This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
As you’ve probably gathered by this point if you’ve been following my Michael Moorcock articles, the guy doesn’t really go for standalone novels. By at least some interpretations of the whole Eternal Champion dealio, of course, you could argue that he has never written a standalone; if, like me, you tend to prefer to split up Moorcock’s work by protagonist (if only for sanity’s sake) then the number of standalones he’s written is dwarfed by his longer series, and few of his standalones have achieved much recognition at all.
The major exception is Gloriana, or the Unfulfill’d Queen, which was honoured with the World Fantasy Award when it first came out, got a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series some decades later (which is the version I have), and is generally quite a celebrated entry in his bibliography. Part of this is because it’s something of a departure from his usual SF and fantasy works, being in tone much closer to his Serious Business writing and in premise offering not a transgressive trippy New Wave of SF romp or a sword and sorcery adventure in the vein of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Michael Kane and so on, but instead presents a politically-driven story set in the court of an alternate Queen Elizabeth in an alternate Elizabethan era. Part of this is because of its sexual content, which culminates in a particularly nasty sequence at the end and goes down some pretty dire tangents over the course of the novel besides.
So, trigger warning: discussion of rape and the sexual abuse of children is going to occur in this review. It also comes up in the book and is sufficiently central to the plot that it’s not really skippable.
Gloriana is in fact based not on the Elizabethan era as it actually was, but instead seems to derive from three sources – from the highly romanticised conception of the Elizabethan era which the Victorians developed (so the world depicts an England analogue with an Elizabethan aesthetic but a Victorian-era military and political dominance on the world stage), from the Gormenghast trilogy’s tales of sprawling castles with hidden populations lurking in the walls and murderous social climbers threatening the social order, and from the starry-eyed bootlicking of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (which Moorcock specifically cites as being an inspiration). Moorcock in fact calls his book a “dialogue with Spenser”, and indeed whilst the facade of Gloriana’s realm is all magnificent and glorious and noble and honourable, the dirty dealings, espionage, murder, vice and general nastiness of the Elizabethan period bubbles away under the surface, shut up in the palace walls and played out in the filthy city streets.
Gloriana herself is the successor to King Hern VI, a nightmarish despot under whose rule Albion conquered a large portion of the known world. Gloriana has done the best job she could of turning things around, ensuring that justice is done, and bit by bit restoring self-determination to those possessions that have demanded it, with mixed results: Arabia has had its independence restored, but is now a not especially reliable ally, whilst in the continent of Virginia (which we call America) it is evident that the process of colonisation has continued unabated under the auspices of gentlemen like the Lords Kansas and Washington. But still, Gloriana is at least making an effort to run a just, honest system in which the courts are fair and corrupt officials are ousted and warmongering is eschewed. She is also deeply unhappy, due to being entirely unable to attain orgasm, despite the best efforts of her seraglio of youths, elders, geishas, brutes, subs, doms, ladies in waiting, toy sheep, and so on. This has a knock-on effect to affairs of state: Gloriana, quite reasonably, doesn’t intend to marry a man (or woman – she’s up for changing the law for the right lady) who can’t sexually satisfy her, and without a marriage in place none of Gloriana’s children can be legitimate, and without a legitimate heir all this carefully maintained stability will go out the window once Gloriana snuffs it.
What Gloriana hasn’t given much thought to is how Lord Montfallcon, the aged Lord Chancellor who engineered her smooth ascent to the throne and helped nudge her away fron Hern’s excesses, maintains that selfsame stability in the first place. In fact, Montfallcon – one of a small number of relics of Hern’s time who survived the nightmare and retained some of their former power – often mandates the sort of nastiness which was par for the course under Hern, though in a much more low-key and much less widespread manner. In his view, a few small evils need to be committed as part of good statesmanship, and it would be better if Gloriana never finds out exactly how he pulls off the diplomatic coups he accomplishes on behalf of the nation.
