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Florence King Writes a Bodice-Ripper
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From the New York Times in 1987:



… By the mid-1970’s the so-called ”antifeminist backlash” had produced a demand for lushly romantic bodice-rippers known in the trade as ”sweet savages” after one of the genre’s all-time blockbusters, ”Sweet Savage Love” (1974) by Rosemary Rogers. Published as original paperbacks with three-word titles composed of emotionally extravagant trigger words, they sold millions and made their authors rich.

Deciding to get in on the gravy, I contacted a packager for whom I had once done a ghost job.

…My first sweet savage mistake was choosing as a background the fall of Roman Britain to the Anglo-Saxons. … but we got into another wrangle when we tried to come up with a title. ”Something Saxon Splendor,” I mused.

”They don’t know what Saxon means unless it’s got Anglo with it, and then you open up another whole can of worms. They’ll think it’s an ethnic-awareness book.” …

We were stuck in the ”Something Saxon Splendor” groove until my editor decided to abandon the troika mode entirely and go for the romantic-fantasy jackpot with a ”princess” title. ” ‘The Barbarian Princess,’ ” he said proudly.

… like the typical sweet savage entry, my novel was a sadomasochistic daisy chain of incidents based on the popular wisdom of the antifeminist hour: ”When in doubt, rape.”

My editor counseled me carefully on the need to strike the proper balance between erotic titillation and romantic idealism. …

”Remember,” he cautioned, ”keep the heroine a virgin as long as possible and never let her have sex willingly with a man she doesn’t love.” …

”Go easy on the Latin,” he warned. ”Sweet savage readers can’t handle all that. You can have her scream desistere when she gets raped, though.”

… Just as he is about to ”take” her, Hibernian pirates burst out of the woods, throw nets over them and drag them back to the ship to sell them as slaves in the snake-infested Auld Sod.

Screaming ”desistere!” Lydda is taken to the captain’s quarters, but just as he is about to ravish her, she manages a neatly placed kick and jumps overboard. …

Conveniently widowed, she is now free to run away with Thel and live happily ever after, but I was only on page 200. More had to happen.

AT this point I started to drink. I had always liked a little snort but now I began downing bourbon in the classic Southern manner….

By now I was drinking one day, sobering up the next, and writing on the third, which explains what happens on the voyage: a storm at sea. …

Amazingly, this free-for-all sold for such a large sum that my editor asked me to write another one, this time using a background of ancient Greece. …

”It’s time to cease and desistere,” I said, and left.

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  1. Ah, Florence King. The Sam Francis of sex.

    I like how “trigger words” is used in a positive way. That was another century.

    • Replies: @Mr McKenna
    , @Lot
    , @JimB
  2. barbarian princess wasn’t a bad book. I read it.

  3. Anon[349] • Disclaimer says:

    That essay is great, if you’ve read the full version. I’ve enjoyed several of her nonfiction books. As for her fiction, uh . . .

  4. Dan Hayes says:

    Her insouciance makes sense when account is taken of the fact that Florence was a lesbian (at least part-time!). Rest assured you won’t find anyone like her gracing the pages of today’s National Review.

  5. Florence King was the only female curmudgeon I’ve ever known of. Her column used to appear in the back of National Review, at least when I got the paper magazine for a few years in the mid-90’s. It was my favorite part of the magazine.

  6. anon[375] • Disclaimer says:

    It actually did get made into a movie. “Prince of Tipperary”. Stars Hermione Corfield as Lydda , Idris Elba as her Irish prince and Morgan Freeman as Lydda’s father. They’re allied with a band of plucky Arabs who are fighting Anglo-Saxon slavers.

  7. @Achmed E. Newman

    Florence King was the only female curmudgeon I’ve ever known of

    My grandmother was one of many in her circle, had to be to handle the egos of the Greatest Generation alphas.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  8. ‘At this point I started to drink’ is a perfectly gauged and delivered line. Very funny stuff.

