On Winter Solstice, Twin Eagles Publishing released the fourth and final novel written by Dion Fortune under her pen name V.M. Steele. Set in Africa, Beloved of Ishmael follows the adventures of Nina Barnet who, finally swayed by the romance/adventure novels of the day, travels to the West Coast of Africa to marry a man she became engaged to after spending a short time with him in England. She arrives to find him a sodden alcoholic wreck, and faced with the ruin and degradation a marriage to him would entail, Nina jumps ship, so to speak, and escapes with the one man in the settlement who seems to have strength of character and at least some integrity. True to colonial experience, Nina quickly falls in love and marries this man, only to discover that he is the notorious Cassalis, an Englishman who has organized the African and Arab criminal underground.
There’s so much to say about this novel. It is problematic for the 21st-century reader because of the casual racism. Paul Blakey and Richard Brzustowicz both discuss this, and Brzustowicz’s Foreword gives us some esoteric and scientific background on the thinking about race at the time this novel was written. The novel will most likely offend you, but if you are a student of Dion Fortune’s work or simply interested in history, it is worth the read.
What they don’t discuss is the change in how we see male/female relationships that is apparent in all four novels. Each of these books involves a casual acceptance of the potentiality of male violence against the woman in the book, and handling him properly is seen as the responsibility of the female character. If she’s smart and knows her man, she’ll come out all right. If not, well, she should have known seems to be the attitude. Also, written in the 1930s and on, they reflect the reality of women’s possibilities at that time. Women were just entering the work force and still dependent on men to a good degree. True independence is in the future, and perhaps still is.
One aspect of this novel is the coming together of the primal male and female, represented in this case by Nina and Cassalis. Because Cassalis has fallen fully and truly in love with Nina, and because she is a true clergyman’s daughter who has imbibed morality along with her mother’s milk, he realizes he must stop his criminal activities if they are to have a successful marriage. On a more practical level, he knows he cannot live in constant danger of arrest or assassination and raise a family. One interesting point is that Cassalis offers the least amount of violence to Nina. It is only when he thinks she is interested in another man that his jealousy is roused, but he sends it to the appropriate target—his crooked lawyer.
Nina’s reaction to his crimes is rather mild, and Fortune shows us that she has not imbibed the rigid, pompous, class-bound hypocrisy of her English upbringing along with the comparatively healthy morals of Christianity. Male morality is still in the hands of women, however. It takes a strong female presence to reform Cassalis, who has tried to go “straight” by opening a copper mine, but his application was denied by the former governor out of spite. But the new governor sees the potential in Cassalis when he rescues the governor’s wife along with two other women and leads them away from the Arab gangs, parlays with the tribal leaders, and runs the river in the dark. This new couple represent the best of the British aristocracy—clear-eyed, not easily shocked, willing to compromise in the establishment of real order. They stand not on abstract principles, but reality. They will balance Justice and Mercy for the good of the state.
So this tension between the poles of male and female is one esoteric aspect of the novel. The second is the vitality of the African continent which is said to reach out and awaken Nina. Fortune does not show this very well, though. Nina comments that she loves the sunlight on board ship as it progresses south. Then she tells Cassalis, who she knows as Lewis at the time, that even though she is in an extremely difficult situation, she still doesn’t want to go back to England because Africa seems so vital. Cassalis himself confesses to Nina he, too, has felt the strength of Africa and would never return. In fact, it is when she says she has fallen under Africa’s sway that he becomes interested in her.
Cassalis is also involved in the African religion. We see occasional references to earth-based vs. heaven-based religions, paralleling in an interesting way the reality-based new governor against the abstract-principle based old one. But we never see a genuine representation of this, except perhaps for the drums that speak through the night when the new couple escape in the boat. Nina is moved deeply by this. Cassalis does participate in a debased and insulting ritual with the African cult leaders, posing as a Messiah gorilla and eating from a pile of yams that symbolizes going to war to unite the tribes and set them against the Arabs and Europeans.
Which brings us back to the casual racism. It would be one thing to accurately portray the racial prejudice of the characters through their speech and attitudes, but the narrator of the novel, who is closest to Fortune’s own voice, shares in it to an extent. Some of the characters are more vile than others, but the book portrays Africans as childish, Italians and Portuguese as overly passionate, and Arabs as intelligent but devious. They are types—typical of the early 20th century. Here’s where Brzustowicz’s Foreword is interesting. He discusses how the esoteric schools at that time taught that different glands were associated with different chakras, and that different racial types vibrated in harmony with different glands. Science and esoteric teachings have progressed, of course. This novel was published 82 years ago. This is not an excuse. It’s a fact. Both Blakey and Brzustowicz suggest our reaction to this weakness reveals a lot about our own psychological state. This is also why in the Western Metaphysical schools, we are encouraged not to follow teachers blindly. They are human and have faults.
Brzustowicz discusses the current state of affairs in publishing books that take on race as a theme in fiction. Of this, I’ve had recent experience. School of Hard Knocks, just out in November, has received some criticism because I, as a white woman, have written from the point of view of an African-American woman. There is a white character who is too good for the time period according to one reviewer (thus evoking the “good White” narrative), but not good enough according to another. There’s more, but it’s not the point. Brzustowicz discusses this process, and in doing so seems to suggest that as a culture we have still not gotten out of the woods when it comes to dealing with our colonial and racist past. We are still in reaction. We are processing all our emotions about our past, some more successfully than others. He may disagree with my reading of what he says, but here’s the relevant passage:
It is almost inevitable that a reader nowadays will read this book through the filter of the conflicting, even paradoxical, demands of [21st century] cultural contradictions. Modern publishers tend to vet carefully books that touch on issues of race, sexuality, cultural conflict, and so on, even trying them out on focus groups or consulting sensitivity committees before committing to publishing them. (ix)
His next statement is quite interesting: “. . . it may be helpful to remember that it [the novel] was written in a time when the modern complex fabric of anxiety, guilt and hostility was still to be woven, and before people had [started] treating such issues with exquisite delicacy” (ix).
It was the phrase “exquisite delicacy” that really caught my eye. It put me in mind of my teenage year spent in the Rap Room in Winston-Salem, NC, during the civil rights movement and other times working in that movement when frank and sometimes heated exchanges between white and black people were common. People from the African-American community spoke their minds and often told us when we’d made some stupid comment or made a racist mistake. They told us with some heat. We were free to leave or listen, to go into neurotic defense mode or to learn something. It was embarrassing. It was painful. It was interesting, too. And we all survived it. At least the people I knew did.
That’s what’s missing from today’s conversation about race. White people are supposed to have already gotten over all their prejudices, whether they have or not. Mistakes are fatal to careers in some cases, but for black folks, racism is still literally fatal. Talking about it, though, is a minefield. I wrote School of Hard Knocks in this spirit. I just wrote about my own experience, except when I made up a history for a woman who was important to my mother. Perhaps I still can’t see that past as clearly as I should. Opinions differ. Perhaps I’ve contributed a book to the vast history of how Western culture is coming to terms with its global dominance and slave past. That is enough for me, and that is also what Fortune’s book does.