Montfallcon’s primary agent in this is Captain Quire – a murderer, spy, seducer, sadist and rapist, who regards all these activities as high art and looks on Montfallcon as a worthy patron of his work. Worthy, that is, until Montfallcon in a grumpy mood expresses a much lower opinion of Quire’s dealings. Offended, Quire determines to leave Montfallcon’s services; when Lord Shahryar, the Arabian ambassador, finds out about this he decides to hire Quire to destabilise and sow dissent and cynicism in Gloriana’s court in order to convince the powers of the realm that Gloriana needs to marry in order to reverse the moral malaise of the court – at which point the Grand Caliph of Arabia will come a-courting at just the right time. And then those filthy Arabs will rule Albion, oh noes!
One thing which stood out for me in this reread is that Moorcock seems vastly more interested in Quire than he is in Gloriana. Gloriana is an extremely static, reactive, almost passive character for almost all of the novel. Now, granted, this is rather the point. The story is meant to be how she is first, under the influence of Montfallcon, utterly constrained by the demands of being a figurehead. As a symbol of the State, so too does almost everything she does in public have a symbolic meaning; consequently, she daren’t do anything except precisely what is expected of her. Montfallcon has so thoroughly drilled into her the idea that if she ever starts going off-script she’ll end up becoming an arbitrary, self-indulgent monster like Hern that Gloriana is terrified of turning into her father (who, along with all his other crimes, brutally raped her, which I guess is the proffered armchair psychology explanation for her inability to orgasm). Later, under Quire’s influence she ends up indulging herself entirely too much, with the result that she genuinely becomes arbitrary; her first proactive command as a result of these manipulations leads to a grotesque atrocity in the final act. Eventually, she attains a middle way between serving herself and embodying the state and thus comes into her own as a monarch. (Exactly how this is accomplished varies from edition to edition, but more on that later.)
Fair enough, I guess, but Gloriana attains this enlightenment less than five pages before the end, with the result that we don’t actually see her actually making any decisions that don’t end in disaster. As far as attempts to offer an interesting female protagonist of a comparable complexity and vividness to Moorcock’s better male protagonists, Gloriana is a bit of a failure; Moorcock shows little interest in developing her character very much at all until the second half of the book, and it’s only at the very end of the novel that he has her acting like a thinking human being as opposed to an inert lump who is acted upon by men and moulded in their image; what few bursts of apparent proactivity she displays before the concluding sections finds her acting according to the manipulations of Quire and Montfallcon. The basic character trajectory from duty-bound neurotic to unabashed hedonist to self-actualised monarch is an interesting one, but without giving us more of the final phase it feels truncated. And in a novel where the only other woman who does anything proactive at all – the local Una Persson variant – gets shoved in a dark pit and misses the last third of the novel for her trouble, it feels like misogynist SF/fantasy business as usual.
(An additional quibble here: although Gloriana is in many respects not like Elizabeth I, she is sufficiently obviously a riff on Elizabeth that depicting her as a naive and trusting queen seems a bit off. I mean, the historical Elizabeth had to negotiate a horrendous religious and political tightrope under Mary and, based on what I’ve read of her, seems to have been pretty damn astute. You know that when someone makes their motto “video et taceo” – which, of course, is Latin for “I did not say this: I am not here” – they’re basically saying “I am such a master manipulator I can declare this in my mottos and still get away with it”. Though perhaps here Moorcock is trying to make a point about how the idealisation of Elizabeth smoothed away those aspects of her character, to the point where if a person really did have the attributes of the idealised Elizabeth they wouldn’t be remotely as competent as the real one.)
For much of the novel Gloriana’s really defining character trait – the part of her life which she is more or less entirely obsessed with, to the point where any time she isn’t thinking about her day job she’s most likely thinking about it – is her sex life, and her enraging inability to get off despite the extremely broad variety of things she’s tried. When Abigail Nussbaum offered her own thoughts on the book, an anonymous comment purporting to be by Michael Moorcock (and certainly written in a style very reminiscent of the one he uses on his official forum when discussing this sort of stuff) discusses how this book, as well as The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius In the 20th Century (and, presumably, the similarly faily The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming) reflect a process of him spending a long time talking to various women of his acquaintance about sex and getting their various views on it, and whilst it is good that Moorcock bothered to do this in the first place, at the same time I’m not sure the treatment of the subject matter here is especially helpful or insightful.