  9. @Reg Cæsar

    My favorite lesbian of all, though offhand I can’t think of my second-favorite.

  10. In case you’re wondering:
    And yeah, that looks like a Luger.

    An obituary with a lot of good lines:

    • Replies: @Anonymous
    , @Harry Baldwin
  11. Joseph A. says: • Website

    I loved Florence King. Her pieces were my favorite pages of NR back when I read it. I have refused to read the magazine since Derbyshire was Lowried. Despicable. It’s even worse that Lowry was following the publication’s own tradition (Sobran episode). Sad. Anyway, thanks for memory trip. Florence Virginia King — memory eternal!

    • Agree: Bubba
  12. Anonymous[427] • Disclaimer says:
    @Almost Missouri

    Its a .22 Ruger, not a Luger.

  13. Anonymous[427] • Disclaimer says:

    Mothers used to raise their daughters to be able to handle men, because they had to.
    Not any more.

  14. I loved King’s Wasp, Where Is Thy Sting?. Like Stuff White People Like, it is part-humor, part-ethnography. Lent it to my dad. Recommended.

  15. @Almost Missouri

    Yeah, that looks like a Luger, but it’s actually the Ruger Standard Model .22. Similar grip angle.

  16. I bet I’m the only iSteve reader who’s actually read The Barbarian Princess (which was written under a pseudonym). Methinks King doth say desistere too much in this article, as her book is pretty light on the romance and heavy on the experimentation.

    And I also bet I’m the only iSteve reader who can boast that King led me down the path to HBD. I had gotten hooked on her articles in National Review, and when she retired, I started reading Derb’s Straggler column instead. It was all up and down hill* from there…

    * bad normal distribution joke

  17. Veracitor says:

    Ha! I have a copy of the book, so I can tell you that Florence King was having a bit of fun with New York Times readers in 1987. The Barbarian Princess is actually a great read. King telescoped multiple real tragicomic highlights of late Roman/early Saxon history* into the story, smoothly maneuvering the main character Lydda into contact with interesting people and events around 400AD, notably St. Patrick and the Emperor Honorius.

    King, like lots of writers in the Sixties (Lawrence Block comes to mind) had written a fair number of pseudonymous and instantly-forgotten smut paperbacks for quick cash. She had therefore no trouble supplying Lydda with occasional bawdy scenes, but the effect is more interesting than you might surmise because of the requirement to frustrate Lydda through most of the story. In strict fact TBP is not a smut book, though various characters desire Lydda enough to put her in perils often. King’s wit shines throughout the book, and if the novel takes a few more temporal liberties than one of L. Sprague de Camp’s or Frank Yerby’s, it is as well-informed and no less enjoyable.

    *As Winston Churchill noted, the history Florence King gives us “is all true, or it ought to be, and more and better besides.”

  18. Serious question: did you ever meet Florence King, Steve? Or at least did you ever exchange correspondence with her? That’s a question I’ve always wondered about but would forget to ask. Thankfully today, at least I remembered to ask the question.

  19. @Achmed E. Newman

    Her essay that started with a defense of Prince Charles was hilarious. “An aristocrat should not only ride a horse, they should look like one.”

    • Replies: @Reg Cæsar
  20. El Dato says:
    @Clifford Brown

    I like these inner city stories.

    • LOL: bomag
  21. … like the typical sweet savage entry, my novel was a sadomasochistic daisy chain of incidents based on the popular wisdom of the antifeminist hour: ”When in doubt, rape.”

    My editor counseled me carefully on the need to strike the proper balance between erotic titillation and romantic idealism. …

    She should have consulted E. Jean Carroll.

  22. SFG says:
    @Mr McKenna

    Camille Paglia?

    Norah Vincent dropped the misandry, though she went nuts after that and wasn’t heard from again.

    • Replies: @Mr McKenna
  23. RVBlake says:

    Florence King’s “With Charity Toward None”, was a hilarious discussion of misanthropy and its notables throughout history. I’d have loved to have met her, but as a fellow misanthrope it would have been awkward.

