It's a man's world. Yes, still. How else could Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword—a vastly entertaining bildungsroman, told as a novel of manners with a judicious amount of swashbuckling—be so easily dismissed by one blogger as "fantasy chick lit"? The main character is a young woman, and there are a couple of references to shoes, it is true. The setting is also largely urban, a generous amount of tears are shed (a girl is raped; this upsets her), and certain characters do indeed fall in love or at any rate have sex (both pastimes being, as I understand it, quite common among human beings). The fact that it is also pacy, witty, filled with politicking and swordfights, and essentially a coming-of-age story, is apparently irrelevant. Men's stories are universal, after all; women's are niche (and fluffy).
It is appropriate, then, or ironic, that Kushner's novel sets out to explore and subvert this man's world as it is frequently represented in the fantasy genre, and the notion that fiction focusing on women must revolve around romance (and/or shoes). Privilege returns us to Kushner's nameless, Regency-inflected city of glittering nobles and the deadly swordsmen through whom they work out their feuds, so successfully evoked in her earlier novels Swordspoint (1987) and (with Delia Sherman) The Fall of the Kings (2002). If Swordspoint was a "melodrama of manners," a queering of Regency romance, Privilege is Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen with swords—half first-person gaucherie-making-good, half dryly knowing third-person observation:
A young girl about to make a good marriage is at the center of her world, and may perhaps be forgiven for thinking she is more important than she actually is, or wiser. (p. 172)
This time, the narrative gaze is directed to the city's women, whose stories—as wives, daughters, mistresses, actresses—usually happen in the margins around the fantasy genre's Great Deeds of Great Men. The central character (and narrator of the first-person sections of the book) is Katherine Campion, the naïve teenage niece of one of the most prominent—and notorious—noblemen of the city, the "Mad Duke" Alec Tremontaine, who will be familiar to readers of Swordspoint. Born to an estranged branch of Tremontaine's family, and raised in the countryside, Katherine is overjoyed but ill-prepared when her uncle summons her to live with him in his house in the city. Nor, at first, does she fully appreciate just what she is: a bargaining chip, surrendered to the vagaries of her easily bored, wilfully transgressive uncle's patronage so as to raise her family's faltering fortunes, long locked in ruinous litigation over a mysterious past quarrel:
I was quite small, but I remember how awful it always was when the letters came, heavy with their alarming seals. There would be an hour or two of perfect, dreadful stillness, and then everything would explode. (p. 5)
It is, of course, the fate of most young girls in such a world: Katherine is to live in Tremontaine's home, be entirely dependent upon him for everything down to the food she eats and the clothes she wears, and obey him in all things. The need to attract and retain male financial and physical protection, in this society where women have no safe and respectable means to support themselves, is a pattern of behaviour seen repeatedly as the novel unfolds, present—or, debilitatingly, absent—in the lives of nearly all the women characters. As Lady Fitz-Levi, the mother of one character, puts it:
"What happens to Artemisia this Season or the next will determine the course of her entire life from now on. She is on display, everything about her: her clothes, her hair, her teeth, her laugh, her voice . . . so that some gentleman can choose whether he wants to make her the mistress of his household and the mother of his heirs. Think of it as—oh, I don't know, as a horse that has only one race to win. If she marries well, she will be comfortable and happy. If she makes a poor choice, or fails to attract a worthy man, the rest of her life will be a misery." (pp. 73-4)
Whether women are being paraded by their families at balls and music recitals, all decked out to lure a suitor, suffering their husbands' dalliances and abuse for the sake of keeping a roof over their heads, or attracting rich patron-lovers by cultivating "wanton actress" personae on- and offstage, male approval is the inescapable centre of their existence. Women are to be adorned, admired and, when necessary, adjured, passing from the control of their parents to that of their husband or lover (or else to poverty); their agency is limited, and largely reliant upon what they can carve out (at considerable cost to themselves), or the indulgence of male relatives. The infantilising effect this has upon many women is clear. Katherine's mother, incapable in her widowhood of running her estate or her household without her children's help, is one example. Another comes when Artemisia's parents ponder how to force their daughter to obey them (by going ahead with a contracted marriage to her rapist); note Lady Fitz-Levi's querulous, childish tone here as she remembers her own adolescence:
"We cannot force her to eat."
"Do you think so?" Nervously his wife twisted her lace fichu in her ringed fingers. "They always forced me to eat." (p. 200)
Katherine herself begins as very much a sheltered, helplessly shallow product of this system; her narration, delivered at some unspecified point after the events described, comes loaded with wry hindsight when she recounts her youthful aspirations, like this exchange with her mother:
"[. . .] dressed up in long gowns with real lace—"
"And a train! I must have a train, for staircases, mustn't I, Mother? And a peacock feather fan, and shoes with glittery buckles and a velvet cape." I knew that was all I needed to break anyone's heart. Let me appear on the right staircase just once in a velvet cape, and I was a made woman.
Now I was headed for one of the most glorious houses in the city, at the invitation of Duke Tremontaine himself. The lawsuit would be withdrawn, my dowry restored, if not, indeed, doubled. I was sure he had a staircase. (p. 13)
The difference, for Katherine, is that she is not being sold into marriage, but service. She is to be trained as Tremontaine's new swordsman and bodyguard, a scandalous and apparently unprecedented occupation for a woman—the latest amusement, it seems, in Alec's lifelong pursuit of decadent diversion. Duels have long been central to the maintenance of honour and status (men's, that is, and women's insofar as it affects that of their male relatives) in this society, as well as—at certain times in the past—a means of securing political power and influence through more direct means than public office. They are very much the domain of men. Insults are answered by challenges, which may be carried out by the injured party or by a nominated swordsman, with the duel's outcome (to first blood, or death) determining the standing of both parties in the dispute:
The duke just looked at him. "My dear. Here on the Hill, I'm afraid we take it very seriously. A nobleman of the city brought your poetry's virtue into question—'Duller than a rainy Tuesday and twice as long' was the way you put it, Bernhard, I believe? A challenge was issued. There was a duel, and the swordsman defending the honor of your verse was defeated."
