…in this splendid novel…Mr. Burroughs has…given you as remarkable a heroine as you might expect. For the Girl was a member of “the oldest profession in the world,” and the hero was foreman of the grand jury. – Editorial foreword to The Girl from Farris’s
Near the end of June, regular reader Americanus sent me an email containing the following passage:
…the French military had a group called “Mobile Field Brothels”…The women were all volunteers from French Algeria and part of a tribe known as the Ouled Nail…[who] teach their young women the arts of dancing and prostitution. The young women then go out and…[work] to gain a large enough dowry…once they do, they return to the tribe and marry without any resentment on the part of the men.
I found this exciting not merely as a great column topic, but also because I had encountered the term “Ouled Nail” before. I’m sure regular readers have noticed that I have an exceptional memory, and can often recall unusual words encountered years before. And I remembered exactly where I had seen this one; in The Return of Tarzan, the ape-man escapes his enemies with the assistance of an Ouled Nail. In the book, the term is used synonymously with “dancing girl”, and I was thrilled to discover the extra dimension which linked this character to my own profession. But Tarzan’s friend is not the only harlot to appear in his creator’s oeuvre, and so I’d like to follow yesterday’s column on the Ouled Nail with one on whores in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Each of the works cited contains a link to a free online copy, so if you intend to read them please be warned that this column contains spoilers. Also note that The Return of Tarzan and The Gods of Mars are sequels to Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars, respectively.
As I’ve said before, when my beloved cousin Jeff taught me to read he preferred to use his own favorites rather than “baby books”, and the authors to whom he introduced me over the next few years are still among my favorites. One of these was Burroughs, who is most famous as the creator of Tarzan but also wrote several other series and many stand-alone works in a career which stretched from 1912 to his death in 1950. Burroughs is generally considered a “men’s author”, and that is a shame because his books are full of romance and strong, interesting female characters; I honestly believe that one of the reasons I found traditional romance novels boring was that in Burroughs’ stories I found love intertwined with adventure in settings which excited my young imagination. And though he was in many ways a product of the Victorian Era (born 1875), he had some very liberal views about nudity and sex which, though restrained in his earlier works by commercial necessity, are much more obvious in his writings of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
While researching yesterday’s column I revisited The Return of Tarzan and discovered that, though Burroughs’ understanding of the Ouled Nail is clearly faulty, he does hint at their prostitution in a passage from chapter 7: “The frightened Ouled-Nails were crouching at the tops of the stairs which led to their respective rooms, the only light in the courtyard coming from the sickly candles which each girl had stuck with its own grease to the woodwork of her door-frame, the better to display her charms to those who might happen to traverse the dark enclosure.” The story takes place in 1910, after the French authorities had restricted the Nailiyat to working for licensed cafes, and the girl who tips Tarzan off to the planned attack and helps him to escape his pursuers is depicted as a slave, abducted by marauders and sold to the café owner. She senses Tarzan’s nobility by the way he speaks to her and the respectful manner in which he tips her after her dance, and so alerts him to his danger at great risk to herself. Of course Tarzan rescues her from the café and returns her to her father, and in chapter 10 she again risks her life to rescue him from another band of nomads hired by the villainous Nikolas Rokoff to accomplish what two previous groups of hirelings had failed to do. Not all of the whores Tarzan encounters are so principled; in chapter 3 of the same book, Rokoff hires a Parisian streetwalker to lure Tarzan into an ambush by calling for help, and after he defeats his assailants she lies to the police, telling them that the ruffians had tried to save her from an attempted rape by Tarzan.
Burroughs also tried his hand at contemporary drama; the heroine of The Efficiency Expert (1921) is a prostitute called “Little Eva” who befriends the hero when he works for a while as a waiter at a cabaret she frequents. Her belief in him inspires him to apply for the titular position, and her unflagging support keeps him going when he is later accused of murder; he is acquitted due largely to evidence she collects herself, and only her death in an influenza epidemic keeps him from marrying her. I’ve never quite forgiven Burroughs for the poor girl’s fate, though I’m sure he could not have used the ending I wanted in an Argosy title of that time. June Lathrop, the heroine of The Girl from Farris’s (1920) dodges the censors in a different way; though in the first scene she escapes from a brothel and we assume throughout the novella that she is a (reformed) prostitute, it is revealed at the end that she was actually the victim of a bigamist who had merely housed her in a room rented from the brothel owner. Thus, she is free to marry the hero without provoking outrage in the readership.
Burroughs pushed the envelope a little farther in The Girl from Hollywood (1922), whose titular character, Shannon Burke, is an actress who becomes the kept woman of a director who “auditions” her on the “casting couch” and then gets her addicted to morphine in order to control her. While shooting on location at the Rancho del Ganado (a fictionalized version of Burroughs’ own Tarzana ranch, on which the town of Tarzana, California was later built) she befriends the Pennington family (based on the Burroughs family), who help her to break her addiction and even forgive her for her sordid past. The standards of the day did not allow Burroughs to allow an unrepentant whore a happy ending, and indeed the one heroine who is specifically described as a prostitute (and not excused via enslavement or downplayed as a kept woman) has to be killed off at the end as in Camille. However, I think it’s clear that in all of these cases he does his best to show that the mere fact of a “sinful” life does not make a woman “bad”, and indeed his fictional analog even bestows his blessings on a relationship between such a woman and his own fictional son!
My final example (and certainly the most coy treatment of the subject) is Thuvia, Princess of Ptarth on the planet Mars. Burroughs’ Martians believe in a physical paradise at the South Pole of their planet, presided over by a race of living gods called the Therns; those who are very old (their natural lifespan is over a thousand years) or tired of life can make a Pilgrimage to this paradise and never return to the outer world. But as the hero John Carter discovers in The Gods of Mars (1913), the whole thing is a gigantic hoax perpetrated by the evil and cannibalistic Therns, and those who make the Pilgrimage are captured and either eaten or enslaved. Some years before Carter’s arrival, the beautiful but moody young Thuvia makes the Pilgrimage (for reasons never disclosed) and becomes the plaything of a Thern leader. After her rescue by John Carter (who exposes the whole horrible scam to the world) she returns home and is treated like a virgin despite the fact that after years as the slave of a degenerate cult she absolutely could not be in any literal sense. The only thing I can guess is that, though Martian standards of female chastity are Victorian in their rigidity, an exception is made for rape; and though most Martian noblewomen would rather commit suicide than submit to violation, Thuvia instead chose to live. This is but one of the enigmas surrounding Thuvia, who is certainly one of the most interesting characters in the series; I believe her to be, like the Ouled Nail of Sidi Aissa, one of the earliest examples in the development of Burroughs’ recognition that there was something not quite right in the conventional ideas of female sexual morality prevalent in his time.
One Year Ago Today
“Greek God”, a short story I wrote in 1985, is the earliest example of my writing which has ever appeared on this blog.