In reading classic weird fiction of the 1930s an earlier, one must always keep in mind that the authors were a product of their time. Racism and sexism are sadly common in reading older stories, and the depiction of negative stereotypes can mar otherwise imaginative and classic stories for the unprepared reader. For instance, H.P. Lovecraft had distinctly racist views that were expressed in stories on the horrors of miscegenation such as Arthur Jermyn and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and Sax Rohmer’s The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu exploits a fear of the “yellow menace”, namely Asian immigrants.
One might expect that Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), whose work inspired the name of this blog, could be easily characterized as sexist and even misogynistic. The stories of Conan the Barbarian are filled with nubile serving girls, scantily clad dancers, and the like. Conan is not above manhandling ladies, and in one story — The Frost Giant’s Daughter — he comes disturbingly close to rape.
It turns out, however, that a closer look at Howard’s writings show a much more complicated view of women. In particular, one set of remarkable correspondence shows that he was in some ways progressive and quite ahead of his time — though in others he wasn’t.
For all of the boldness and ferocity in his fictional characters, Howard was evidently rather solitary in his personal life, and rather unhappy. He committed suicide in 1936, the act precipitated by the eminent death of his mother, who had been sick for some time.
Howard in fact had only one romantic relationship. In 1933 he met Novalyne Price, the ex-girlfriend of Howard’s good friend Tevis Clyde Smith, and though they didn’t hit it off initially Novalyne got in touch with him a year later and they ended up dating on and off for two years. Their relationship was complicated, and damaged by the revelation that Novalyne was also dating for a time one of Howard’s other good friends. They lost touch finally in May of 1936 when she departed for graduate school, only weeks before Howard would commit suicide.
The letter that caught my attention originated years earlier. The motivation is unclear to me at this point, but apparently Tevis Clyde Smith asked another friend Harold Preece to provoke a response from Howard on his views on women. On December 16, 1928, Preece wrote to Smith, “I have written an impersonal tirade against women to Bob, as you requested.”
The nature of that tirade was relayed word-for-word by Howard to Smith in the same month, with Howard evidently unaware of its true origin:
I got a long letter from Harold and after much oration he says as follows:
“Women are damned good actors but damned bad friends.
“One step in the process of emancipating myself, mentally has been the complete disillusionment of myself regarding women. Women have a tendency to make men effeminate and domestic; and I believe, therefore, that they are a hindrance to the full expression of masculine personality. It is significant that the frails have never produced a single great philosopher, and that the really great women, whom this world has produced, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
“The fickleness of woman is proverbial, one of the major themes of literature, in fact. A woman, generally speaking, has no conception of honor, or obligation except to her offspring; and she generally ceases to love her mate after the birth of the first child.
“Woman should be relegated to her proper place, and kept there. Let the men assert their rights, and not be daunted by powder-puff or allured by hose.”
Or words to that effect.
Keep in mind that it seems that Preece was not necessarily relaying his true views, but trying to get a rise out of Howard at Smith’s request. It seems likely that Smith knew Howard’s views, and just wanted to see how dramatically Howard would respond. In the letter to Smith, Howard continues:
I am preparing a scathing rebuke of which I shall probably enclose a carbon copy to you. I will not ask you to destroy this letter, as I have foolish scruples about depriving posterity of masterpieces rightfully theirs, but for cat’s sake, hide it skillfully and with subtlety where no prying or Haroldesque eye can discover its heinous and libelous contents.
How shall I go about rebuking Harold? Shall I lead up to it gradual? Hell, no, I believe I’ll launch into an impassioned denunciation the first thing; the noble knightel charging to the rescue of his godamn lady love, begad.
Howard certainly didn’t take his time writing! In the same month — December 1928 — he sent off his response to Harold, which I reproduce in its entirety:
You’re right; women are great actors. But I can’t agree with you in your statement that the great women can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Men have sat at the feet of women down the ages and our civilization, bad or good, we owe to the influence of women.
Let us look at the records of the great women.
