Most Appalling Treatment of a Secondary Romance Character Ever


Knowing of my interest in Jewish heroes and heroines in romance, my friend @JanetNorCal recommended Barbara Samuel’s 1993 historical romance, A Bed of Spices, which I Kindled for zero dollars (still free for Prime members) a few weeks back.

A Bed of Spices is set in Strassburg (an Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire, situated in what today is the French-German border) in 1349, when the Plague was descending on Europe. Rica and Etta are sixteen year old twins who live in a castle on the outskirts of the city. They are noble, blonde, and motherless. Their father Charles, a feudal lord, is ill and hopes to see them settled before his death. Solomon is a tall, dark, and handsome, a Jew studying to be a doctor. He’s left his studies to return home to Strassburg as the Plague spreads. When he goes to visit a local midwife to see what he can learn from her, he runs into Rica, who is procuring herbs for her father, and it’s love at first sight.

I’ll give a nutshell review and then get to the topic of the post: This was a very good read. The setting pretty much made the book, and I also appreciated the writing. I decided to read it as a fairy tale, with archetypal setting (castle), plot (forbidden love, betrayal) and characters (virtuous or vicious) and that kept me from being disappointed in the intsa-love between two basically perfect people. I also used the fairy-tale framing to get past the “twins so identical only their true loves could possibly tell them apart” trope. I tend to like sexual tension, deep characterization, and internal conflicts in my romances, so it was a surprise to me to enjoy a book that had none of those things. But enjoy it I did.

Except for one thing. Etta.

Trigger warning: I quote a fairly detailed depiction of rape after the jump.

Etta sits silently at her tapestry all day, every day, is “simple-minded”, and possibly “mad”, because she survived this horrific event:

“When we were six,” Rica said, “my mother and sister had been out to gather blackberries and my mother turned her ankle, so they were slow getting back.” Between her palms, the mortar turned slowly. “Soldiers found them just after dark and carried them to a meadow. There were six of the soldiers. They took my mother by force, over and over until she died, and then began on my sister.”

Rica experiences a slightly different Etta. Etta will talk to only her, mostly about God and tapestries. Rica believes Etta is just a serene, virtuous, wounded soul. When she notices Etta blush at the attention of Rudolph, a knight, Rica decides to play a little game and switch places with Etta. Rica reflects on rumors that Rudolph is “a virgin, more inclined to the priesthood than the knighthood.” but thinks his religious bent will make him a good match for Etta.

All Rica knows at this point is that Rudolph fancies her. Unbeknownst to her, her father Charles has promised Rica to Rudolph. Rica convinces Etta to switch places with her, in an attempt to set them on the path to marriage. Here is where Etta’s character seems to change. She gives a “strange secretive expression.” It becomes clear she is infatuated with Rudolph when she protects him after he roughly molests her in a hallway (blaming her, of course). When Rica suggests they abandon their plan, Etta starts giving “strange shuttered looks”, taking a “haughty posture”, speaking with a “curl of her lip.” Rica starts having second thoughts:

There was a small edge of triumph in the pale eyes, and a knowing expression around her mouth. It marred the perfection of virtue that only weeks before had made Etta seem a Madonna to her sister’s eye.

A cousin casts doubt on Etta’s sanity:

“She speaks to those who are not there, like a witch. I hear her sometimes when I pass, giggling and chatting there in her chamber.”

Etta’s non-placid nature starts to emerge:

Etta was rigid with rage. Her hands shook at her sides, and her mouth was drawn tight over her teeth. “You make sport of me, because you think me simple and ignorant, but I will turn the tables on you one day, sister.”

Even Rudolph notices “fierce intelligence in the cunning hatred” in this “evil sister.”

Eventually, Rica figures it out too:

it was Etta, who seemed pure and gentle and had shown herself to be more conniving than a thief. Ah, yes, Rica had underestimated her.

Rica eventually gives up on the matchmaking, especially when the local midwife informs her that for Etta there will be:

“No children,” Helga repeated. “Nor even coupling. There are terrible scars.”

In due course, Rudolph figures out that he has been courting Etta all this time, and while he admits that he cares for Etta, he vows that he will marry Rica: “and see that she pays for this duplicity.” Etta declares her love for him, but Rudolph walks out on her with this charming comment:

“Enough! You were sullied early for what purpose God only knows. Take yourself to a nunnery and there pray for His purpose. I see no other use for you.”