  24. @Achmed E. Newman

    Florence King and Peter Brimelow were the best part of that era National Review for me. Both Brimelow and King are great writers and I loved Florence King’s book reviews. Florence King used to go after writers whose work was awkward or just bad writing. I like the fact that Florence King the professional writer was so practiced in her craft of writing that she could take these other professional writers to task for their work.

    I read a lot of Florence King’s books and I enjoyed all of them — especially her crisp writing. Florence King was a writer who didn’t screw around with nonsense.

    I didn’t like the dismissive tone of Florence King’s writing when she was talking about the Buchanans — especially Bay Buchanan, but Florence King might have been writing as a Virginian looking askance at the Mississippi Buchanans. Florence King’s crack about the Buchanan’s — Pat and Bay — causing a brou without the haha during their campaigns was too much.

    Florence King was proud of her Virginia ancestry and her grandmother kept her proud.

    Florence King also might have wrote that she belonged to the class that dare not speak its name: Lower Middle Class. I’m sure it was her, but not completely sure.

    Here is Florence King in 2012:

    What happened, you ask, to the lower middle class? We don’t have one for the simple reason that Americans never call themselves that. The sole partial exception is the South, apart and eccentric as always, where lower-middle-class goes by the euphemisms ‘shabby genteel’ and ‘too poor to paint but too proud to whitewash’. This is the state of mind that allows Southerners to punch two holes in a can of Carnation evaporated milk and call it coffee cream.

    Our undefined middle class is the key to what has happened to our economy. It is by definition the striving class, and when just about everyone insists on placing himself in it, you end up with a nation of unrealistic strivers bent on what C. Wright Mills called ‘affluence without purpose’.

    Proving one’s middle-class status also required credit cards, so these became easily available, but the real middle-class nirvana was the 30-year mortgage with payments fully deductible on the mortgage holder’s federal income tax. These deductions came to billions of dollars every year, so knowing the government as we do, we have to wonder why it would be so eager to divest itself of so much moolah.

    We don’t have to wonder long. Try the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s 1921 novel Babbitt: ‘When folks own their homes, they ain’t starting labour troubles, and they’re raising kids instead of raising hell.’

    Or the builder of America’s first post-second world war suburb, William J. Levitt: ‘No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.’

    He won’t give the government any kind of trouble, communist or otherwise, because he has lobotomised himself with his own hoe. Being a ‘homeowner’ transforms him from a thinking reed into a tinkering, puttering, dull, small-minded bore, and that’s just the kind of citizen a desperate government wants. Someone so busy-busy that he couldn’t possibly start a revolution even if he wanted to. The sacred American home­owner will never take to the streets and mount the barricades because he has to stay home all day waiting for the Johnny-Be-Quik men to come and unclog the toilet.

    We have used 30-year mortgages as a safety valve against civil insurrection to create a bogus squirearchy with ‘something to lose’ so they will live in dread of losing it. This is peace through distraction and debt and it mounted to a fever pitch in the decade or so before the economic collapse of 2009. Americans’ definition of middle class made us sitting ducks for the own-your-own-home push. People completely unqualified to take on a mortgage got them anyway, bolstered by hostile attitudes directed against people who live in flats. There were a lot of sneering references to ‘a drawerful of rent receipts’ as if it were a drawerful of snakes. Every application, no matter how unrelated to one’s living arrangements, contained blocks marked ‘Rent’ or ‘Own’ that had to be checked. Some TV shrink even came up with a new disorder called ‘rental addiction’. I’m happy to report that I have it. And Carnation evaporated milk makes delicious coffee cream.

    • Replies: @Yojimbo/Zatoichi
  25. The American Empire is run by Lizzie Borden WASPs and Leopold and Loeb Jews — it’s true!

