knightley) and a moment afterward (Saul Dibbs’ and Amanda Foreman’s The Duchess, screenplay Jeffrey Hatcher 2008, one source for which is The Sylph, published 1778)
Our anonymous heroine witnessing one of countless rapes in Anonyma (2008), adapted from Marta Hiller’s A Woman In Berlin (first published 1945)
Dear friends and readers,
The last few weeks I’ve been immersed in two books which ought to be better known to English readers, Georgiana Spenser, the Duchess of Devonshire’s one novel, The Sylph, published anonymously in 1778, and the German diary now Englished as A Woman in Berlin and known to be Marta Hiller’s one book, also published anonymously 167 years later. They extend our understanding, our definition (if you will), the terrain of rape.
About four years ago I finally wrote the paper I should have written in 1980 (when I wrote my dissertation) on Richardson’s Clarissa; it took me 30 years to get to the point where I could discuss what riveted me when I first read Clarissa at age 18: “Rape in Clarissa,” which I subtitled from its heroine’s words, “What right have you to detain me here?”, surely not that you have raped me once? (it is that first rape that makes Lovelace assume he has the right to detain Clarissa).
In this recently thoroughly researched paper (if I do say so myself), I outline the two basic types of rape that most discussions of rape are subsumed under:
1) simple rape: an event where someone is compelled to submit to, or participate in, a physical sexual interaction which includes fucking, sodomy, fellatio or cunnilingus. Central is a loss of agency or control which occurs when the first onslaught is an event that goes well beyond the target’s expectations;
2) aggravated rape: a situation where the rapist uses extrinsic highly visible violence (weapons), where there are multiple assailants, a high degree of brutality and/or beating, or where there is no prior relationship between victim and rapist.
The problem is these definitions both demand the woman reject the sex, they both assume she has agency. All too often she does not. She cannot just say no. This is of course true of chattel slavery. But that condition is often ignored as now over with. In The Sylph and countless rapes in A Woman in Berlin, Georgiana and Hillers present two other all too familiar set of circumstances today where saying no is ignored: when a woman is married and cannot get out of the marriage; during war.
From the appalling experience of sex shown us from Georgiana’s POV on the first night of her marriage to the Duke
Georgiana Spencer’s novel was regarded as scandalous for many reasons; one not discussed is that in several scenes sex is forced on her heroine when she clearly does not want it; she has been insulted by seeing her husband with one of his mistresses; he has attempted to fool her into going to bed with Lord Biddulph, his fellow-rake, now a creditor; he has himself insulted and berated her when she does not hand over the rest of her jointure or refused to go to bed with this creditor once again. Her heroine, Julia, married of her own free will but in an arranged way, as an exchange of property and money between her father, Sir William Stanley, and after some months when she has been treated corruptly she clearly does not want to have sex with him, and it is forced upon her. In the scenes in the novel where Biddulph attempts to have sexual intercourse with her, had he succeeded might fall under the rubric of simple rape, except the situations have been set up by Stanley is Julia as payment for a debt. So they extend the definition of marital rape.
From a scene as the armies invade: the women flee into a basement; they are heckled as “Frau Hitler” and raped …
The nameless journalist heroine of Hillers’ book tells of the entry of the Russian armies into Berlin in late April 1945, and takes us into mid-June when the war is declared over. Yes there are countless (truly) rapes where women are beaten into complying, brutalized, humiliated, but there are as many where the women seem to comply, do not fight the men off and yet others where they allow one man to take over their body nightly in return for food and protection from ceaseless rapes by other men, but all the while writhing within, silently bearing it until the war situation comes to an end. This presented by Hillers as continuous rape. After the declaration of war new rapes occur less often, but the women are still answerable with their bodies. For weeks afterward they are driven like animals to do heavy physical labor by the occupying males (who while supervising, needle, heckle and try to get them to have sex with them in return for favors) for food. Sex slaves. In both sets of cases, the scenes are dramatized so that we shall see the woman complies at the same time as what is happening is rape.
Both books are the only books by these gifted women because both anonymous authors were excoriated (vilified) for writing them. For telling. The books show that apparent compliance is no criteria for saying that the act of sexual intercourse was not rape. The women are subject to their society which redefines these experiences of rape so as to by law declare them not rape (marriage) or by custom silence or shame the women who were subjected to them. While some of what the women think in both novels can be aligned to what a hostage is led to mouth when she finds herself the victim of hegemonic values which she takes on as a protection for her self-esteem, the physical acceptance of the act is accompanied by self-alienation, disgust, an intense desire to get away at the first opportunity. At the close of The Slyph Julia knows peace only when she returns home to her father. The anonymous heroine is relieved when her protectors (she takes on two) are gone, but she is immediately confronted by her continuing need for food, an incessant preoccupation in the diary and to return to a profession where she can be independent and eat, she attempts with others to recreate a press and write again, very stressful and against great odds (e.g., not enough paper).
