Johanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire


I definitely remember reading some Lindsey when I was a teen. More specifically, I remember her author photo. That super long Crystal Gayle-like hair and those short bangs are an arresting combination. In 2012 I read Savage Thunder, and later this month plan to read Gentle Rogue with a small group on Twitter. I heard this one involved the hero and heroine raping each other, and I had to see what that was all about.

Lindsey books, at least the ones written in the 1980s (in 2013 she published her fiftieth novel), have all of the political issues you can guess, but as a story teller I think Johanna Lindsey is terrific, and here’s a fan site that proves it.  Apparently, she now lives in Maine, which means the stalking potential is there for me (just kidding!).

Anyway, medieval romances are not my thing, but by the time I realized Prisoner of My Desire (1991, Avon) is set in 1152 England, it was too late. Within two pages Gilbert, the step-brother of Rowena, a “little flaxen-haired beauty” is (a) flogging her mother in order to (b) seduce her, while somehow, at the same time, (c) forcing her to marry some old rich guy, and I was hooked. Unfortunately, all of the insane plotty goodness was almost completely derailed by one of the worst and most inscrutable info-dumps ever. Here’s just a tiny sample:

But last year Hugo d’Ambray had thoughtlessly decided to take Dyrwood keep, which sat between one of Rowena’s properties and one of his own. That was tantamount to stirring up a hornet’s nest, for Dyrwood belonged to one of the greater warlords of the north shires, the Lord of Fulkhurst, who not only came to the aid of his vassal at Dyrwood, routing the besiegers and sending them back to their own borders, but then systematically set out to destroy the man who had dared try to steal from him.

Unfortunately, not only Hugo’s properties became this warmonger’s targets, but also those that Hugo had control of through wardship. And he found out how helpful a weak king was when Stephen refused to come to his aid, too busy with his own problems. But even though Hugo had been killed two months ago in this war that his greed had started, Fulkhurst was not satisfied. Gilbert was finding out that this particular warlord thrived on vengeance.

What? Anyway, here’s what happens: Gilbert forces Rowena to marry some old guy, under threat of killing her mother. She’s supposed to have sex with the old guy and get pregnant, after which Gilbert will kill him and take his lands and Rowena for his own. Unfortunately, the old guy dies on their wedding night before consummation. So Gilbert gets the bright idea to pretend the old guy still lives, secretly kidnap some random serf from the local inn, tie him up, and force Rowena to rape him.

I know what you’re thinking:  what could possibly go wrong?

Turns out they capture Gilbert’s arch nemesis, Fulkhurst, who, for plot convenience’s sake, is looking rather more serf-like than lord-like at the moment. Rowena doesn’t realize this until it’s way too late (meaning, until after she’s raped him several times). They hear Fulkhurst, Warrick de Chaville, is advancing on them, and cowardly Gilbert runs away, leaving Rowena to face the consequences. Once Gilbert is gone, Rowena decides to let her captive go. Little does she realize that he may have left through the back door, but he’ll be returning, with his army, through the front.

Once Warrick gets Rowena in his clutches, he sends her to his home castle as a prisoner, and eventually, when he returns, exacts his revenge in the way you might imagine: he ties her up and rapes her.

This all sounds pretty awful, but reading it truly wasn’t. It felt like reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In Grimm’s, of course, seriously gruesome things happen, fingers, hands and heads getting lopped off, people getting killed en masse, but I still feel satisfied in some way at the end of the story. So even though, or rather, because, there was little psychological realism in either of the rapes, I could buy that Rowena’s relationship with Warrick, a traditional plucky heroine and strong stubborn alpha hero, worked within the terms of the novel. I will say that, not surprisingly, the rape of Warrick seemed worse, both because, as a romance reader, I think I’m a little desensitized to heroine rape, and because, by the time he captured and raped Rowena, their relationship, such as it was, had progressed to a certain point where their interactions were of exactly the style that I’m used to as being part of courtship in this type of romance novel.