    Florence King in 1992:

    If you want to understand Anglo-Saxon Americans, study the Lizzie Borden case. No ethnologist could ask for a better control group; except for Bridget Sullivan, the Bordens’ maid, the zany tragedy of August 4, 1892, had an all-Wasp cast.

    Tweet from 2015:

    • Replies: @Reg Cæsar
  26. “To make sure I learned the etiquette of grieving, Granny took me with her to the many funerals she attended . . . I grew up looking at so many corpses that I still feel a faint touch of surprise whenever I see people move.”
    ― Florence King, Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye

  27. JimB says:
    @Reg Cæsar

    I like how “trigger words” is used in a positive way. That was another century.

    And so far as I can tell, the phrase “politically correct” first appeared in Jack Pulman’s 1976 teleplay for Robert Graves book, Claudius the God, to characterize the Roman governors decision to dedicate a temple for the Britons in honor of Claudius instead of Augustus.

    • Replies: @Reg Cæsar
  28. @Charles Pewitt

    I truly don’t think that Florence King would have recognized how America had drastically changed since her halcyon days at college. It would be interesting to see what she thought of regarding Barack Obama, race relations, wokeness, etc. all of which were occurring at the end of her life. Also, its good to keep in mind that King came of age when at least there was a semblance of holding to the Western Canon (and that of course would include classic literature as well). Since at least the ’90’s, everything has been dumbed down that someone like King is completely irrelevant, even among the current Right, which at best would simply ignore her. I have a sneaking suspicion that King wouldn’t have cared too much for Milo, nor for his constant prideful preening about his gayness.

    But then again, it would seem as though the times have passed Florence King by, and that there really isn’t much of anyone coming along in her mold. Nor does anyone much care for that matter. Simply not relevant to the times of which we live in (or least for those under age 40). The younger generations, if they happen upon King’s works, will only care that she was bisexual and attempt to retcon her for their identity LGBTetc cause, group, community, Pride, etc. And the likes of someone as Florence King never appeared to identify with any kind of a community whatsoever. The main exception would be the South, but even “the South” no longer can be classified as the one that King grew up in, so there’s no community at all that she probably would’ve belonged to. Wonder if King even could relate to the modern current South as it is at present? So much of it no longer resembles what she remembered it to be.

    She definitely had standards, and perhaps wouldn’t have had much to do with texting, which only serves to further dumb down the language, and the writing as well.

    A product of her times; unfortunately, those times have long since passed her by.

  29. @JimB

    And so far as I can tell, the phrase “politically correct” first appeared in Jack Pulman’s 1976 teleplay for Robert Graves book, Claudius the God

    In English, maybe. Wasn’t it of Soviet origin?

  30. @Charles Pewitt

    Lizzie Warren sponsored acts
    To raise her mother’s income tax.
    When she saw what she had done,
    She upped her dad’s to 41.

    • Replies: @Charles Pewitt
  31. @Redneck farmer

    She said Charles should have been a feminist’s hero. Instead of dumping “Dear Old Dutch” for a trophy wife, he did the opposite.

  32. @SFG

    Camille Paglia?

    Oooh, I forgot about her. She absolutely rocks. Is she lesbian this week?

  33. @Reg Cæsar

    Lizzie Borden Warren is highly vain since she was born

    She sneakily brings attention to her cheekbones from evening to the morn

    Lizzie Borden Warren voted to triple legal immigration and amnesty illegal aliens

    Lizzie Borden Warren and Trumpy say bring in the foreigners “in the largest numbers ever.”

    Your Warren poem is better than mine and yours rhymes

    Oh well! Chalk it up to the imperial rot times

  34. @Mr McKenna

    Is this a trick question? Think: Pornhub. That should help give some ideas for 2nd favorite lesbians.

    Looking at her photos, Florence King does kind of look mannish and not very feminine. It probably wouldn’t surprise many here that the vast majority of her readers were male and definitely not women. Why would women want to read her work anyway? Most likely they were reading Danielle Steele’s works at the time.

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