The thing is, Moorcock’s treatment of female sexuality from around this period is rather iffy. Even though in the Asking the Wrong Questions comment he points out that “female sexuality” is not a monolith, and really each individual woman has her own distinct take on the subject as unique as she is, I detect both in that comment and in his mid-1970s writings some sort of baseline assumption that there is still a broad category of experience called “female sexuality”, under which there is an infinite variety of different manifestations bonded by hazy common characteristics, and distinct from that a different category of experience called “male sexuality” which, again, has infinite variations but is still distinct from it. I don’t think you can really say that; I think you may be able to make some judgement calls about how our gendered society might nudge people’s sexual development in certain directions on a population-wide basis, but when it comes to individuals people are so varied in what they want I’m not willing to make any blanket statements about female sexuality beyond “I’m glad it exists and grateful for any invitations to help out with it”. Having another dude trying to explain to me How Women Work is not something which inspires my interest.
But Moorcock seems to be chasing after some mystery in these books, some deep secret he appears convinced is hidden amongst womankind. Over and over again, those female characters whose sexuality he elects to put at centre stage as a driving force of their story are struggling with an enigma. Their desires and urges are essentially a puzzle for them to solve, and equally a puzzle for the reader to solve, and equally a medium for Moorcock to meditate on the puzzle himself. Catherine Cornelius, Mavis Ming, and Gloriana are all struggling really, really hard to find satisfaction and work out what is best for them. Catherine eventually finds a variety of BDSM relationship she finds satisfying; Mavis Ming is flogged against her will and suddenly understands herself whereas previously she was a mystery to herself; Gloriana concocts all sorts of odd scenarios but only finally works out what she wants when control is taken away from her and she is forced into a scene she didn’t ask for. The Adventures of Una and Catherine, The Transformation of Mavis and the original ending of Gloriana all find their protagonists finding personal completion once they either voluntarily surrender power and control or have the choice to do so swiped away from them. This looks an awful lot like a suggestion that there is some sort of common thread between different women’s manifestations of sexual desire, so even if Moorcock is talking a more enlightened talk these days his head doesn’t seem to have been in such a space back in the day – otherwise you’d think he’d have differentiated these characters a bit more.
To be a bit more charitable to Moorcock, perhaps he wasn’t trying to make any blanket statements about all women; just blanket statements about a particular subset of women, which is… to be honest, just as bad in as many respects. I guess you could read the novels I’ve identified above as being an extended inquiry by Moorcock into the subject of female masochism, a particular fetish Moorcock admits in the Wrong Questions comment he finds it difficult to sympathise with. It is notable that of these three novels, the one I find the most palatable is the Cornelius one, which of course was written in a style which goes out of its way to be as open to reader interpretation as possible and to absolutely avoid making absolute statements. All Moorcock says about Catherine is “this woman does this thing, and she feels content”. With Mavis Ming and Gloriana he seems to present a more substantive allegory or argument and to be honest I am not sure I am even interested in hearing it.
Ultimately, if you are not a woman who is a masochist then trying to understand women who are masochists by sitting down and writing books about women who are masochists will not get you far at all; at the end of the day, all you will end up doing is juggling your own ideas and preconceptions of the subject about. For my part, I find Moorcock’s views on the subject to be supremely uninteresting because if I really wanted a deeper understanding of a particular sexual proclivity, there’s no shortage of people upon this naughty earth who are happy to discuss and depict their particular fantasies and desires and their thoughts about them; hearing about a subject from a source first hand is going to be more enlightening and get closer to the heart of the matter than reading Moorcock muddling through his confusion about the selfsame subject. Even then, I would hope I wouldn’t fall into the trap of imagining that a first-hand account from one particular person necessarily speaks for all the people who share that person’s preferences. Dominance and submission happen in both The Story of O and Fifty Shades of Grey, that doesn’t mean that Anne Desclos and E.L. James want the same things or feel the same way about the things that they do want. (Not, of course, that you can necessarily assume that an author of erotica is necessarily writing about what turns them on, but you get the idea.)