Etta, not to be thwarted, drugs Rica and marries Rudolph in her place. Alas, it is the last thing she will do. Here’s a rundown of her last moments on earth:

But now, he was hard and ready and had no wish to be gentle. She would know she had been loved today. But he could not seem to find entrance. Over and over he prodded and pushed, and finally used his hand to seek his goal. He found it and began to ease in. Again, he was obstructed, and with a cry of frustration, he shoved at her, gripping her shoulders and thrusting with his hips. She screamed. The sound infuriated him. He slapped her to make her still, and pushed. A flood of wet heat touched his thigh— ah! She was just a stubborn virgin. Not so long now. He thrust and felt something give. She screamed again and began to fight him, biting and thrashing with her legs, striking him with her fists. He pinned her and kept at it. But no matter what he did, he could move no farther. In fury, he pulled away and saw there was blood between them— on his legs and hers and on his cloak. With a sickness in his belly, he stared at her, breathing hard. There was hatred in her eyes. “You are a swine!” she cried, and hurtled forward to bite his chin, her nails tearing at his eyes. He grabbed her arms, feeling new heat flood through his loins. “So be it.” In a blind red haze, he took her, muffling her screams with one hand until they faded to whimpering, dull cries.

End of chapter. End of Etta. In the next chapter we discover:

The talk these many weeks still buzzed with the tragic story of Frederica der Esslingen, whom all had seen married on the cathedral steps. Then, only days later, they had crowded along the road to watch her carried home in a bier, killed by thieves. Her husband’s body had not been found— and this above all gave cause for worry, for it could not be given proper burial.

We do see Rudolph one more time: as a flagellant whipping his way through Strassburg, unkempt, bloodied, in rags. He is silent. But the reader is never really provided narrative closure. Did she — as I believe — die at the hands of Rudolph’s rape? Or did she survive, only to be killed by thieves?

I found this character very disturbing. Etta is the only major character in the novel who has no point of view. We never learn who she is. She seems to have no personality and no major emotion until she spies Rudolph, and then becomes a crazed jealous woman possessed, lying to her father, drugging her sister. While it’s clear she is not “simple”, it’s never clear whether she is mad, traumatized, both, or something else. She is brutally raped twice. And, unfortunately, the narrative comes close to implicating Etta in her own sexual assaults, first, when her father thinks:

His daughters. Twins. So utterly identical that no one would have been able to tell them apart but for the tragedy that made the physical similarities almost a parody. The tragedy that was, perhaps, his judgment from God for the violence of his youth.

And later when Rica thinks:

Etta, in some ways, had brought about her own death.

Now, I realize that the father is blaming himself mainly, and I also realize that Rica has no idea that Etta was raped by Rudolph. But in the context of the narrative, in which Etta is portrayed alternately as passive, vacant, devious, scheming, mad, crazed, jealous, and lustful, those lines gave me serious pause.  If any character should be sensitively treated, it’s the one who was gang raped and orphaned at age six. But instead, she’s one of the villains of the novel.

In some ways both Rudolph and Etta are reminiscent of a few heroes and heroines I have read in older historical romances, but to an extreme. Perhaps the author was playing on those tropes. The angry hero who blames the heroine for the lusts she inspires in him …  the passive heroine who is motivated to come out of her shell by her love… But I can’t help my visceral negative reaction to the degrading, punitive, silenced manner in which Etta was portrayed.

8 responses

  1. The question I’m left with is: why is Etta depicted this way? I suppose it could be, as you suggest, that “the author was playing on those tropes” but, as you also say, it would seem to be an incredibly “degrading, punitive” way to do it.

    I wonder if it has something to do with ideas about victims. I could well be wrong, but I’ll go ahead and speculate and extrapolate wildly here.

    I get the impression that there are a lot of urban fantasy heroines who have been raped. Does the rape play a part in making them the strong, “kick-ass” women they are? If so, what does this say about how survivors/victims are expected to respond to traumatic experiences? Does it imply that victims must be strong, that they must make themselves into “survivors” and that weakness in response to difficulties/trauma is an indication of a personality failure? As I said, I could be completely wrong. I haven’t read much urban fantasy.

    I have, though, read Julia Quinn’s depiction of the depression and (failed) suicide of the wife of the hero of To Sir Philip, With Love. As I commented at the time, the novel seemed to be written in such a way that it evoked little or no sympathy for the woman at all. In fact, I got the impression that the fact her suicide attempt failed was portrayed in a way which made her seem even more of a “loser.” And that seemed to me a “degrading, punitive” way to depict a character with severe clinical depression.

    I’m also reminded of the negative comments I’ve read online about heroines who are “whiny” and who should, according to some readers, just “put on their big girl panties” and/or “suck it up.” Again, I haven’t read the books that elicited these comments, so I don’t know all the reasons why the commenters felt this way, but it does make me wonder whether there’s a negative flip-side to the celebration of “strong” heroines who overcome immense difficulties in their lives, and it’s a lack of sympathy for those who can’t be “strong.”


    • My own experience, and that of my graduate student currently writing an MA thesis on UF, including a discussion of sexual violence within it, is that UF heroines often experience sexual violence and recover from it in just the way you describe. It may be true in UF that a failure to become kick ass after a rape (and I have no idea if it is), is seen as a kind of failure.

