In a responding to a post I made about her work on the blog I produced in an early stage of working on this book, the novelist N. M. Browne made this comment: “I like alternating narratives for fairly practical reasons––I like to write books that appeal to both boys and girls so generally have a viewpoint character of each gender” (https://pernodel.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/shadow-web/). This assumption that boys enjoy reading about boys and girls about girls, presumably because they can then identify with them and thus, people often suggest, learn from them by thinking of them as case studies with personal applications to themselves, might well account for why many novels follow this pattern.
It is certainly true that Browne herself has followed it a number of times. Warriors of Alavna (UK 2000) for instance, follows the alternating experiences of Dan and Ursula as their school trip unexpectedly lands them in another world that seems much like Roman Britain. They have been called there by a wise woman seeking great warriors to help her besieged people. What appears at first to be a mistake turns out not to be, as Dan becomes a “bear sark” (73), a berserk killing machine in battle when the mood is on him, and Ursula develops second sight. In the sequel to this novel, Warriors of Camlann (UK 2003), it turns out that Dan and Ursula’s attempt to return home from their first adventure has dropped them in King Arthur’s time, and, because Arthur himself is a weak person unable to live up to the heroic ballads the bard Taliesin composes about him, Dan and Ursula end up helping to make the story of the Round Table take place as it should; and this time, the warrior Dan becomes a thoughtful mystic and Ursula a great warrior and a stand-in for Arthur––one who appears to be male.
In offering male and female readers alternating pathways to the pleasures of wish-fulfillment fantasy by providing characters of their own gender to identify with, these novels insist on an awareness of differences between male and female experience that then invites an investigation of the two focalizing characters in terms of how they might be representative of their genders. The assumption that this particular difference is significant more or less automatically classifies the characters’ experiences as case studies of gender. Not surprisingly, then, a closer look reveals that the novels can easily be read in that way. The male Dan, who claims to despise violence, becomes a great and greatly violent warrior, the female Ursula a very wise woman, replications of the clichés of the traditional culture they enter that still have force as ideals of masculinity and femininity in their and our contemporary world. Perhaps because of some unease about that, Browne then reverse the roles in the sequel, so that Dan moves from an extreme masculinity to something more traditionally female, and Ursula does the opposite. As a result, they can each explore what the other became earlier, in a way that might be seen as a challenge to the traditional gender assumptions. Intriguingly, however, the novels maintain their difference from and opposition to each other as they both change, so that they still remain strangely isolated from each other, at opposite poles even as they move from pole to pole; and that sense of oppositeness might well underly the romantic attraction they seem to be feeling for each other, a possibility that might well confirm an underlying interest in gender distinctions and gender relationships.
Browne’s novel Basilisk (UK 2004) also alternates between a male and a female character, and can also be read as a pair of case studies on the subject of gender difference,. This time, however, the gender differences not only appear in the two characters but seem also to resonate symbolically in the depictions of their environments. Rej, the male character, resides in the catacombs below the city the female character Donna lives in. Their two quite different societies are remnants of what was what one society, before a religious revolution that put sober priests in charge of the puritanical society above and drove many non-conforming people into the more freewheeling but equally dangerous world below. These two environments seem to be clearly related to the characters of the protagonists.
In terms of traditional hierarchies, Donna’s disciplined society might seem more representative of traditional masculinity than of femininity: it is a society of oppressors as opposed to those who are oppressed. It occupies the light above rather than darkness below, closer to the heavens traditionally connected to male evolvement than to the dark bowels of the earth traditionally connected to femaleness, and it expresses disciplined control rather than the rebellious anarchy of the catacombs. As an oppidan scribe, Donna lives a nunlike life of disciplined moderation, even deprivation, and focusses on mental activity. In the caves below, Rej can survive only through less orderly forms of cunning and great physical agility. But while Donna’s society exhibits all these characteristics of traditional hierarchical masculinity, her own position within it makes her conventionally female. To being with, she is passive and for the most part obedient, willingly accepting her humble role under the control of more powerful male priests; she thinks of herself as “so ignorant, so ridiculously oppidan-like in all the wrong ways” (131), and as she comes to realize and eventually tells Rej, “I don’t know why, but I always seem to do what I’m told” (166). Rej himself, a rebel even against his society of rebels, expresses something more like the active aggression traditionally associated with maleness. In other words, Rej and Donna’s relationships to the landscapes associated with them can quite easily be read as representations of their gender characteristics.
As in the two Warriors books, Basilisk focusses centrally on how two apparently quite different characters find themselves in a situation that not only brings them and their two societies out of their isolation from each other and into a new community together, but also reveals many ways in which they have been connected and alike all along. The novel opens with two successive narratives which reveal to readers, but not to Rej and Donna themselves, that they are sharing the same dreams, and eventually, it turns out that they have family connections with each other. Furthermore, both find themselves defying the customs of their groups, and both acknowledge other similarities. At one point, Donna realizes, “It was her own thought issuing from Rej’s mouth” (117), and at another, Rej “supposed she wanted to save the slave because she was that kind of person, the sentimental kind like himself” (146). Read as symbolic of gender concerns, then, Basilisk then seems to intent on moving past restrictive roles and allowing the characters to find common shared ground beyond them. Before it ends, however, Donna must save herself from her evil torturer by looking beyond her violent anger for a softer compassion for others that then leads to the torturer’s death, while Rej plays his part in saving Donna and the city by conventionally heroic physical acts: fighting and killing a number of enemies and then blowing up the evil priest who caused all the trouble. Their stories then end up conforming to conventional gender roles and the conventions plot patterns typical of stories about women and stories about men.[i]
Browne, N.M. Warriors of Alavna. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
– – – . Warriors of Camlann. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
– – – . Basilisk. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.
[i] Three other novels by Brown, Hunted, The Story of Stone, and Wolf Blood also involve alternations between focalizing male and female protagonists, and also seem to invite readings of these characters’ environments as symbolic of the themes they represent variations of––among them, perhaps inevitably, gender roles.