Sappho: doubtless the greatest woman poet who ever lived; certainly one of the greatest of all time. The direct incentive of the lyric age of Greece, the age that for pure beauty, surpasses all others. How shall a pen like mine sing of the beauties of Sappho, of the golden streams which flowed from her pen, of her voice which was fairer than the song of a dark star, of the fragrance of her hair and shimmering loveliness of her body? Has it been proved that she was a Lesbian in the generally accepted sense of the word? Who ever accused her but the early Christians– ignorant monks and monastery swine who were set on breaking all the old golden idols; and Daudet, a libertine, a grovelling ape who could see no good in anything; Mure, a drunkard and a blatant braggart, whose word I hold of less weight than a feather drifting before a south wind. May the saints preserve Comparetti, who was man enough to uphold pure womanhood, and scholar enough to prove what he said. No prude was Sappho, but a full-blooded woman, passionate and open-hearted, with a golden song and a soul large enough to enfold the whole world. Listen:
Lo, Love once more my soul within me rends
Like wind that on the mountain oak descends.
And again she sings:
Lo, Love once more, the limb-dissolving king,
Wild-beast-like rends me with fierce quivering.
Earl uprose the golden-sandalled-Dawn.
What male poet has achieved a finer imagery?
The moon has left the sky:
Lost is the Pleiad’s light;
It is midnight
And time slips by;
But on my couch along I lie.
From the sound of cool waters heard through the green boughs
Of the fruit-bearing trees,
And the rustling breeze,
Deep sleep, as a trance, down over me flows.
Of the rainbow she speaks:
Rainbow shot with a thousand hues.
Of the night she speaks:
And dark-eyed Sleep, child of Night.
The translation is weak and pallid in comparison with the “winged words” of the original Greek. But even so, we catch the haunting melody, the wistful yet powerful, almost overcoming, beauty of the songs of Sappho. God be with her– gone to the dust twenty-five hundred years ago– more than two thousand years ago. Let us sigh with Swinburne:
I, Sappho, shall be one with all these things,
With all things high forever; and my face
Seen once, my songs once heard in a strange place
Cleave to men’s lives, and waste the days thereof,
In gladness and much sadness and long love.
And what of Elpinice, who antedated woman suffrage by two thousand years and who plead so strongly for her brother Cimon that Pericles spared his life and later recalled him from exile? Polynnotus immortalized her for the ages in the fresco of the Stoa Poikile.
No philosopher among women? You forget the greatest philosopher of all times: Aspasia of Athens, a pupil of Thargelia of Miletus, who was the mainstay of the Great King of Persia, and who married a king of Thessaly, Aspasia came to Athens in her early girlhood, and being debarred from Athenian citizenship because of the abominable custom which relegated wives to the position of slaves, and cultured women to the status of harlots, Aspasia gathered about herself a group which for pure culture and artistic ability, has never been equalled in the history of the world. She was the true inspiration from the famed Golden Age. Pericles left his wife and took Aspasia into his home. As she was not an Athenian he was unable to legally marry her, but she was his wife in all but the name and they were true to each other. She was the torch that lit the Periclean fire which flings its pure and vibrant shadow down to the ages to light the drabness of the present day. She was Pericles’ teacher in rhetoric, it is said, and even wrote many of the speeches for which he is famed. Plato was proud to sit at her feet. To her for advice and counsel came Xenophon, Phidias, Herodotus, Anaxagoras, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, and all the other geniuses who made up Athens’ gold galaxy. A hetaera– aye, but only because of the man-made customs of the day. And men forget– when the leaders of freedom are mentioned, who speaks Aspasia’s name? Yet more than all the radicals of her day, she stood for freedom of action and thought.
And returning to poets among women: Sappho, first of the Terrestial Nine muses, as they were called: Erinna of Telos, Myrtis of Thebes, instructor of Pindar of Thebes, and Corinna, who defeated Pindar five times in contests, and who instructed him in regard to the soul of his work which he was prone to neglect in favor of the the style; Telesilla of Argos who was a poet like the rest and also led her tribeswomen to victory over the whole Spartan army; Praxilla of Sicyon who is given a place beside Anacreon; Nocsis of Locris, Italy; Anyte of Tegea and Moero of Byzantium.
And there were the Pythagorean Women, philosophers and poets, fifteen in number all of whom equalled any male philosopher of the time. And those of the Grecian Academy– some hundreds. And the Cynics and Epicureans– but the list is endless. I could name all day, those women I deem great in Greece alone and the records would scarcely be complete.