In both cases a film adaptation has now been made. Saul Dibbs’s and Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Duchess (with Amanda Foreman as advisor) tell the story of the life of the Duchess using perspectives taken from Foreman’s and Georgiana’s books. For example, when one of Georgiana’s extravagant wigs were set on fire. (In the film she is drunk out of despair and collapses.) They blend easily as The Sylph mirrors a number of events known to have occurred in Georgiana’s life (sometimes represented in a reversal, as in the novel the Duke loses egregious amounts of money while it was Georgiana who lost extravagant amounts). Rape figures centrally in the film: Georgiana’s first night with the Duke is made to feel like a rape (she is his property); he rapes her after she finds him in bed with her paid companion-friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell): the three stills above are taken from that scene where the camera shows us the rest of the house hearing her cries and doing nothing. We feel she is violated when her child by Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) is taken from her. Little of this is discussed in reviews of the film; its genre, costume drama, frames it as romance and it’s easy to find stills of Keira Knightley in fabulous hats from it, often looking virginal. Here is a less familiar pair: the Duchess despairing and drunk just before her headdress is set on fire from a fallen chandelier:
I regret to say the 2008 film, Anonyma, written and directed by Max Faberbock loses the value of the book. It has great power and that lies in the opening half-hour where there is recreated what it’s like to be invaded by an army in just these specific circumstances: you are in a city that is ruined by bombing, the people whose “side” you are said to be on have basically lost (Hitler’s suicide is announced about 40 minutes in). The POV is our heroine’s, Anonyma (that’s what’s she’s called) played by Nina Hoss. Faberbock and she and all concerned convey the terror and brutality — rape is what the women suffer hideously — brutal and ugly and slow: these rapes don’t happen all at once; there’s time for women to try to get commanders to stop the men and they refuse (“my men are healthy”). But rape is only one aspect of what’s experienced: filth, destruction, eating filth, destroyed houses, rooms, things, children hidden and sudden and quick deaths as people are simply shot or there is a barrrage of fighting with guns. Faberbock is very willing to use black screens to convey darkness. But what happens within the first 40 minutes is the film becomes a love story — as the diary never does. We are asked to believe our heroine overlooks the way the major who becomes her long-term bed partner refused to stop his men and other horrendous acts when she first met and appealed to him. The film vindicates masculinity conventions and beliefs about women (such as they do not mind rape when not accompanied by harsh beating or death).
From the close of the film where we are presented with a silent adieu between the major who was our heroine’s central protector-rapist
The way Anonyma is described on IMDB is so distorted as to be comical — it imposes this sentimental meaning on what’s happening ludicrously — Lore must save her people; she learns to rely on what she hated. Roger Ebert wrote an intelligent review; so too one appeared in The Guardian. Also I have come across nothing in the press which discusses the sex in The Duchess truthfully, much less any awareness of its debt to The Sylph. So the rest of this blog will be a brief account of The Sylph and A Woman in Berlin as rape stories.
There is much more one could say about both, I am treating them from this point of view as it is central to them.
The first page of the first edition quotes Pope’s Rape of the Lock
The Sylph is a multi-voice epistolary fiction. Sir William marries Julia because he can’t get her any other way and by her letter we see that he is imposing on her values and norms which are a kind of violation of her feelings. He in short is not in love with our heroine — nor is she in love with him. She recognizes he is a stranger to her. when she gets to London, she is immersed in an amoral world and meets Lady Besford who urges her to have affairs, only be discreet: a mild version of Madame de Merteuil who in Les Liasions Dangereuses is enisted by Cecile’s mother to teach her daughter (recently it’s been recognized that Valmont rapes Cecilia the first time and controls her by blackmail — he’ll tell her mother — thereafter). Lady Melford is the helpless good mentor. Georgiana’s is an anti-libertine libertine novel, a critique of the adulterous disloyal world frankly presented. Early scenes with her husband (as Caroline Breashears wrote — she read with me and others) “the complexities and violence of the bed chamber.” A miscarriage is callously dismissed. Julia is taken as a sex object, impregnated, encouraged to have liasions discreetly so her husband can too. He returns from the opera which he attended with one of his mistresses and refuses to account for his long absence, insisting immediately on his marital rights which Julia now find distasteful because done with false words (hypocrisies). The Sylph is an anonymous correspondent who offers to watch and monitor her behavior — to the modern reader he feels like a stalker; there’s something insidious in his demands she reveal to him, a stranger, her inward thoughts. (Admittedly Julia-Georgiana does not take his presence this way, but agrees to subject herself to his judgement in order to protect herself.)