This being the case, I find Moorcock’s declaration that he based the sexualities of the women in his fiction on the expressed sexual outlook of various women he knows to explain an awful lot. No wonder it’s so hard to work out what’s going on with these characters: Moorcock is trying to figure out his acquaintances, and I’m trying to do the same thing but without the advantage of having met the person Moorcock is trying to fictionalise. Where Moorcock is trying to figure out a person, I’m trying to figure out a figment of Moorcock’s imagination whose personality has aspects and properties which might match up to the person Moorcock is thinking of, or might represent Moorcock’s misreading of the person’s actual stance, or might be something Moorcock made up entirely for the purposes of the story.
One aspect of Gloriana’s sex life I sincerely hope isn’t based on the experiences of Moorcock’s real life friends is her sexual abuse of children. This is a point which completely passed me by in my first reading of the book, but Gloriana definitely does abuse children. As in small children. As in at least one denizen of the seraglio is described as being a “little boy” and it’s made very clear that the seraglio children are called on to do their part to try and get Gloriana to orgasm.
Maybe I am being an awful 21st century neo-prude or something here, but I kind of think that the fact that Gloriana sexually abuses children isn’t something you can really just have sitting there as a mild bit of background colour. This is especially the case when it’s treated in exactly the same fashion as other background details like “Gloriana is a switch” or “Gloriana fucks dwarfs” or “Gloriana has a toy sheep” – um, Mike, one of these things is not like the others in the whole “consent” department. The fact that she has abused these children isn’t really something we are asked to give any more thought to than we do any other specific attraction in the pornographic adventure playground she maintains – the seraglio is presented for consideration to be either condemned entirely as a decadent throwback to Hern’s time or to be taken as a sign of just how much of Gloriana’s leisure time is taken up with her pursuit of that pesky orgasm. Maybe I’m just an enormous square but I kind of think kids shouldn’t be playing any part in that particular quest; at the very least, making Gloriana a child abuser does mean it’s awfully hard for me to sympathise with her to the extent the text would like me to. This may, of course, be the point – Moorcock might be intending to tell an appallingly amoral story about grotesque people perpetuating terrible things – but the novel nudges us to regard Gloriana as a heroine slightly too often to really support a reading in which we are meant to have anything other than sympathy for her.
There’s at least one other character we are asked to sympathise with who might also be a child abuser, although in this case it’s a bit more ambiguous. One of the courtiers, Lord Ingleborough, has a catamite named Patch; it’s definitely an intergenerational relationship of some variety, but I found it hard to tell from the text just how old Patch was meant to be. Certainly, the way characters address him and the way he himself speaks makes me think he could be intended to be a child, and I certainly had the impression that he was very young, but there’s just enough ambiguity that he could just be a very young man who’s old enough to be considered an adult but still young enough to be doted on by most other grown-ups. (This relationship, incidentally, is depicted as a loving and committed one – it’s the only truly committed homosexual relationship in the book. So of course Lord Ingleborough is killed and Patch is raped by Quire and sold to the Caliph as a sex slave.) Still, even if Lord Ingleborough isn’t a pederast the novel still asks the reader to sympathise with at least one person who is unambiguously a child abuser – and not just sympathise with them, but brush off their sexual exploitation of children entirely as just one more background detail. I know it was the 70s and all and it was cool and fun and transgressive to suggest the dissolution of sexual taboos and boundaries, but some boundaries are there for profoundly good reasons.
Quire does not abuse any children. This is more or less the only respect in which he can claim the moral high ground. A sadist to the extent that if he were born a century or two later he could have viably got a job as a De Sade character, Quire is a grimdark prototype: a super-sexy, super-cool murderer and rapist who on the one hand is ostensibly a villain of this piece, but on the other hand does all of the master manipulator shit which makes so many readers go “wow! So cool!”. His exploits are stuffed with adventure and intrigue but also have horrendous atrocities sprinkled amongst them, so you never feel inclined to feel too much sympathy for him – except I’m sure the worst variety of grimdark fantasy fanboys will love him for all the wrong reasons. Of course, I shouldn’t base my reaction to the book on how I expect other people to react to it, but in this case I found the way Moorcock choreographs more or less everything Quire does (with only a few notable exceptions) in order to make him look as cool as possible rather disconcerting. And again, if Moorcock was doing this on purpose in order to produce an overtly amoral novel, he sends rather too many “this is the villain!” messages my way for that reading to really stand up.