And what of Joan of Arc and Emma Goldman? Kate Richards O’Hare and Sarah Bernhardt? Katherine the Great and Elizabeth Barrett Browning? H.D. and Sara Teasdale? Isabella of Spain who paned her gems that Columbus might sail, and Edna St. Vincent Millay? And that queen, Marie, I think her name was, of some small province– Hungary I believe– who fought Prussia and Russia so long and bitterly. And Rome– oh, the list is endless there, also– most of them were glorified harlots, but better be a glorified harlot than a drab and moral drone, such as the textbooks teach us women should be.
Women have always been the inspiration for men, and just as there are thousands of unknown great ones among men, there have been countless women whose names have never been blazoned across the stars, but who have inspired men on to glory. And as for their fickleness– as long as men write the literature of the world, they will rant about the unfaithfulness of the fair sex, forgetting their own infidelities. Men are as fickle as women. Women have been kept in servitude so long that if they lack in discernment and intellect it is scarcely their fault.
Wow. Howard provides a very impassioned defense of the accomplishments of women in history and also shows a very acute awareness of the societal and cultural barriers that they had to overcome. Some of the passages might very well have been written by a progressive today.
Howard’s stories also show strong female characters with remarkable regularity. Though the Conan stories have their fill of foolish and buxom ladies, there are also cunning, strong and deadly ones. In Howard’s 1934 tale, “Queen of the Black Coast“, Conan has a doomed love affair with the pirate queen Bêlit, a terror of the coastal waters:
“Who is Belit?”
“The wildest she-devil unhanged. Unless I read the signs awrong, it was her butchers who destroyed that village on the bay. May I some day see her dangling from the yard-arm! She is called the queen of the black coast. She is a Shemite woman, who leads black raiders. They harry the shipping and have sent many a good tradesman to the bottom.”
In Howard’s late Conan tale, the 1936 “Red Nails“, Conan joins forces with the deadly sword woman Valeria. At the start of the tale, Conan has caught up to Valeria after she flees from the mercenary camp of Zarallo under inauspicious circumstances:
“You know Zarallo didn’t have enough knaves to whip me out of camp,” he grinned. “Of course I followed you. Lucky thing for you, too, wench! When you knifed that Stygian officer, you forfeited Zarallo’s favor, and protection, and you outlawed yourself with the Stygians.”
“I know it,” she replied sullenly. “But what else could I do? You know what my provocation was.”
“Sure,” he agreed. “If I’d been there, I’d have knifed him myself. But if a woman must live in the war camps of men, she can expect such things.”
Valeria stamped her booted foot and swore.
“Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?”
In most of these stories, Conan eventually wins the girl, even “taming” her to some degree. This is not always the case, however; in the 1934 story “The People of the Black Circle“, Conan ends up kidnapping the Devi Yasmina, ruler of Vendhya, in order to secure the release of his imprisoned raiders. He gets caught up in a bigger and more sinister plot, however, and when the Devi is stolen away by dark forces, he comes to her rescue. By the end of the story, there is mutual desire between them, but also mutual respect.
Conan turned to Yasmina, his red knife still in his hand, his blue eyes smoldering, blood oozing from wounds on his thickly muscled arms and thighs.
“You are the Devi again,” he said, grinning fiercely at the goldclasped gossamer robe she had donned over her hill-girl attire, and awed not at all by the imposing array of chivalry about him. “I have you to thank for the lives of some three hundred and fifty of my rogues, who are at least convinced that I didn’t betray them. You have put my hands on the reins of conquest again.”
“I still owe you my ransom,” she said, her dark eyes glowing as they swept over him. “Ten thousand pieces of gold I will pay you-”
He made a savage, impatient gesture, shook the blood from his knife and thrust it back in its scabbard, wiping his hands on his mail.
“I will collect your ransom in my own way, at my own time,” he said. “I will collect it in your palace at Ayodhya, and I will come with fifty thousand men to see that the scales are fair.”
She laughed, gathering her reins into her hands. “And I will meet you on the shores of the Jhumda with a hundred thousand!”