"But—one man sticking another with a sword cannot change my poetry from good to bad just like that."
"The duel is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Where men's judgement may be called into question, the opinion of the sword always holds fast." (p. 84)
Katherine, observing the same duel—her first—sees it another way ("Swordplay was two fools hacking at each other with razors until one of them was hurt," p. 86). Like any young person thrust into a situation so completely outside their experience, Katherine is initially shellshocked and sullen as she comes to understand the divergence between what she expected and what is expected of her. News of her training, as it spreads about the city, makes her an object of ridicule. But she is a spirited and resilient individual, and soon rises to meet the challenge. Even in her first encounter with her capricious, intimidating uncle, she is frightened but does not let herself be cowed; when Tremontaine repeatedly insults and then attempts to shock her (by kissing, extensively, his lover du jour, a young man named Alcuin), Katherine ignores him and establishes herself in the household by marching over and "yank[ing] the bellpull" (p. 19) to get the attention he refuses her. Driven by her sense of duty to her family, and inspired by the (male) characters in a popular novel, The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, Katherine applies herself to her new role with relish, both during her fencing lessons and outside them. She learns to enjoy the sense of accomplishment to be found in hard-earned proficiency, and the admiration it elicits in others:
It was as if I had become the sword and knew just what to do without thinking. I finished triumphantly, my point at Master Drake's chest. Both of us were breathing heavily. I heard Marcus give a low whew! of approval. He said, "I didn't know you could do that."
I felt very much like Fabian [a character from the Swordsman novel] at that moment. "There's a lot," I said, just for the pleasure of saying it, "you don't know about me." (p. 172)
She also, through both her new role and the swordsman's attire she is forced to wear, begins to experience the freedom and agency that comes with a man's status. Clothing plays a significant role in the story—not because many of the characters are female, but because of how clothing frames identity and status in a society where everything is so sharply gendered:
Men's clothing gripped me in places I did not want, showed me in ways I could not like, claimed me with strange bindings and unbindings.
I stood trembling, like a young horse being broken to saddle, as Betty's fingers did the final buttons up. I would not look in the mirror. I couldn't bear to see myself transformed into something neither boy nor girl. What this what my uncle wanted? I hoped he would be satisfied, then! (p. 31)
Out and about in the city, both on the Hill (the nobles' domain) and in Riverside (the less salubrious part of town), Katherine is repeatedly mistaken for a boy—generally, with her long hair, a University student (equally male)—and treated accordingly. This is not because she truly resembles one, but because her male garb makes people elide the details, and see what they imagine to be there. ("Philibert, Lord Davenant, was not an observing sort of man; he saw a boy's face because he expected to see a boy's face," p. 38). On the occasions she is recognised as a woman, her outfit elicits mockery, pity, or even hostility; having stepped outside binary gender categories, she is perceived as a freakish victim of her uncle's whims, her chances of living a "normal life" (as her mother puts it [p. 297], meaning of course gowns and flowers and conventional marriage) all but destroyed. Yet this very contempt also proves an advantage, leading opponents to underestimate her in the duels she fights.
This theme is echoed, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the theatrical productions that operate as a backdrop to much of the story. In particular, there is an adaptation of the Swordsman novel, in which an actress (named Viola, for that extra Shakespearean touch) plays the male role of Tyrian onstage—and, backstage, receives female lovers in her costume. This aspect plays out, too, in the various dressing and cross-dressing associated with the more risqué entertainment and prostitution to be found in the city; in one striking scene, Katherine and her friend Marcus observe, as paying voyeurs, a man putting on his masklike makeup prior to assignations with male clients. This fluidity of gendered identity—Katherine's own, and that of others she encounters—also surfaces in, and broadens the possibilities of, Katherine's burgeoning sexual awareness and sense of self, in a delightfully, and never heavy-handedly, egalitarian sort of way. By the end of the story, she has expressed and explored attraction to both women and men, and the novel draws no firm conclusions as to what any of this means to her; the importance for her lies in the process of learning and gaining experience.
Katherine is inspired, too, to emulate the deeds of her fictional swordsmen heroes. Discovering that Artemisia, a chance acquaintance from her first days in the city, has been raped by her betrothed—and that the girl's family would rather quietly go through with the marriage than lose face by calling it off, still less publicly reprimand the man in question—Katherine vows to become her champion. She uses the agency afforded her by her socially transgressive uncle, her ambiguous gender identity, and her swordfighting ability to fight for the honour and freedom of a young woman denied the right—by her sex, upbringing, and status—to defend or avenge herself. The pair exchange secret, increasingly passionate, letters, in which Artemisia—who once mocked Katherine for her male clothing—admits, "How I envy you. Your uncle may be mad, but at least he lets you fight back" (p. 205). In so doing, Katherine triggers a number of long-held resentments and rivalries, setting in motion a chain of events that will transform the political face of the city.
It is here, in Katherine's awakening sense of outrage and agency, that The Privilege of the Sword becomes the sort of story I longed to read in my own teenage years, and still feel energised by as an adult. It is the story of a heroine who not only does not need to be rescued by a man, but who sallies forth to stand up for other girls. One who, in the course of her coming-of-age, fights with swords, uses her head, helps her friends, stands up to unjust authority, makes mistakes and learns from them—and, in so doing, finds new ways to be a woman. Ways that are not, in the end, so different from the ways to be an adult, male or female.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.
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