      My sense with A Bed of Spices is a little different. I got the feeling that Etta’s situation was deemed hopeless. Getting raped (initially, at age six) damaged her, and everyone threw up their hands, accepting it. I felt that attitude was probably motivated by the setting.

      OTOH, Rica decides to try to salvage Etta’s life. She starts to drag her away from her window and her tapestry, teach her how to run the household, dress her up and give her advice on flirting to fool Rudolph. This was a way of revealing Rica’s character as independent and strong, of course, not as a way to rehabilitate Etta’s character. Indeed, instead of being grateful, Etta becomes jealous and angry.

      But your interpretation, if I understand it, that on some level Etta is deserving of less sympathy because she did not recover admirably, makes a lot of sense.


  2. I’m getting a rather uncomfortable feeling here.

    Is the implication that the rape twisted Etta, making her “evil”? Or was she evil to begin with and the first rape just something extra?

    Further, unless the author comes out explain what exactly happened, my feeling is that we are to conclude that Rudolph killed her during the rape (by covering her mouth/nose to control her) or hurt her bad enough that she hemorrhaged, or even that there was infection, and hence she died from it. Otherwise, why is he a flagellant, what sin is he repenting from?

    Either way, that last quote from Rica’s point of view makes me truly uncomfortable–so Etta drugged her to marry the man she (Etta) wanted and therefore deserves her death? (More so when Rica didn’t want Rudolph but Solomon.


    • I did feel ay times that the narrative bought in, in some sense, to the idea that sexual abuse inevitably damages a woman permanently, to the idea that mental health challenges are linked to immoral behavior, to the idea that women are responsible in some sense for sexual violence perpetrated on them, and to the idea that we don’t need to get inside the mind of a person who had experienced trauma to understand her.

      But I think part of the issue here is literary: Etta just never cohered. It is possible that the author didn’t let us into Etta’s mind because keeping her motives opaque created more suspense and surprise when she did in fact drug Rica and take her place at the altar. A second reason might be that, since we see Etta through Rica’s eyes 90% of the time, the author was able to demonstrate Rica’s growth as a character, from viewing Etta as a one dimensional saint, to viewing her as a more complex character.


  3. I felt more than a little sick just reading some of these excerpts. From what I can tell of this insightful review, it certainly seems as if Etta’s traumatic experience is depicted as contributing to her evil.

    This isn’t an uncommon narrative trope – oftentimes in fiction, the reader will be presented with a hero and his nemesis, and the author will reveal how they “aren’t so different” – i.e., they both endured a similar horrific experience, with the difference in their characters arising from how they moved on from the trauma. A Hero will move on to Protect the Weak, the Villain will move on by Trying to Destroy the Cruel, Cruel World, etc.

    There was an interesting Alternate Universe Batman comic that came out in which a young Bruce Wayne is murdered instead of his parents – with his father and mother dealing with their grief by becoming Batman and the Joker, respectively. I like it when trauma is used in a narrative to highlight a character’s choices (and how their choices differ from others) – but I heavily dislike it when it’s used as an alternative to actual characterization (i.e. “Of Course She’s Evil Because She Was Raped”) or a moral band-aid (“oh he just acts like an asshole because of his Dark Past!”)

    I was bothered by what your review showed about the depiction of Etta as a villain, but I think the idea of her as a villain wouldn’t have been offensive in and of itself if she had just been satisfactorily characterized. What particularly bothered me from your description was how she was ultimately “punished.” Because it definitely seemed, from how that scenario was set up, that that was Etta’s just desserts, being rent and raped by the man she loved thanks to the residual scarring of the sexual assault she endured when she was six. She could have met a Sticky Villain End in any number of ways, but the author made a conscious artistic choice to have her suffer that way. Why? WHY? You could have thrown her off a cliff or made her drink poison or struck by lightning or fallen from her horse.

    Why did this story NEED to have her die after being brutally raped and WHY did this story apparently need this scene to be shown in HORRIFYINGLY GRAPHIC DETAIL? What was ACHIEVED, narratively, by her dying in This. Particular. Way. That could not have been achieved by another way? That’s what really gets me.


    • I like the distinction you make between a tragic event motivated a character, versus a tragic event as shorthand for explaining why a character is who she is. Definitely the latter in A Bed of Spices.

      And, yes, I also agree that it might have made narrative sense for Etta to suffer for her duplicity, having her raped to death is just so loaded, especially, I felt, for me personally as a female reader, that any closing of the circle, the author may have been trying to attain, was lost.


    • Well, as I wrote, I did enjoy it overall. I have been reading some romances from the mid-1990s, and I don’t know if it;s just my choices (both historicals with unusual settings), but I think they do a better job with communicating a sense of place and time, and with secondary characters. There just seems to be more going on. They feel richer in some ways.

      On the other hand, they feel thinner in terms of the psychology of the main characters. For Solomon and Etta, it was love at first sight. And Solomon in particular was pretty two dimensional.



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