His eyes shone with fierce appreciation and admiration, and stepping back, he lifted his hand with a gesture that was like the assumption of kingship, indicating that her road was clear before her.
Some of Howard’s historical stories also show an admiration of women and an appreciation of their troubles. Howard finished two stories set in 16th century France about a fierce sword woman named Dark Agnes, though they were unpublished during his life*. At the beginning of the first story, Agnes is fated to be married off against her will to an older and lecherous swine of a man. The night before the wedding, her older sister provides Agnes an escape option:
“What can a girl do?” I asked helplessly.
Her eyes burned into mine with a shadow of the fierceness I had so often seen smolder in the eyes of our father.
“One thing!” she whispered. “The only thing a woman can do, to free herself. Do not cling by your fingers to life, to become as our mother, and as your sister; do not live to become as me. Go while you are strong and supple and handsome. Here!”
She bent quickly, pressed something into my hand, then snatched up the child and was gone. And I lay staring fixedly at the slim-bladed dagger in my hand.
The sister’s solution is clear and despairing. On the wedding day, however, Agnes comes up with a different option when she faces her husband-to-be:
At the sight of him I ceased my struggles like one struck motionless, and my captors released me and drew back; and so I stood facing him for an instant, almost crouching, glaring unspeaking. “Kiss her, lad!” bellowed some drunken lout; and hten as a taut spring snaps, I jerked the dagger from my bosom and sprang at François. My act was too quick for those slow-witted clowns even to comprehend, much less prevent. My dagger was sheathed in his pig’s heart before he realized I had struck, and I yelped with mad glee to see the stupid expression of incredulous surprize and pain flood his red countenance, as I tore the dagger free and he fell, gurgling like a stuck pig, and spouting blood between his clawing fingers– to which clung petals from his bridal chain.
This first tale also begins with a striking dedication:
To Mary Read, Graine O’Malley, Jeanne Laisné, Liliard of Ancrum, Anne Bonney, and all other sword women, good or bad, bold or gay, who have swaggered down the centuries, this chronicle is respectfully dedicated.
So Robert E. Howard seems, in spite of his clearly male-centric fiction, to have had quite an appreciation for women and their accomplishments and abilities. On the other hand, in the same letter to Harold Preece in which he expounds upon the virtues of women, he ends with the following statement:
But why waste time mulling over intellect? A beautiful face and a splendid young body should satisfy a man– why mix philosophical discourse and loin movements? Sex has its part in life– it is Life itself and satisfaction of the body should go hand in hand with satisfaction of the soul. Hell– when we grow old we can philosophize and look to art– bah– I begin to believe a man is a sluggard and a fool who wastes his time making marks on paper. Hell.
It is kind of hard to reconcile the rather sexist-sounding statement here with the impassioned defense that appeared literally in the former paragraph. Was he being sarcastic? Did he begin to worry that his earlier statements might be viewed as being too “feminine”? I suspect myself that Howard in this era had a somewhat love/hate relationship with women, viewing them as amazing mystical creatures but resenting them for their mysteriousness and seeming unapproachability.
In any case, Howard’s views on women show surprising complexity, and his views on race also are rather complicated. I’ll discuss the latter views in a future post.
* Howard’s Dark Agnes stories are available in a recent compilation, Sword Woman.
Most excellent post.
Thanks Janet! 🙂
Does give you a different view of Robert.
Indeed! Reading his letters, one is struck with his thoughtfulness.
Not only his thoughtfulness, but his erudition. Though it’s always been a simplistic trope that Robert E. Howard was just a “mere” pulp writer, his seeming facile recall of various notable women in history (well, swordswomen, too, but then that WAS his niche!) – is remarkable. Especially for a guy who seldom left the backwaters of rural Texas.
Indeed — he was a remarkably well-read person and deep thinker. At some point, I need to write a blog post on his views of civilization vs. barbarism. Though most folks would disagree with those views today, they permeate his writings and are, in my opinion, a large part of the reason that Howard’s work has thrived while his contemporaries has faded.
