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.