Monday, April 27, 2020

Some Surprisingly Strong Women in ERB's Oeuvre

I made my debut a few weeks ago on the SFFAudio podcast, talking with the host Jesse Willis, plus regular contributor there (and my Skiffy and Fanty Show crewmate) Paul Weimer and fellow guest Evan Lampe about an obscure Edgar Rice Burroughs novel called The Efficiency Expert (1919). You can hear the podcast here, listen to the audiobook here or here, or read the book here. I highly recommend it, although a content warning is necessary for two objectionable words* used a few times, a little onscreen violence, and an offscreen murder.

Picture of Jimmy Torrance Jr. being menaced by some thugs.
artist: not listed in book
Set in 1919 Chicago, the book is a very good read, full of interesting incidents but also sparkling with sardonic humor and social commentary. (I'll say more about this later.) Although the protagonist starts out very full of himself, the epitome of an overconfident mediocre white male, he suffers trials and tribulations, sometimes of his own making, due to his principles or ego, and sometimes from bad luck or villains. Along the way, he meets three women, all with speaking roles, all of whose actions affect his life in significant ways.

This is fairly unusual contrasted with the majority of ERB's oeuvre, where many books have just one significant female character, most women exist to scream and be saved, even the occasional wandering princess generally doesn't have much agency except to reject a few suitors, and the hidden-city queens basically exist merely to lust after and lose Burroughs' heroes.

Picture of Tarzan in loincloth, carrying spear, with an elephant, ape and black panther at his side.
artist: Frank Frazetta
I am familiar with a lot of ERB's work, thanks to growing up with my daddy's extensive paperback library of  Science Fiction&Fantasy, Westerns, and adventure yarns. (Mom collected mysteries, Georgette Heyer and Literature.) In fact, the first adult-level speculative fiction book that I remember reading, beyond the level of, say, Alexander Key's The Forgotten Door, was The Beasts of Tarzan (1916), left carelessly on a coffee table. I suppose the animal-centric cover misled me a little, and I struggled with some of the concepts, but I had absorbed enough of the legend of Tarzan to keep going.

So I've read more than 20 Tarzan books, about a half-dozen of the Mars/Barsoom books, one of the Venus books, a half-dozen Pellucidars, The Land That Time Forgot and a couple of sequels, and a half-dozen more of his stand-alone books. I reread only a few specifically for this essay, but there are several more that I've revisited over the years because something about them stuck out in my mind. I've been thinking about them a lot since recording the SFF Audio podcast. Following are my impressions of the strongest female characters that I've encountered in Edgar Rice Burroughs books.

Jane Foster in Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan and The Son of Tarzan, primarily (read here or listen here). (Content warning for nearly all Tarzan books: racism and fights to the death.) She is mentioned in many later books in the series (he's a one-woman man, but often separated from her, so she doesn't have scenes in all of them) but past the first four books or so, often just needs rescuing (she often needs that in the first three too). But beyond being beautiful and brave like all Burroughs heroines, Jane is remarkable through changing the way of life of the hero who loves her, at least changing it for a while, as opposed to many Burroughs women who want nothing better than to join with the hero and follow his path.
MILD SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST FOUR TARZAN BOOKS: At the beginning of The Beasts of Tarzan, she and John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, are married and living in London with baby Jack. At the beginning of The Son of Tarzan, they've returned to "civilization" and she forbids adolescent Jack to read books about animals or explorers, or even to go to the zoo, for fear that it should rouse his apparently inherited "savage" instincts -- which is pretty insulting to Tarzan, really, if you think about it. John/Tarzan protests mildly, in private, but in front of Jack, he concedes and backs up his wife in imposing these restrictions, which Jack objects to as mollycoddling. After Jack goes to Africa and grows up there in the jungle, and they eventually reunite joyfully, they all go back to England again! Jane is clearly wrong-headed about this, but I have to admit she is strong-willed.

Meriem in The Son of Tarzan (read here or listen here). (CW: A villain uses the N-word, and "Bwana" calls his African employees boys. A rich man acts on classist attitudes. Violence.) Jack/Korak is the protagonist, but Meriem is the second most important character, with six full-page illustrations plus several smaller ones in my family's tattered 1917 first edition.
Meriem, attacked by a lion, jumps from her horse into a tree.
artist: J. Allen St. John
We encounter Meriem as a child in an Arab compound in Africa, being beaten by the Sheik. Jack/Korak feels sorry for her and leads her into the jungle. He teaches her the great apes' language and to swing through the trees as lithely as himself.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS HERE: After she grows up, they're separated by circumstances; she thinks he's dead, and the Europeans whom she encounters think that her jungle tales are delirious ravings, and her memories fade. But when peril threatens, she's able to leap into action again. She's self-confident in her jungle lore, but she is very naive and easily manipulated.
Also notable: All the Claytons think Meriem is an Arab, but not even Jane minds her marrying Jack. But, perhaps to appease the early 20th century readers, it turns out she's French nobility after all.
Meriem also appears briefly in Tarzan and the Ant Men, with Korak and their toddler son Jackie, but doesn't play any significant part there.