Most excellent post! I’ve discussed the famous Preece rebuttal at my blog, though I’ve come to a different conclusion: I think that Howard’s “love/hate” relationship with women is just entirely in keeping with his love/hate relationship with humanity in general. Even his beloved Celts and Irish get a fillibuster from him time to time. So for Howard to speak well of women in some places and ill in others just means he thinks of women in the same way he thinks of everything – which is surely not a sexist sentiment.
“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is a tricky case, because the “near rape” has so many contextual qualifiers that it has to be analysed differently. Considering the mythic inspiration from Apollo & Daphne and Atalanta, combined with the fact Conan is suffering head trauma and exhaustion, added to the fact that Atali was clearly using more than her feminine wiles to incite Conan to chase after her in a mad pursuit to his death, mean that it’s one of those “yes, with a but” cases.
Finally, Conan doesn’t always get the girl – in some stories Conan doesn’t even try. Conan rejects Livia and Nafertari’s offers in “The Vale of Lost Women” and “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” respectively, while Conan seems pretty uninterested in pursuing a relationship with “The Black Stranger’s” Belesa and “The Hour of the Dragon’s” Albiona.
Thanks for the comment, and the link! I can certainly see your point that Howard’s view of women matched his general love/hate relationship with humanity. He seems to have been simultaneously optimistic and cynical about people in general, and overall pessimistic about society.
I agree that “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is a tricky case, which is why I didn’t dwell on it too much in the post. Certainly it can be said that the circumstances of the story were very out of the ordinary and probably deliberately chosen to show a very atypical side of Conan.
I was thinking about adding a comment on “The Vale of Lost Women” as a counterpoint to “Frost-Giant”! There Conan explicitly rejects the idea of forcing himself on women, which itself was sadly in general a concept well ahead of Howard’s time as well.
Again, thanks for commenting!
I was just thinking about the Conan stories, and wondering if Conan is actually a foil rather than a protagonist. In The Temple of the Elephant, or whatever the story is where he finds the elephant-headed alien, Conan doesn’t change to meet a challenge; the alien does. In People of the Black Circle, which I’m now reading, Conan doesn’t change as much as the Devi. In Red Nails, Conan doesn’t change as much as Valleria in response to the pressures of the tale. She becomes more vulnerable in his presence.
I’m curious: does Conan change? Does Solomon Kane? What are their stories about, besides mayhem?
On the surface, Conan and Kane and most of Howard’s heroes don’t have a lot of evolution — as stories written for the pulps, making fundamental changes in popular characters wasn’t really a good recipe for success! There is something to be said for the idea that the real character development is in the secondary characters of the stories.
Nevertheless, Conan and Kane do sometimes change and grow in the progress of the tales. In “Vale of Lost Women”, Conan makes a deal with a woman, in which she trades herself for the death of a hated rival. By the end of the story, Conan himself refuses to accept payment, realizing what a cruel deal he had made, essentially rape.
Kane’s personality actually changes quite a bit as the stories progress. He is first introduced as a very Christian, very fundamentalist, zealot, but his experiences force him to accept the existence of “shades of gray” in morality, and also accept that foreign, savage religions and powers may be forces for good, as well.
As for what the stories are “about”, you should keep in mind again that Howard was writing for a pulp audience — first and foremost, the stories are intended to thrill and entertain. He wouldn’t have sold any of them if that hadn’t been his priority; that was the nature of the business back then. However — and this is really a more detailed topic for another blog post — Howard had a unique worldview that he expounded upon in almost every tale, and much of the success and timelessness of his tales come from that worldview.
In letters, Howard explicitly describes his belief in civilization as a somewhat corrupting and evil influence on humanity, and barbarism, in contrast, as a relatively honest way of living. Howard grew up in Texas oil land, and watched as robber barons used the law and government as tools to plunder and oppress the people. This gave him a rather jaded view of “civilized man”, and he idealized the barbaric state of existence. Conan represents this barbaric ideal, and many of his enemies in the stories are cruel, treacherous men of high society. In the Kane stories, the untamed dark continent is simultaneously a place of fear and wonder, and one can imagine Kane’s evolving views of savage men as representing Howard’s own.
One doesn’t have to agree with these views, of course, but I’ve always viewed Howard’s stories as being very critical of modern civilization and wistfully idealizing the primitive state.
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wow, totally awesome essay…wonderful