"He Spewed Himself Into Her": Re-Reading The ConquerorS

Sadie's trashy reads series and revisiting of the rapey romance novel inspired me to reread a rape-laden book that scandalized me in my adolescence. This one was called The Conqueror, and it had Fabio on the cover.

Why scandalized? First of all, the fact that it's set during the Norman conquest apparently gives license to use fun Anglo-Saxon words like cock, tits, and fuck. And more to the point, scene upon scene of attempted rape and completed rape, specifically referred to as such but eventually ending in love.

Whereas the romance novels I'd gotten my hands on in long, featureless summers (a shamefaced habit that started somewhere on the road back from Gone With The Wind) tastefully faded to black during the sex scenes — Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs and then nothingness — this one was graphic, with pages and pages of sexual detail. There is the word "impale" used for penetration. And there are the allusive phrases used to indicate a male orgasm, including, "like a ripe plum, he burst within her," and the significantly less appealing, "he spewed himself into her." (There are lots of phrases for when they come at the same time all along the lines of "their world shattered brilliantly, as one.") The preferred word for female genitalia is simply "her femininity."

There are more blunt, minute-by-minute check-ins with Rolfe de Warenne's cock, which is obsessively transfixed by one Ceidre, the bastard half sister of Edwin and Morcar, Saxon lords whose fiefdoms are being conquered. The golden-haired Ceidre, of course, is spirited, independent, and unbelievably beautiful, but also a shunned outsider — she has an occasionally lazy eye and an affinity for herbal medicine that gets her called a witch. As part of the land deal, Rolfe is being given Ceidre's half-sister Alice as a wife. (You know she's a bitch because she's a brunette and doesn't like sex, although eventually she later proves to be a masochist.)

The first time Rolfe sees Ceidre, he tries to rape her, but is held at bay by the lie that she is actually Lady Alice, his intended. Interestingly, the book is full of Rolfe' perspective, first as he dismounts his horse to rape her, and then later as he is tormented by her sensuality, and even later as he learns to fall in love with her out of sheer admiration for her spirit. In the opening scene, we are asked to identify with the rapist, or at least see things through his eyes:

Every muscle of Rolfe's body was taut with tension and expectation. He was hard and throbbing beneath his undertunic. He could almost feel her soft woman's body beneath his, the stick heat of her sheath around him. She screamed as she fell, looked back, saw him.... He had to have her, and now. He caught her braid by the nape, and even as he leaned over to claim her lips, he was shoving her gown and tunic up to her waist.... He kneed her thighs wide apart.

Still obsessively attracted to her, he attempts to rape her numerous more times — this is the word that is used — throughout much of the book. Ceidre at first hates him for taking over her brother's fiefdom, eventually fighting her burning attraction to him. At one point, he jerks off watching her bathe in a creek, and she sees it.

250 pages or so later, he eventually finishes what he started, droit de seigneur on her wedding night to his trusted deputy. The second time that night, though, she's totally into it and has an orgasm: "He had raped her violently, and moments later she had attained the fiercest of desire, and the most agonizing of ecstasy, in his arms."

The trick is that consent is explicitly part of this: when she realizes she is attracted to him but also sleeps with him to spy for her brothers, he is exultant: "He could barely believe what had happened. She had come to him. She had wanted him. She had responded to his passion as fiercely as he had given it."

The final climax, so to speak, when he comes to her in love despite her betrayal, is when he lowers his head to go down on her, much to Ceidre's extreme shock and eventual pleasure. (Was there cunnilingus in the eleventh century? Who cares.)

Still, in mutual consent lies the terror of emasculation. The second half of The Conqueror sees Rolfe struggling to fight his new emotional vulnerability (and yeah, the fact that Ceidre is actively trying to orchestrate a coup to restore her brothers doesn't help.)

"You unman me, Ceidre."

"You are not unmanned to feel happy, my lord."

"No? What is happiness? A commander has no place in his life for such emotions... A man who caters to all humors ceases to be a man.

There is a careful balance here: on the one hand, the reader is repelled by the hero's proclivity for rape, but on the other hand, it's 1066, so marauding conquerors weren't exactly asking nicely. And there is the suggestion here that it is an intoxicating thing, first to be so irresistible that a man simply cannot help himself, and then so much so that the brute is so charmed by your indomitable spirit that he changes into a loving man who is begging for your consent. And says things like, "If this is love, than I have been smitten."

But in the midst of this teary reunion, she "feels his sex, thick and hard," and he says, "'Tis a sign of my love." I tend to think that's what this book is really about.

The Conqueror