Bertha Kircher in Tarzan the Untamed (read here or listen here). (CW: This book is written during and set near the beginning of World War I, and all Germans in it are treated as irredeemably evil.)
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THIS BOOK! Skip this paragraph if you haven't read it and might sometime! After his estate in Africa is attacked by Germans and Jane is apparently slain, along with many Waziri warriors, Tarzan goes on a rampage of revenge. However, he can't quite bring himself to overcome his gentlemanly instincts and kill the German spy, Bertha Kircher. Near the end, it turns out that Bertha was a double agent for the Allies all along, thus proving her courage, intelligence, resourcefulness and goodness.

Dejah Thoris in Under the Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars and sequels (read here or listen here). (CW: Debatable stand-in racism: These are alien species, but later books advocate separate rulers for each race of Barsoom, united under one white-savior Warlord; also, protagonist Captain John Carter is a Confederate veteran, although that's merely mentioned, not discussed. Additionally, of course, there are many fights that end in death.)
Picture of Thuvia, scantily clad in jewels and silks, running down stairs in an abandoned city, pursued by a thark.
artist: Roy Krenkel, Jr.
Dejah Thoris is the princess of the red race of Helium. She's not a typical Burroughs damsel in that she can wield a sword in her own defense, although of course she doesn't measure up to the fighting skills of the comparatively heavy-gravity superman from Earth. Sometimes she needs rescuing, and during The Gods of Mars, it is discovered that she has given way to despair. (Things get better later.) But I actually love her character in the horribly marketed, unfairly maligned 2012 "John Carter" movie, where she is also a scientist trying to save her world, and eventually figures out some important plot points.
Sola, a female thark, also stands out as a character in the book by being different from most of her green-skinned, six-limbed race in that she demonstrates compassion instead of just ferocity, and argues in defense of that despite social scorn.
Thuvia in The Gods of Mars is the princess of another Red Martian city, who also falls in love with John Carter; however, she risks her life to help Dejah Thoris. It's also significant that Thuvia has charms to soothe the savage banths. Other female characters include Phaidor, a third and spiteful rival for JC's affections, and Issus, the evil "goddess" of Barsoom. Thuvia and Phaidor also appear in The Warlord of Mars.
Sadly, when Thuvia gets her own book in Thuvia, Maid of Mars, one of only two ERB books titled after a woman's name, she basically just plays the captured/rescued princess role, although she does get to stab somebody. Carthoris is the real protagonist of the book.

And now, finally, back to The Efficiency Expert. Aside from just the plot points, it's very well written regarding both language and structure, with some surprising twists, humor, and insights. Burroughs constantly writes in a way that invites the reader to laugh at the protagonist's foibles yet eventually root for him, while giving sidelights on poverty, class prejudice, bad cops, labor movements, and other issues.
I'm about to give some MAJOR SPOILERS TO THE PLOT OF THE BOOK, so I encourage readers of this essay to view or listen to it before continuing. Jimmy Torrance Jr. is the aforementioned protagonist, who graduates last in his college class but still thinks he just has to advertise his availability to land a job as a manager. He doesn't, gets desperate, takes a series of low-level jobs, and sinks so low as to briefly consider a life of crime as an accomplice to The Lizard, a safe-cracker. Then he cons his way into a job as an Efficiency Expert, and then there's a murder.
Elizabeth Compton, her friend Harriet Holden, and Little Eva/Edith Hudson are the three women who affect his life. Elizabeth is the daughter of a factory owner, snobbish and judgmental, and Harriet is her friend, classy and thoughtful. After they encounter Jimmy several times and he helps them, Elizabeth figures there must be some flaw in this guy's character that has made him sink so low, but tells him to give the chauffeur his address and they'll send him some money. Harriet gives him her address and invites him to come by so she can help him find a better job through her connections. He is too proud to accept help from either. Meanwhile, working as a waiter, Jimmy meets Little Eva, who likes him because he treats her "like a decent girl" despite her bad-girl profession. The Lizard tells Little Eva that Jimmy's too good for her, but she stands up for herself and says, "I'm as good as you are and a damn sight straighter. What I get I earn, and I don't steal it."  
Little Eva encourages him to apply for an advertised Efficiency Expert job, loans him money for good clothes and helps him forge some references.
     "What do you have to know to be an efficiency expert?" asked the girl.
     "From what I saw of the bird I just mentioned the less one knows about anything the more successful he should be as an efficiency expert, for he certainly didn't know anything. And yet the results from kicking everybody in the plant out of his own particular rut eventually worked wonders for the organization. If the man had any sense, tact or diplomacy nothing would have been accomplished."
     "Why don't you try it?" asked the girl. Jimmy looked at her with a quizzical smile. "Thank you," he said.
     "Oh, I didn't mean it that way," cried the girl. "But from what you tell me I imagine that all a man needs is a front and plenty of punch. ..."
Jimmy buys a book on industrial efficiency, which focuses on streamlining and common sense, and is hired. Harriet recognizes Jimmy, now the Efficiency Expert working at her father's plant, as the hosiery clerk/waiter/boxer/milkman she has kept running into; she seeks to denounce him, but he threatens to tell her dad all the places where she's been slumming, so she backs down. Little Eva  gets a job working as secretary Edith Hudson.
Then the murder happens, and Jimmy is the prime suspect. Harriet and Eva help him in different ways. Alas, despite how much I like Eva/Edith, her self-reformation isn't enough to overcome the Bad Girl tropes, so Burroughs clears her out of the plot to make way for Jimmy to choose Harriet.
One of my main delights in this book is how different all the women are from each other, with distinct personalities and ways of interacting with others. Burroughs doesn't do deep character studies on any of them, but they all are pretty vivid on the pages.

