By Molly Tanzer
Anne Rice’s pseudonymous pornographic trilogy Beauty begins and ends in the same place—Sleeping Beauty’s fabled castle—but the bulk of the work is a kata- and anabasis detailing one woman’s evolving relationship with sexual submission. There is a beautiful clarity to the original trilogy, a simplicity of vision that does not result in a simplistic treatment of sexuality. Indeed, while the books are almost wholly erotic sequences, they are also catalysts for Beauty’s growth and change; she is transformed by her experiences as a pleasure slave, and comes to understand sexual desire—hers, and others’—with tenderness and compassion.
Depending on who you ask, the Beauty books are either admirable or ridiculous for being so consistently explicit; for better or for worse, that was Rice’s artistic vision for them. She illuminated her purpose in The Gothic World of Anne Rice (1996): “The idea was to create a book where you didn’t have to mark the hot pages, where every page would be hot,” she says. “I was trying to get right to the heart of that fantasy—to reach the moment of pounding intensity and to take away everything extraneous, as much as could be done in a narrative. To do that, you have to be absolutely alive to what you’re writing.”
Rice is certainly “alive” to her subject matter. Not only do the books draw on (and specifically reject, at times) the language and behavior of formal D/s relationships that occur in real life, the first book, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty (1983) begins with a scene as savvy to the subtext of classical fairy tales as any Angela Carter retelling. “The Prince” comes to the castle of Sleeping Beauty, where all are asleep, as in the story. After climbing to the “topmost bedchamber” he finds his prize on page 2: “Her face was perfect to him,” the text tells us, before revealing the more crucial bit: “and her embroidered gown had fallen deep into the crease between her legs so that he could see the shape of her sex beneath it.” But, instead of planting a chaste kiss upon her lips to awaken her from her enchanted sleep, the Prince gets out his sword, cuts her gown away, and deflowers her:
He was holding her up as he did this, to gather her mouth to him, and as he broke through her innocence, he opened her mouth with his tongue and pinched her breast sharply.
He sucked on her lips, he drew the life out of her into himself, and feeling his seed explode within her, heard her cry out.
And then her blue eyes opened.
Just like in the more traditional version of the fairy tale, Beauty falls in love with her Prince, and is happy to be claimed as his—though, in this version, he does not marry her, but rather, trains her in the ways of pleasure slavery. He teaches her how to address him, how to stand before him, how to endure punishments such as spankings and paddlings, and how to understand her body’s various responses to pain and pleasure.
Beauty finds sublime delight as she explores her own submissiveness, and her rebellions are typically always in the service of seeking new heights—or perhaps lows—of slavery. In Beauty’s Punishment (1984), she voluntarily joins the disgraced slaves being sent to the rustic Village, which marks a shift not only in setting, but in theme: in the Village, she is not punished with jewelled paddles and fine leather straps before sleeping in her Prince’s bed. Instead, she is made to scrub floors on her hands and knees, a brush clutched in her teeth, before being commanded to do things like sexually service an Inn’s clientele. But this is still not enough for our Beauty; in the final instalment, Beauty’s Release (1985), she is captured and made to serve as a slave in the harem of a Sultan, where, nameless and treated as mute creature without will, she discovers the true nature of total submission.
Obviously, there are some deeply problematic elements in the Beauty books. Beauty is fifteen. She doesn’t volunteer for her role as pleasure slave to the Prince; she is told it is a fate she must accept, after a non-consensual sexual experience. She isn’t alone in this, either—while some slaves are volunteers, most are not; they are tributes, sent or taken, so they may be “greatly enhanced” by their period of slavery. The racial politics are also awful; the exotic harem of the Sultan could be used as a companion text to Said’s Orientalism. The language of sexual violence, specifically rape, is used in the first book (it disappears after). And while homosexuality is normal and bisexuality is expected, there is no trans* visibility worth speaking of.
And yet… and yet. The Beauty books are erotic literature, and erotic literature will never wholly please anyone, nor will it represent everyone. Additionally, not only are these books erotic literature, they are specifically transgressive erotic literature. Fantasies of dominance and submission, especially of this nature (erotic pain, restraint, sex against one’s will, fungibility of partners, anonymous sex, being made into a thing, sex as public spectacle, et cetera) are inherently about the bending, and sometimes breaking, the sort of sexual and emotional boundaries that most people expect in a relationship. Even today, when Fifty Shades of Gray is sold at CostCo, and blindfolds, nipple clamps, and handcuffs are sold at every sex shop, the idea of being manacled, ass out and naked, to a public turntable where anyone is free to pelt you with eggs and refuse is still considered a bit outré.