They both find rape impossibly orgasmic, of course, and Warrick’s reaction is not one of humiliation, trauma, and grief as it would be in real life, but anger:

Warrick had never been so furious in his life. She meant to steal a child from him, his child! If she succeeded he would kill her. Nay, that would be too quick. He would make her suffer the agonies of hell. But she could not succeed. What she intended enraged him, but it also left him cold, and the stupid wench did not even realize that, if that look of utter triumph she had given him was to be credited.

She gets him hard, unwittingly, merely by dropping the info that she’s a virgin, and he ends up not being able to resist her. I think it must have been fairly unique at the time (and still, at least in my own romance reading) to have the hero be raped by the heroine, the hero angry at his “traitor” body, unable to resist, etc. Of course, Rowena is unskilled (so ignorant she at first tried to stuff his flaccid penis inside her), whereas the hero-rapist is a superbly experienced lover. But, that’s the way it works in these books: the heroine’s lack of experience and skill is the very thing that turns on the hero, while the opposite is true for the heroine (his “total mastery” does it for her). Not only that, but while he rapes for revenge, she rapes because she is forced to by another man who has power over her. And the hero turns his anger outward, towards her, while the heroine tends to turn hers inward in the form of shame (although she’s too busy having orgasms to spend too much time on shame), so you can’t really say this is the same exact trope as heroine rape.

Probably the most telling example of how far the author was not willing to go in reversing the usual rape trope is this bit:

The blood rushed to swell him to his full, throbbing length, which pushed right through her maidenhead without either of them moving to help it.

Yes, you read that right. He is trussed up like a turkey, gagged and immobile. But he still deflowers her, without her even moving, just by becoming erect. No matter that she’s on top: he is the doer.

Nevertheless, Rowena has fond memories of their time together as rapist and rapee:

She could still recall what it had made her feel like, the heady power in being able to control that body no matter how much he fought against it.

When she’s captured, it’s her turn for a traitorous body:

“Aye, now you know how it feels to have no control of a traitorous body,” he almost purred in his satisfaction. “You made me want this, despite my fury, so I have made you want it, despite your fear.” She shook her head frantically, but he only laughed and thrust more deeply into her. “Aye, deny it as I did, but the proof is the ease with which I entered, the wetness that surrounds me now. That is what I wanted, wench, to force you to readiness as you forced me. And the shame of being unable to deny me will be yours each time I take you.”

Warrick’s character arc is basically a journey from a guy who has had a few wives (conveniently dead) and kids, doesn’t much care about anything besides conquering more castles and land, thanks to something bad that happened in his childhood, to a nurturing lover and father. Rowena is stubborn and resourceful, brave despite her fear, cunning when necessary, and overall, except for the pesky rape bit, a good person (she was trying to keep her mother alive!). She has a journey of sexual awakening, of course, courtesy of a lot of nonconsensual sex, and her view of Warrick changes over the course of the book, but she doesn’t change much. She’s the female, and she has to be sacrificing and good. Here’s her servant/confidant Mildred’s take on it:

“you have an opportunity here to secure your own future—and heal a man who has lived too long with demons from his past. A worthy endeavor do you ask me.”

A worthy endeavor!

Warrick threatens Rowena with all sorts of physical abuse, including murder, but she learns quickly he’s all bark and no bite (except for the pesky rape bit). The whole book is basically a power struggle between them. And Rowena realizes it:

All the power was his. He had control over her body, control over her emotions, control over everything she did. She could not even get angry without his leave, for he knew well enough how to frighten the anger out of her.

’Twas intolerable, such utter domination, and she could bear it no more. She had accepted it as her due for what had been done to him, but she had been punished more than enough for that, and still had the worse punishment before her, the taking of her child. Well, she was done with meekly accepting her lot. If Mildred’s suggestions could shift some of the power, to give her even a little sway over that insufferable man, then she would try them.