He’s also a Christian Grey prototype. Early on in the book Quire encounters Alys Finch, a young maid who sets off his submissive-dar. Swiftly obtaining her compliance with the threat of physical violence (and very conscious of the fact that he is using her fear of physical harm against her), he soon makes her his “stalking bitch” – his term, not mine – an agent of treachery he has corrupted totally through the power of his incredible dom-itude. Then he meets Phil Starling, her betrothed, and seduces him for good measure, turning the square-jawed lad into an effeminate, acrobatic, and enthusiastic seducer of powerful men. (For some reason, Quire never has the need to send an agent to seduce a woman – the only woman he needs to influence via sex is Gloriana, a job he is glad to handle himself. Funny that.) Quire exhibits an uncanny ability to seduce, disinhibit and semi-brainwash anyone he pleases, which I guess fits in with the whole rake archetype but also feels kind of stupid.
The most infamous of Quire’s crimes is, of course, his rape of Gloriana. Or, depending on what edition you have, his attempted rape. In the original, he most definitely does rape her, causing her to finally have an orgasm; however, the rape is the result of him finally losing the finely-maintained control he has over his own actions, which I believe is what results in a subsequent reversal between the two where Gloriana comes out of the process more in command of herself, and therefore more in control of Quire. (That is based on reading between the lines in the stuff leading up to and following the rape; I don’t actually own two editions of Gloriana, so if someone who does can clarify how the rape pans out I’d be grateful.)
Anyway, at some stage it was pointed out to Moorcock that the whole “getting raped is the key to Gloriana orgasming and realising Quire is her true love despite all” deal, like the flogging sequence in The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming, is completely monstrous and awful. Shamefaced, for the edition of the book I read Moorcock changed the ending so that this time around Gloriana declares “Albion is not raped”, manages to grab a knife, and stops Quire before he’s able to have his way with her. Forcing him to kneel before her both as an individual and as a symbol of the state, she spontaneously orgasms as a sign that she has reconciled the demands of self and duty and she makes Quire her prince consort and they live happily ever after. (In current editions both endings are included, so you can go for the “Gloriana saves herself ending” if you want but at the same time the original text is preserved and Moorcock’s error isn’t covered up.)
This is a much better improvement than the similar edit job applied to Mavis Ming; both versions of Ming have Ming getting her mind opened to her true self non-consensually, whether it is through flogging or drugs. Conversely, here Gloriana is able to stop the rape scene in its tracks. Still, there are still residual issues here. First off, there’s no getting around the fact that this is still an attempted rape which results in a reconciliation between rapist and victim, which is presented as a happy ending. I’m not going to be the one who tells rape victims they have to respond in a certain way or that they are not allowed to forgive their abusers – or even fully reconcile with them – if that is their own free choice made in the absence of any coercion or threats or internalised abusive relationship dynamics. But let’s face it, it doesn’t sound like a likely or even sensible response in most cases, does it? And – given the way abusive relationship dynamics do in fact get internalised by people – it seems to me extraordinarily crass to present such an outcome as a happy ending. We can be glad that Gloriana stopped Quire, but even if you take the attempted rape in isolation it seems a bit much to ask us to accept that forgiving him and then marrying him was necessarily a response our knowledge of Gloriana would lead us to expect. One would hope that attempted rape would represent the termination of a courtship, not the rekindling of it, and to see the reverse happen feels profoundly disturbing.
When you take everything else Quire has done into account, the resolution of the novel seems absolutely bizarre. He has killed, he has raped, he has kidnapped, he has terrorised. And apparently that all gets brushed under the carpet or blamed on others so Gloriana and Quire can be together – this, despite the fact that honesty and justice are presented as being primary virtues of Gloriana’s court from the start. True, Gloriana’s line towards the end that Quire has become a sober king might be intended to indicate that the fire has been taken out of him and he’s become a kept man, but even so it’s still not enough to suggest that he’s faced any sort of justice at all for what he has done. Are we meant to be pleased for Gloriana that she has engaged in a monstrous act of corruption and deceit for her own personal satisfaction? It seems a bit much, but that is how the tone of the epilogue comes across to me.
