Violent sex and sexualised violence in ‘The Bars of Iron’ by Ethel M. Dell (1916)

This novel is unlike anything I have read before. It is a romance – but so violent! And this violence is so relentlessly sexualised! It seems that in a period when sex could not be overtly described, violence became a substitute.

The story begins with a bar brawl in Australia (rather unexpected, that). An unnamed young man who ‘held himself with the superb British assurance that has its root in the British public school and which, once planted, in certain soils is wholly ineradicable’ (5) gets into a fight. However, this young man’s face is ‘not wholly English. The eyes were too dark and too passionate, the straight brows too black, the features too finely regular’ (6). This is Piers Evesham, only heir to Sir Beverley Evesham, and he has … an Italian grandmother!

This passionate, beautiful Italian woman takes the blame for an awful lot of unpleasantness in Piers (bad blood, you see). For Piers kills the man in the bar. Then in the next scene we are back in England, five years later, and Piers is whipping his dog with a riding-crop. Our heroine, Avery Denys, enters the story by throwing icy water over the fighting dogs and Piers. In this scene, the relationship that will play out through the rest of the novel is firmly established: Avery is assertive, morally resolute but sensitive and feminine. She is appalled by what Piers is doing, and says so, yet cannot help liking him. Piers’ behaviour swings rapidly from passion and violence to ‘sweetness’ and charm. He likes and respects Avery, but means to have her and control her. Piers’ violence is part of his ‘strength’ and ‘passion’ – it is part of the character’s sexual appeal.

I wouldn’t have thought that it was possible to introduce so many incidences of violence to a courtship in the English countryside, but Dell is unstoppable. There is a hunting scene where Sir Beverley horse whips Piers. Then Piers nearly strangles the village doctor. Next we meet the Vicar, for whom Avery works as a homehelp; a truly repellent character, he beats his children regularly, for ‘it is wholly against my principles to spare the rod’ (109).

Then for the first time the violence is against Avery. She has compromised herself by going to Piers’ home in the evening, alone – she stumbles in the darkness, and he catches her:

‘…and suddenly she knew that with the touch of her the fire of his passion had burst into scorching flame – knew herself powerless – a woman in the hold of her captor.

For he held her so fast that she gasped for breath, and with her head pressed back against her shoulder, he kissed her on the lips, fiercely, violently, hungrily – kissed her eyes, her hair, and again her lips, sealing them closely with his own, making protest impossible. Neither could she resist him, for he held her gathered up against his heart, bearing her whole weight with a strength that mocked her weakness, compelling her to lie at his mercy while the wild storm of his passion swept on its way.’ 214.

This goes on and on until finally she is near fainting:  ‘utterly spent and almost beyond caring, so complete had been his conquest’ (215). It isn’t Piers’ fault: ‘”I must have you or die.”’ (215) Avery tells Piers ‘”That – is not the way to make me love you.”’ (216)

Oh, but it is! They become engaged to be married.

I had expected their marriage be the climatic ending of the book, but it isn’t. Part II is their miserable married life, for Piers has a dark secret – his soul is tortured behind ‘bars of iron’, unable to truly unite with Avery. I won’t tell you what that dark secret is, on the infinitesimal chance that you too acquire a copy of The Bars of Iron. Suffice to say that when Avery discovers it, she has very good reason for locking her bedroom door against him.

Piers breaks down the door and tells her: ‘”You are not your own any longer – to give or to take away. You are mine.” (265) She pleads, reasons, but he has no mercy. It is clearly a rape scene, but Avery, and by implication Ethel M Dell, for she never offers another perspective, always justifies Piers’ violent actions:

In the silence that followed there came to her the certain knowledge that he was suffering, that he was in an inferno of torment that goaded him into fierce savagery against her, like a mad animal that will wreak its madness first upon the being most beloved. It was out of his torment that he did this thing.’ (265)

To add another disturbing layer, the titillating sexual violence and violent sex are frequently accompanied by religious imagery. The epigraphs for the novel are:

‘He hath broken the gates of brass;
And smitten the bars in iron in sunder.” Psalm cv11. 16

‘I saw Heaven opened.’ Revelation xix. 11.

Sexual feelings are expressed as a kind of spiritual ecstasy, and Piers’ escape from the ‘bars of iron’ of his guilt as a finding of God. It is all entirely spurious, but clearly served to give a gloss of respectability to this most unwholesome of genres!

My copy has an inscription: ‘From Dad. Sept 20 / 1921’.  A present for his daughter perhaps? It seems most unsuitable! Would he have given her this book if had he known what was in it??

If this has (erm) whetted your appetite, there’s more. Our reading group have all read some ‘melodramatic fiction’ for this month, so there will be more reviews of Dell. In my next post I will tell you all about Dell, and how Rebecca West described her as riding ‘The Tosh Horse’…

8 thoughts on “Violent sex and sexualised violence in ‘The Bars of Iron’ by Ethel M. Dell (1916)

  1. My mother (born 1908), when talking about books, said: ‘And there was Ethel M. Dell – she was terrible.’ But she said it with the sort of smile that suggested Ethel may have been a staple of her teenage reading.
    This month I’m reading ‘The Top of the World’, which Ethel wrote in 1920. Less violent than yours so far, Erica, but wonderfully melodramatic, lurching from one sensational emotional situation to the next, with very little concern to establish credibility. A great read, and made all the better by thoughts of my mum, as a teenager,escaping the regimentation of her boarding school by immersing herself in this glorious warm bath of fierce and ridiculous emotion.

    • That is a lovely thought. I’m sure if I had been a teenager at the right time I would have read Dell too. How could you not? It’s all so exciting!

    • Yes, it does. I’ll be talking about this in the next post – if only Lawrence hadn’t gone for realistic settings maybe he would have got away with much more!

  2. Pingback: Melodrama, Ethel M. Dell and ‘The Tosh Horse’ | Reading 1900-1950

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