Hispanic-looking girl on the ground, threatened by a man with a pistol, as a man rides up on a horse, in a Western-looking setting.
artist: Boris Vallejo
Shannon Burke/Gaza de Lure in The Girl from Hollywood (1922). Read here or listen here. (CW for a character using an objectionable epithet for Hispanics, casting-couch scenarios, an obscurely described miscarriage, and deaths.) This Prohibition-era novel portrays the corruptions of Hollywood as the lives of decent (although flawed) people are ruined.
Shannon Burke goes to Hollywood and takes the stage name of Gaza de Lure, but all the directors she meets just want to sleep with her, not give her roles in movies. One of them tricks her and gets her addicted to cocaine; she still refuses to become his mistress, but becomes a sub-dealer for him. Eventually, she reforms herself and helps some other people.
The Girl From Hollywood is not full of humor like The Efficiency Expert, but it does contain a few smiles like these:
     During the deer season, if they did not have it [the banned liquor] all removed by that time, they would be almost certain of discovery, since every courageous ribbon-counter clerk in Los Angeles hied valiantly to the mountains with a high-powered rifle, to track the ferocious deer to its lair.
NEAR-TOTAL PLOT SPOILERS FROM HERE: When her mother dies, Shannon stays at the ranch of some neighbors for the funeral and gets involved in their lives, and the neighbor family's lives. She conceals her sordid past and kicks her habit, but makes an error in judgment that gets the ranch heir, Custer Pennington, arrested. He suspects her of betraying him to a gang of bootleggers, but actually she was trying to protect him. Custer convinces Shannon not to tell the authorities that it was actually the neighbor Guy Evans who was in league with the gang, because Custer's sister Eva is engaged to Guy, as Custer is engaged to Guy's sister Grace, who has gone to Hollywood to try to make her mark there as an actress. Custer gets six months in jail.
After Custer serves his time, Guy finds Grace dying after domestic violence, having succumbed to drugs and sex in the wicked city, and he collapses mentally and emotionally. Later, after Eva cajoles her father into allowing a movie company to film on the ranch, there's a sexual assault, an attempted suicide, and a murder. Both Custer and Shannon are charged with the murder, but she is acquitted and finds evidence to clear Custer.
Shannon is by far the strongest character in this book. Custer has moral standards but also has a weakness for alcohol, getting blackout drunk during a crucial moment; Eva is volatile and silly, and their parents are wishful thinkers; Grace is a victim, and Guy allows his best friend to serve his prison term. In contrast, Shannon reforms her way of life, keeps her commitments and acts generously to protect others.
Incidentally, the 1950 cover portrays Shannon/Gaza as Hispanic, but I didn't find any evidence in the text to confirm that; she might have just given herself the Gaza de Lure stage name to make herself seem more exotic. Neither her mother nor her eventually discovered long-lost father have Hispanic names (although we only learn the nickname, not the first name, of the father).