Of course, maybe this is for satirical purposes. Perhaps the ending is meant to be direly cynical, an assertion that monarchy can only ever in the long run be based on deceit. It is notable that democracy is an actual thing in this world – Poland’s King is elected from the eligible nobles by its Parliament, with whom the balance of power actually lies – but whilst Gloriana does dabble with the idea of establishing such a system to relieve herself of the burden of power, she never actually does so. Given Moorcock’s political ideals as outlined in his other work, I can definitely see that he wanted to write a text that appears to celebrate monarchy but actually condemns it as a riposte to Spenser. The problem is that if this is the case, he is far too subtle about it; rather than insincerely celebrating Gloriana even as it exposes the corruption that makes her rule possible, the text seems to sincerely celebrate Gloriana and brushes aside the evil she deliberately mandates in the epilogue as a necessary lie. At most, it seems to want to cast doubt on Gloriana’s system without actually depicting Gloriana’s support of it as any sort of significant character flaw or error of judgement on her part. Even though I know that this almost certainly isn’t what Moorcock intended – he’s specifically said the book doesn’t represent his conception of the ideal state – that’s what you get from the text itself, and ultimately it’s on the text itself that the book has to be judged.
It’s a shame that the novel’s ending – whichever you run with – should so ruin it, because what comes before is often really quite good once you get past the recurring musings on Gloriana’s sex life. There’s a rich tapestry of characters on offer, the alternate world presented is interesting, the descriptions of people and places are beautiful and the conversations the characters have sparkle. But it’s still a book constructed to support an argument, and the argument itself as it pans out in the end is monstrous and absurd. Again: this may be deliberate. But to me it comes across like concluding a Wagner opera with a five minute snippet of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, or spending five hours writing out an elegant mathematical equation only to have it conclude “x + y – z = FUCKITY SHITTY-SHIT POO BALLS”. What comes before doesn’t really prepare us at all for the conclusion, and the conclusion makes all the preceding stuff which exists solely to build up to it seem absurd in retrospect.
There’s moments of absolute brilliance in here, but unfortunately they are either entirely divorced from the horrendous conclusion or set it up. Quire’s plotting did have me on the edge of my seat, I liked the rapid reversals of fortune towards the end which find Quire on the verge of victory, then at the edge of ruin, and then with victory in his grasp again, and then actually properly ruined. I just wish the story had concluded there.
Buyer’s Guide remains as it does in the Dancers review.
Multiverse bollocks: Una Persson is, of course, the most prominent traveller in the Multiverse in the book, though there are others; for instance, Baron Kalan of the Hawkmoon series shows up, though he has little opportunity to make trouble. Versions of some Jerry Cornelius characters such as Prince Lobkowitz and Hira show up as minor nobles. The names of the Chaos Gods such as Arioch and Xiombarg are occasionally evoked as vulgarities – it not being seen as proper to evoke the Old Gods any more. King Hern VI’s throne is globe-shaped, reminiscent of the globe which contained King-Emperor Huon in the Runestaff series – and it is worth noting that in the Hawkmoon stories after Huon died Granbretan was ruled by a woman who set it on a peaceful course. The regular appearance of Harlequin imagery will remind readers of its use in the Jerry Cornelius stories. In a climactic fight, one participant uses an enormous black sword which is most likely a Stormbringer analogue whilst the other participant wins by stabbing his opponent in the eye with a rapier, just like in The Final Programme Jerry Cornelius kills someone by shooting him in the eye with a needle gun. Gloriana’s court is guarded by two giants, one an albino and one a black African, hailing from entirely different parts of the world and yet would appear to be twins were it not for the whole albinism thing; this might be a callback to the Elric/Corum/Erekosë crossover in The King of the Swords, since Elric is of course an albino, in that particular crossover Erekosë happens to be inhabiting a black body, and the two can be argued to be spiritual twins despite originating in different universes.