Rice knew this when she wrote and published the Beauty trilogy in the early 1980s, when the feminist debate over pornography was still raging; indeed, the first Beauty book was published the same year that Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon drafted the Model Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, which proposed, among other things, that pornography—including written erotic material—is a form of “sex discrimination,” when it includes (among other things) women being depicted as “sexual objects or things … who enjoy humiliation or pain”; women being “presented as sexual objects tied up” or “in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display”; or where women’s “body parts—including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks—are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts” or “presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation … or hurt in a context that makes those conditions sexual.”
In the Beauty trilogy, Beauty is (among other things) painted with gold paint and posed as a statue; has her vagina filled with fruit that another slave eats out of her; commanded to undress her Master with only her teeth; is dressed as a pony and driven along the “Bridle Path,” and, of course, she is paddled, whipped, spanked, beaten, slapped, pinched… as well as fucked by any number of partners, known and unknown, who have complete control over her person. Beauty submits wholly, and beautifully, and eagerly; she is wet the whole time, desperately hungry to be fucked when denied sexual satisfaction. Regardless, the Beauty books seem to be in many ways just what Dworkin and MacKinnon had in mind.
The thing is, plenty of people possess these sorts of fantasies—fantasies of dominating another, or submitting to another’s will. Of course there are plenty of safe, sane, and consensual ways of acting out these fantasies in the real world, but what’s so brilliant about the Beauty books is that they elegantly place these fantasies within the realm of actual fantasy. And that was Rice’s goal: “I just wanted to take those fantasies and put them into some form that could be written down, being true to what they were and making the least possible concession to literary form” [emphasis mine].
Our sexual fantasies aren’t always polite—aren’t always socially acceptable, feasible, or desirable in a real-world setting. After all, there is language to describe someone being taken to another country against their will and forced to perform sex acts, and it is not at all sexy. But, being true to what those fantasies are means that since 1983, countless people have enjoyed imagining being stripped naked, taken to the land of Queen Eleanor, and instructed in the arts of pleasure specifically because her kingdom is a place apart from our world. There, the burden of choice is lifted. Confusion is eliminated, for people speak plainly and directly to one another. There is fear, but there is also calm; jealousy is rare, and discouraged, as it inhibits rather than enhances pleasure.
At the end of Beauty’s Release, Beauty is “rescued” from the Sultan’s palace, but instead of returning to the land of Queen Eleanor she is sent home. It is the first act which dismays her to the point of screaming, shrieking, growling:
“I won’t go!” Beauty gasped. “I won’t go! First the rescue, and now this! This!” She was beside herself. She stood and kicked the casket with her naked foot. “Take these clothes away, dump them into the sea. I won’t wear them, do you hear!” She would lose her mind if this didn’t stop.
Helped into her gowns by Prince Laurent, the most splendid of the male slaves she encounters, Beauty returns to her normal life, and is deeply unhappy until that same Laurent—also now clothed, and returned to the “real world”—comes for her with the intent to marry her. She says yes, and they agree that (due to their training) they shall live “happily ever after… as the fairy tales say.”
When I began this essay—which is, ostensibly, about Beauty’s Kingdom (2015), the fourth book in what I suppose is more properly called the Beauty Quartet—I didn’t intend to muse for so long on the original trilogy. But, I should have known I would need to; Beauty’s Kingdom is difficult to understand on its own. Unlike the original trilogy, it is not “an erotic novel of discipline, love and surrender, for the enjoyment of men and women.” Instead, it is Rice’s response to those novels; an attempt to burn away the problematic elements of the first three and create, from the ashes, a more perfect vision.
Unfortunately, she fails. As it turns out, when you attempt to strip away transgression from BDSM, you also strip away much of what makes it sexually titillating, interesting to read about, and emotionally engaging; what makes it “absolutely alive” and “true.”
Beauty’s Kingdom picks up twenty years after the conclusion of Beauty’s Release. Beauty and Laurent have an adult son, to whom they have abdicated their crown in order to run away to a chateau apart from the world. There, they have tried to (basically) rekindle the spark, undermining the near-perfect ending of Beauty’s Release: apparently, things haven’t been so happily ever after.
At this chateau, they are both visited in a dream by the fairy queen Titania, who tells them they will “waken soon to a new destiny” (and reassure the suddenly, strangely insecure Laurent that he was always intended for Beauty). Soon after, they are found by a delegation of characters old and new, led by Lady Eva, who is in charge of the slaves of “Bellavalten,” which is now what the Kingdom is (and always has been, apparently) called. As it turns out, Queen Eleanor and her son have both died at sea, and left the kingdom to Beauty and Laurent… if they will agree to rule it.
They do agree, after much dull deliberation, but only on the condition that they be allowed to make changes to the way things were done when they themselves were slaves. This turns out to be exactly the hope of the delegation—over the past two decades the kingdom has grown stagnant and uninspired, and is in need of fresh ideas on how best to keep Bellavalten a happy paradise of sexual submission and dominance.