We have several inset stories. One is told early on by Julia’s father about his past and that of her mother. It is an exposure of the evils of primogeniture, marriages arranged sheerly for money. A story of Lord D who finds out his wife, Lady L, had taken a lover and challenges that lover to a duel and is killed by him presents duelling as murder in disguise. In another in-set story Georgiana makes it plain how rape can work. The aristocrat Montague tries outright to rape a lower middle class girl, Nancy; when Montague is thwarted, he removes her fiance by persuading Will to join the army, fomenting rebellion in Will, catching him deserting, and having him flogged — is it any different than say a court intrigue where the king or powerful man manipulates a lower courtier to allow his wife to go to bed with him? This is also a parable against flogging — against the terrible inhumane treatment of the lower classes. We are really made to feel how much flogging hurts.
As the novel progresses and Sir William gets deeper and deeper into debt he successfully pressures Julia to give up a proportion of her settlement (what she is supposed to live on in widowhood, and what could support them if he becomes a bankrup); it does no good, he is not grateful; he does not pretend even to love her — she no longer deludes herself his lust is love. Another sex as rape scene is implied and he returns to the gambling tables. On one level this is a portrait of unhappy marriage, what a marriage for sex and at a price ends end up in. As such, it may be an original novel — is there any other that in a middle class type novel shows this level of reality — deeply distraught and disillusioned young woman does not know where to turn. There is an allusion to Pamela Andrews as a pernicious book because it leads women to believe they can win a worthy man by withholding sex; we can also assume Georgiana was thinking of this central English novel. Julia finally encounters the Sylph at a masquerade ball and it becomes apparent he is a male who is after her too.
It is when she goes home thinking she is with Sir William she discovers he has sent Biddulph in his place in an attempt to delude her into going to bed with this man. William is then enraged with her for refusing Biddulph. part of the scene where Biddulph is disguised comes from the old canard that sex is the same in bed in the dark and it doesn’t matter what individual you are with. It’s an old bawdy joke, masculinist, and presented misogynistically in the Renaissance chapbooks and fabliau from the 15th through 18th century. Shakespeare uses it in Measure for Measure. We see it in comic plays where people jump into bed with the wrong people and have sex with them. Behn uses it. Since the conventions of verisimilitude are in play in The Sylph too, Georgiana does try to account for this by having Biddulph try to imitate Stanley’s behavior and Julia be puzzled. But she relies on her acceptance.
When Stanley comes in enraged and now demands that Julia turn over the rest of her settlement (jointure) he is particularly corrosive over her “prudery.” Stanley comes as close as he dares to offering Julia to Biddulph in lieu of the money he owes Biddulph: “I have but one method (you understand me) though I should be unwilling to be driven to such a procedure” (p 177). To do this break all norms for masculinity. Note he is willing to force sex himself on Julia anyway – no respect for her chastity, for himself as a proud male owning females, no concern for any pregnancy she might have. Let us acknowledge this is another form of rape – the selling of one’s acknowledged “woman” (wife) to another man and coercion of her. This motif turns up in novels otherwise not in imitation of one another: the wife in D’Epinay’s Montbrillant find her husband’s creditor in her bed and her husband waxing violent when she refuses to have sex with this man; in Edgeworth’s Leonora the vicious heroine plots to go to bed with someone to pay her debts (she is married). How common then was this? In Georgiana’s case it was she who was deep in debt so it might not be herself she is pointing to: her husband openly had Lady Elizabeth Foster, her companion so it seems reversed.
The novel is brought to an end when confronted with bankruptcy, and unable to cope with negotiations and an utterly (to his thinking) shamed life, Stanley kills himself and Julia returns home. If the novel had ended at this point we would have a very anti-marriage novel. Caroline wrote: “Moreover, it would be a convincing novel inspired by events in Georgiana’s own circle. In the introduction by Jonathan Gross, he notes that Lord Stanley’s gambling debts and suicide were inspired partly by the debts and death of John Damer (husband of Georgiana’s friend Anne), who shot himself in August 1775. Instead we have a sudden turn into idyllic romance, with Julia’s friend and sister marrying ideal young men and the Sylph turning out to be a suitor who had been rejected by her father because he had not the rank and money of Sir William. This is not Millenium Hall where the women built a life out of a female community together.
2005 edition, translator Philip Boehm
Continued in the comments: a parallel reading of A Woman in Berlin: first half; second half; denouement.
