The YokeMarch 4, 2012
In a comment on my last post, Tracey suggested I read The Yoke, by Hubert Wales, because, like The Career of Katherine Bush, it features a woman who has premarital sex and doesn’t get punished for it. So I did.
It’s an astonishing book, especially for 1908. It’s also a super creepy one, for any time.
See, Angelica is forty, gray haired and still beautiful. She never married because the man she was in love with died of cancer during their engagement. His son, Maurice, is now twenty-two, and having a hard time stopping himself from having sex with prostitutes, so Angelica starts sleeping with him for his protection.
According to Hubert Wales, this is how the world works: young men, unable to control their sexual desires, sleep with prostitutes. Then they get STDs and their lives are ruined. To be fair, he allows Angelica to have sexual desires too, and that’s great. Here’s the catch, though: Angelica has raised Maurice since he was two. For all intents and purposes — except genetic ones — she’s his mom.
Everyone feeling uncomfortable? Okay, let’s move on.
Angelica and Maurice very much enjoy sleeping together. Angelica develops physically in some unspecified way. Maurice is no longer tempted by prostitutes. And as if the advantages of their relationship weren’t being shown clearly enough, Maurice’s friend Chris, having slept with a prostitute, gets an STD and kills himself. Because that’s what happens if you don’t have an adoptive parent nice enough to have sex with you.
Eventually Maurice falls in love with Chris’ sister Cecil. That’s not a spoiler; it’s evident from before her first appearance that that’s what’s going to happen. And Maurice is all agonized about it, because he promised Angelica he’d be faithful to her, but Angelica’s like, “Seriously? You thought I was going to prevent you from ever getting married?” And then she goes and talks the whole thing out with Cecil, who basically scorns the idea that either of them have done anything immoral and thanks Angelica for saving Maurice from her brother’s fate.
I feel bad, because it is really rare and cool to find an Edwardian-era novel that lets a woman want sex — let alone have sex — without punishing her for it, but this is such a male fantasy: the beautiful older woman sleeping with the young man for his benefit — only it’s okay because she likes it — and then handing him off to his future wife with the words, “take care of the kiddie,” literally Maurice’s father’s last words to Angelica.
And that’s without even considering the incest issue. Or the fact that, while Wales makes a point of Angelica not trying to preach at Maurice while he’s growing up, the entire book is a very pointed moral argument. So, yeah, it’s cool — more than cool — that Angelica gets to have her fling and be happily single ever after, but most of the time that felt like a couple of grains of wheat in as many bushels of chaff.