How does Rowena get some power? By pretending affection for Warrick. This was the part of the book that actually disappointed me, because I didn’t feel that Lindsey really developed the change in Rowena from pretending to love him to actually loving him. That might have taken a level of psychological subtlety and realism that I didn’t generally see in this book.

But I enjoyed this one. It was one of those older ripping yarns, maybe not quite as much plot as I was hoping for (once Rowena ends up in Warrick’s castle, she pretty much stays put until the end), but a straightfoward old school story of a feisty heroine (sorry, “brazen wench”) and powerful warrior hero with a “cruel slash” for a mouth and a “manroot” that magically turns all rapes into sweet seduction.

9 responses

  1. All I can say is that you’re a braver soul than I am ’cause I couldn’t make it through the first book I attempted by her – years ago. 😉


  2. “…Without either of them moving to help it.” This is brilliant. I read some Lindsey way back when and I don’t remember it being this much fun. Time to get reacquainted.


  3. She went from Hawaii to Maine? Um, ok.

    I only vaguely recall this one which means I was meh at the time. Heroine raping hero wasn’t super common but it wasn’t all that unusual either. She was always forced to it by the villain though, and always totally unreal, like it’s presented here. Mostly it was plantation or medieval, can’t think of a Regency using that. Some Regencies had her forced to seduce, but not force someone completely unwilling as far as I can recall. Haven’t read Lindsey in at least 15 years, probably longer!


  4. I’m pretty sure I read this one back in the day. I think it is safe to say that the conventions of the time equated physical bodily response with, if not consent exactly, then something that fundamentally took ‘rape’ conceptually out of the equation.

    Awareness and education have gone a long way to change that attitude, but at the time if you weren’t sensitized by experience or unusual exposure, I don’t think you would have read those scenes as rape.


  5. This review made me think about being a “generous” reader. You approached and enjoyed this book on its own terms (which is what I mean by “generous”–I guess “respectful” is another way to think of it). I don’t think I could. I don’t even mean that I’d work up some head of outrage, just that I suspect I’d find it annoying and silly. But I have a Lindsey in my TBR, so I guess we’ll see!

    And in general, I think I am less willing to be generous to romance fiction than many readers, maybe even less generous than I used to be. But there are books I accept and enjoy that other readers (and part of me, too) find eye-rolling/head-shaking/WTF. I think this is akin to Robin’s idea of reader consent: there are some premises we are willing to submit ourselves to and roll with, and others we aren’t, for all kinds of reasons, and they really vary from reader to reader.


    • BevBB: What can I say? I definitely like her writing style.

      Meoskop: You say that as if there’s something questionable about leaving Hawaii for Maine!

      Heidenkind: I admit, it has all of the worst things people think of when they think of old school romance.

      Nicola: Great point about bodily response. It;s so interesting, because it’s like the body is the “real” person, and the mind just makes stuff up.

      Liz: A few years ago, this review would have had a lot more snark. I think I might have felt more threatened by this book, personally, and more emphatic about distancing myself as a contemporary romance reader from it. But I spent a lot of time in 2013 reading up on the history of the genre, and I feel a lot more appreciative and respectful of it. That said, I can’t say I was totally immersed in and moved by POMD, though.


      • Dude! I am a Floridian. There is EVERYTHING questionable about leaving Hawaii for Maine, lovely a Maine may be in it’s brief temperate months. I once had a teacher retire to Maine and I rethought everything he’d ever taught me based on this new evidence of questionable judgement. There is snow in Maine. Actual snow!


  6. Lindsey was huge at the time. In 1986 she was number 8 on the top ten most powerful romance writers based on sales. At the time all of the writers had initial print runs over a million copies. Something to think about.

    Based on the Association of American Publishers list:

    Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Janet Dailey, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Cynthia Freeman, Judith Krantz, M.M. Kaye, Johanna Lindsey, Jude Deveraux and Celeste DeBlasis



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