General thoughts placing both books in a woman’s tradition of books. For the 18th century:
Georgiana’s Sylph is a book much influenced by French novels and is a critique of the ancien regime too. If we posit there is such a thing as a libertine novel, (say — I came across this title this morning –, Crebillon’s Le Sofa, or Diderot’s Le Bijou (about a necklace’s adventures) — this one shows us the attitudes of the libertine novel and world, but is critiquing it. That is what LaClos claimed to be doing: he claimed he was not on Valmont or Madame de Merteuil’s side but exposed them to enable us to condemn them. This recalls Richardson’s writing outside his novel about Lovelace, and Georgiana’s Stanley and Biddulph are clearly modelled on Lovelace.
But it is Madame Riccoboni’s novels I call attention to where one heroine is raped while unconscious (drunk), another commits suicide; and most significantly in the decade after The Sylph: Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichfield is nowadays available in English translation on line is significant here. Isabelle de Montolieu did the astonishingly brave thing of showing a girl coerced into marriage refusing to go to bed with the man that night. It made open and clear in novels for the middle class that coerced marriage is rape. The man is a Colonel Brandon type (S&S is based partly on this novel I am convinced of it) and so does not force her, but he could. Montolieu punts by having his looks improved and them fall in love by the end (heroine betrayed by a Willoughby type). Trollope has heroines commit suicide rather than go to bed with a man distasteful to them, but he makes them so bad looking, and the women forcing it so sadistic, it does not seem ordinary as it is in Caroline de Lichtfield. The only other novel I know of that does this in the 19th century is Sand’s Valentine, and there the young man does try to force her. She throws him out and finds herself a pariah. Caroine de Licthfield is a 1780s novel — again after the Sylph, but not much after.
In both the 18th century and until today it is common for novels to be about women who fake rape; only very recently have women written about real rape (see my bibliography and notes for “Rape in Clarissa”).
As to Hillers’ book it belongs to European books written after WW2, often in the middle to later 1940s: all extraordinary, especially the journals by women (and men, Primo Levi’s for example) from Iris Origo’s War in Val D’Orcia, 1943-44 to Elsa Morante’s Historia, to Ingeborg Bachman’s poetry and Christa Woflf’s Cassandra and Four Essays. They were often either ignored upon first publication, or heavily criticized, framed by some aspect of the woman’s life. None of these are about rape, though Morante includes it. The European women’s books often rise to a level the UK people don’t — bombs are not the same as occupation (which as we know can bring genocides): I don’t mean to to be frivolous but I read the first Poldark novels coming out of UK in 1945 after Graham’s years as a warden on the beaches of Cornwall; Simone de Beauvoir’s is another extension of the kind of book WW2 prompted. Here are some reviews first published years later,
From Joseph Kanon:
That population was largely female and the dramatic events here are rapes — repeated rapes, group rapes, violent rapes, accommodating rapes. It has recently been the fashion to think of rape as a military tactic (as it was in Bosnia), but here it appears in its more familiar aspect: crude men seizing their spoils of war, as barbarous as Goebbels had promised. The most commonly accepted figure for rapes committed in Berlin during the first weeks of the Russian occupation is around 100,000 (calculated by hospitals to which the women turned for medical help). ”A Woman in Berlin” shows us the actual experience behind those abstract numbers — how it felt; how one got through it (or didn’t); how it brought its victims together, changing the way they saw men and themselves; the self-loathing (”I don’t want to touch myself, can barely look at my body”); the triumph of just surviving.
from Ursula Hegil:
A Woman in Berlin is an amazing and essential book. Originally written in shorthand, longhand and the author’s own code, it is so deeply personal that it becomes universal, evoking not only the rapes of countless German women in 1945 but also the rape of every anonymous woman throughout war history — the notion of women as booty. The book’s focus is not on the Nazi rampage across Europe but on its aftermath, when 1.5 million Red Army soldiers crossed the Oder River and moved westward. More than 100,000 women in Berlin were raped, but many of them would never speak of it. “Each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared,” Anonymous writes. “Otherwise no man is going to want to touch us anymore.”
Anonymous was an editor and journalist. Her voice is unlike most other voices from that period: She probes, refuses to look away. Nearly half a century ago, when her diary was first published in German, it challenged the postwar silence and all it concealed: guilt, lies, defensiveness, denial. . . .
The others hardly discuss the topic of rape; one is a slur, attempting to suggest the book is a work of ficiton. All life-writing is dramatized, shaped by themes and aesthetic considerations
The above are mostly in German; the last two by women discuss rape centrally, Linda Grant discussing “mass rape”; Cressida Connolly how the women talked together and coped with the situation by talking of it in ways unthinkable usually (undoable), as jokes; Joanna Burke tells us of a survivor.
Atina Grossman’s academic paper sets the book in the contexts of real documents from the time — showing by the way the book is non-fiction, telling an accurate truth as the author experienced it.
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