Thus the book begins in earnest… only sadly, “in earnest” here is not a phrase that means “wall to wall paddlings and/or hard cocks plunging into desperate hungry little sexes.” No, the book is mostly a problematic and most of all deeply uninteresting accounting of how Bellavalten is so much better under the rule of Queen Beauty and King Laurent. As it turns out, characters thinking about sex they had or might have had, maybe, is not nearly as erotic or interesting as showing those characters actually having sex on the page.
There is a rather Lucas-y feel to Beauty’s Kingdom in its desperate eagerness to “correct” the content of the original trilogy; a frantic, almost Orwellian desire to change and at times erase the past. That’s not to say it’s all bad. Early on, Beauty and Laurent decree that all pleasure slaves must be of consenting age, and they send an open invitation to those of any social status who wish to apply (before, slavery was restricted to royalty—a pleasing dynamic for the Village sequences, but rather unfair to middle and working-class individuals who dream of being slaves, true).
And yet, confusingly, applicants are not only assessed on the basis of their eagerness to serve; physical attractiveness is also a component. So, while anyone of any class can be a slave in Beauty’s Kingdom, there’s a “no uggos or fatties” rule, which seems to stand in contrast to the goals of the new, gentle, welcoming Bellavalten. Similarly uneven are the attempts to show that trans* people have found a place in Bellavalten. It’s a lovely idea, but the two scenes that deal with the idea are so floppy and ham-fisted one wishes Rice had simply refrained. (One describes, again dully, women who choose to live as men; the other is a reveal that a male character from the first trilogy has taken an alchemical potion that gives him enormous, lactating breasts while allowing him to retain his large cock.)
Another head-scratcher involves Beauty and Laurent abandoning the old way of arbitrarily deciding who serves for how long; instead, they set up a detailed system where new slaves are given a six month trial period to assess their fitness to serve, after which those who please are allowed to sign a two year contract, which may be extended after that. But, there is still nary a safe word in Bellavalten, so hopeful slaves are now voluntarily signing up for two years of being unable to say no. It’s an odd dissonance that is never addressed.
Arguably the worst (but perhaps the most telling) of these dissonances is Beauty’s obvious unhappiness in the midst of all this “improvement.” Forced to rule rather than serve, Beauty is uncomfortable and distant throughout the novel that claims to be about her kingdom. One can’t help but feel badly for her; instead of the inquisitive, aroused, compliant, and most of all happy Beauty we see in the original trilogy we get a woozy, sleepy Beauty, one always sighing and musing on how she’s just not very good at punishing slaves. It’s not her fault; Laurent, who is so superb in the original books, turns out to be a total prick in the new one. For twenty years he’s been fucking other women on the side while requiring Beauty’s monogamy. And while he eventually agrees she may take lovers once she assumes the throne of Bellavalten, it is with a caveat: she may not submit to anyone but him. (He, on the other hand, may dominate or submit to anyone he chooses.) And as if that’s not selfish enough, he mistreats her lovers by hauling them of her bed out by the scruffs of their neck late at night, even if they’re asleep, much to their resentment and dismay.
All of this is a sad backpedaling on the equality between men and women that is a theme of the original books. It comes across as petty and passive-aggressive, and for all Queen Eleanor is critiqued to the point of being the villain in absentia of Beauty’s Kingdom, pettiness and passive-aggression had no place under her reign.
Though it may seem an odd comparison, the original Beauty trilogy is a bit like the Chronicles of Narnia. It is, after all, about a magic kingdom of self-discovery, where personal truths are realized and illusions, shattered. Perhaps Aslan is not there, tearing away people’s false skins with his terrible claws, but the layers beneath which men and women hide are stripped away just as surely, until only the core remains. That core may not be pretty, and it may not suit the agenda of those who would police our fantasies, but it is honest—and that is a precious and all too rare thing.
Sadly, in Beauty’s Kingdom, instead of candor, we get caveats; instead of insight, we receive confusion. Beauty is neither claimed, punished, nor released: instead, she finds herself in an unsuitable role from which she can see no escape. Which, of course, raises the very valid question: why bother at all? When D/s isn’t fun, it’s time to stop, or reassess. Beauty, trapped, can do neither.
Yes: the tributes in the original trilogy were taken from their homes to serve Queen Eleanor whether they wished to or not. But, in Beauty’s Punishment, it’s acknowledged that those who find themselves unable to adapt to pleasure slavery can very easily escape it. Any slave can simply steal clothes and run for the border—those who do this are not retrieved and brought back. Their desire to leave is respected. By the end of Beauty’s Kingdom, one wonders if Beauty might not be dreaming of such an out for herself. What a sad fate for she who once screamed and protested the exact same thing!
If there is one thing we learn from Beauty’s Kingdom, it is that desire cannot be domesticated. In the mean time, we can only hope that if there is a next volume, it will be happier. Beauty’s Escape, perhaps?