Corrie van der Meer and Sarina in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947, not public domain). I'm describing these characters later than the other Tarzan-book women I mentioned because Foreign Legion is pretty different in tone, more of an ensemble piece and told from more perspectives than any other ERB I can think of, and written decades later. (CW: Set during World War II, this book is viciously racist toward the Japanese soldiers, condescendingly colonialist toward indigenous Sumatrans and a Chinese worker, and also stereotypes the Dutch. However, if you are willing to look past all that, there are some strong and active female characters to enjoy.)
Incidentally, Foreign Legion refers to the mixture of Allied characters in the book, not the French military force. Here, ERB inserts Tarzan into the Pacific Theater of Operations by having RAF Col. John Clayton be an observer on an American flight over Sumatra that gets shot down, so he can fight tigers and encounter orangutans. Just go with it.
BIG SPOILERS AHEAD: Corrie is 16 years old at the start, when the Japanese invade Sumatra. They murder her stubborn Dutch planter father, and she and her family's faithful Chinese servant hide out for two years, wandering the mountains until the end of Chapter 1, when she's captured and he's left for dead. Tarzan and the American flight crew rescue her in Chapter 5, and she quickly learns how to make bows and arrows and becomes a good shot at guns too. Capt. Jerry Lucas is initially disturbed that this sweet little blond girl has not only learned to hate but exults in it, while she argues that her hatred is pure and good.
     Jerry looked up to see Corrie disentangling the slung rifle from the body of the other J**. He saw her standing above her victim like an avenging goddess. Three times she drove the bayonet into the breast of the soldier. The American watched the girl's face. It was not distorted by rage or hate or vengeance. It was illuminated by a divine light of exaltation.
      She turned to Jerry. "This is what I saw them do to my father. I feel happier now. I only wish that he had been alive."
      "You are magnificent," said Jerry.
Some other Burroughs women have killed in self-defense, but she's the only one I know who gets to go to the full length of glorying in her frequent revenge killing, and is rewarded by Lucas' love and the adoration of the rest of the flight crew.
Sarina (no last name) doesn't get quite as much page space as Corrie, but she is the most badass Burroughs woman of all, who is allowed to succeed. We encounter her as a member of a group of bandits, sleeping with their chief. She is a 35-year-old Eurasian, daughter of a Dutch pirate and on the other side, granddaughter of a headhunter and of a cannibal, and has served time in prison for murder. She sees Corrie, whose parents she knew, and decides to join Corrie's band instead.
    "When I got in trouble, your father hired a fine attorney to defend me. But it did no good. Justice is not for Eurasians, or perhaps I should say mercy is not for Eurasians. I was guilty, but there were circumstances that would have been in my favor had I been white. That is all past. Because your father and mother were kind to me and helped me, I shall help you."
Sgt. "Shrimp" Rosetti, who grew up in gangland Chicago but is good-hearted despite his lack of schooling and initial mistrust of women, falls like a ton of bricks for Sarina. She thinks he's cute, and learns that he is brave, so she gets a happy ending too. It is entertaining to imagine her back in Chicago after the war, correcting Rosetti's English (she was well taught by Catholic missionaries) and terrorizing his neighborhood.

So there you have it. By the 1940s, Edgar Rice Burroughs' books are still full of racism, but he admits through character backstories that colonialism may contain elements of systemic oppression, and he allows women to be out-and-out killers without suffering social consequences. Instead of letting only virginal white women prosper, he writes a murderous, mixed-race, middle-aged Bad Girl who is Winning at Life.

I'm not at all saying that it is necessary for a modern SFF reader to read ERB. There are numerous very objectionable elements in his books, and there are many entertaining modern writers whose works are not full of cringeworthy moments. However, for someone who is digging into the history of the genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs offers many points of interest, including several surprisingly strong female characters.



*Objectionable elements in The Efficiency Expert
1. The Lizard refers to Jimmy as "a white guy" as a compliment, meaning he's a good guy. Google says "white" originally meant radiant or clear, but by the 1870s it was used as slang for fair and honorable. I doubt Burroughs meant to use this word in a racial way here, but a modern reader may find it jarring. Growing up in the South, I only ever heard that expression used sarcastically, e.g. "That's mighty white of you." YMMV.
2. Burroughs describes the inferior boxer Young Brophy as "a pu*** fighter" -- and doesn't use asterisks. The Language Log blog says the word originally meant sweet and amiable, but applied to men came to stand for weak and effeminate. Language Log says this is parallel evolution for the slang for female private parts, but definitely then and now is a pejorative applied to men. I doubt ERB meant Jimmy thought of Brophy as homosexual, just kind of feeble or cowardly, but it's an ugly term.
3. Perhaps more objectionable than those words is the fact that apparently in ERB's version of 1919 Chicago, no people of color live there, or move in any circles that the protagonist encounters, despite his activities throughout various levels of society. One might suppose that POC live in ERB's Chicago but he simply doesn't mention them, except that he does state (neutrally) that a married pair of landlords are Jews.
4. Not really objectionable, but it's definitely weird that the book, published in 1919, does not mention The Great War or its veterans AT ALL, although it does mention the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. I guess Jimmy missed the war by staying in college.

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