‘The Moonlight Mistress’

The novelist Victoria Janssen is a reader of this blog, and has occasionally left comments. When I discovered that her book The Moonlight Mistress (2009) was not only set during the First World War, but also featured werewolves, my curiosity was piqued, and I decided that this was something I really ought to read.
When I emailed to Ms Janssen that I had ordered her novel from Amazon, she replied: ‘it is an erotic novel, just to warn you!’  This is a genre with which I am not very familiar, so I was even more interested to see how it treated WW1 themes. While reading the book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the sporting novels of Nat Gould, the favourite writer of the average Great War Tommy. Gould’s books are essentially adventure stories interrupted every few chapters by the description  of an energetic and exciting horse-race. Victoria Janssen’s novel follows a similar pattern, except that instead of horse-racing the narrative is punctuated by lively and explicit accounts of sexual encounters.The Moonlight Mistress
The story begins in August 1914, when Lucilla, an initially repressed forty-year-old English chemist, is eager to leave Germany, and by chance meets a French fellow-scientist with similar plans. Circumstances force them to share a hotel room, and one thing leads to a lot of the other. The Frenchman (Pascal) is concerned that Kauz (the evil genius of the Institute where Lucilla works) is conducting secret experiments on werewolves, as well as developing poison gas; partly out of revenge, the two of them steal Kauz’s car and escape to France.
The novel tells the story of how Kauz’s plans are thwarted by a group of heroes who are strikingly unlike those whom the  British public in 1914 imagined were representing them in the war against the Kaiser. During wartime, the typical representation of the heroic was the calm, controlled and manly soldier doing his duty doggedly and decently. In this book, evil is combated by a motley group of outsiders and misfits: a middle-aged woman, two werewolves, a Jew, a homosexual consumed by lust for a fellow-officer, and Bob, a woman who for financial reasons pretended to be a man and enlisted in the regular Army. When reading about forty-year-old Lucilla being accepted as one of the team who go off to destroy Kauz’s stronghold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the forty-year-old novelist May Sinclair, who in 1914 desperately wanted to be involved in the war, and whose Journal of Impressions in Belgium is such a touching tragi-comedy as her good intentions are continually snubbed, until she eventually gets the message that women like her are not needed anywhere near the war zone (even in an amateur medical unit led by the first man to open a nudist colony in Britain).
This book’s representation of the war is not only very different from the way it was seen at the time; it is also very unlike the myth of the war that has been prevalent for the past fifty years or so – of Tommies helplessly at the mercy of murderous artillery and stupid generalship. Perhaps because the book is set in the first weeks of the war, when it was still a war of movement, there is no sense of stalemate, and plenty of opportunity for individuals to take decisive action. Nor does Ms Janssen have any truck with the notion that both sides were equally responsible. Germany is represented in the novel by the vile Kauz, who performs vicious experiments on the werewolves he keeps in miserable captivity, and revels in about the only perversion not practised by the novel’s polymorphous collection of heroes – cruelty.
While I was reading, I felt that I would like to know more about Kauz, who is almost entirely an offstage presence. Surely a man who, like John Buchan’s villains, is monstrous quite beyond the limits of ordinary motivation is an opportunity for any novelist – so why doesn’tMs Janssen show him in action more explicitly? I suspect that she kept him away from the reader partly to create the sense of an obnoxious unseen enemy, but also because to have put him on display might have run the risk of glamorizing him.
This, I think, is the book’s morality. It presents the erotic as the opposite of the cruel. The sexual scenes that are so enthusiastically described are always consensual (and prophylactics are used at appropriate moments). The participants take pains to ensure that pleasure is mutual. To have let the deliberately vicious Kauz fully display his perverse cruelty might have introduced a kind of eroticism that Ms Janssen is otherwise careful to avoid.
Is the war setting crucial to the book? Much of the plot could have happened in peacetime, but the war provides a reason for the characters to come together, and war’s confusions are presented as having a beneficial effect. They break down reserves, heighten the characters’ sense of their own bodies, and making them more responsive to others. One by one all of the main characters lose their reserve and find a richer sense of themselves, generally through sexual activity. The repressed chemist discovers her potential in bed with Pascal; an officer who denies the homosexual part of his nature finds happiness when he discovers that another soldier loves him, and Bob the transvestite finally unbinds her breasts and joins in an uninhibited threesome (but how on earth, one wonders, did she ever
pass the Army medical in the first place?).
The author has clearly done some thorough background reading, and I did not spot any glaring historical howlers (though I suspect that by late 1914 moving from France to Germany and back would be less easy than the novel suggests, even before the trench system stretched from the coast to the Alps). Younger readers should be aware, however, that the book’s account of the war is not to be relied on as entirely historically accurate (none of the official records of combatant nations mention werewolves, so far as I am know). On the other hand, such readers might find the interesting descriptions of sexual practices extremely  educational  (though they should perhaps be warned that not all their  real-life encounters may prove as exciting as Ms Janssen’s prose).

2 Comments

  1. Posted March 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I am more amused and honored than I can tell you to have a review of my book in your blog.

    To answer your very interesting questions, yes, the exclusion of more detail about Kauz was deliberate. He was meant to be a cartoon villain – had the book been set in WWII, he would have been the Evil Nazi Scientist – and more of a plot element than a real character. The reasons are that I was striving for a pulp adventure tone, as you surmised, and also because in general, in romance novels the focus is on the characters who will end happily.

    I did have the freedom to do more with Kauz, but chose not to do so, partly because I don’t enjoy eroticizing cruelty, and partly because I was relatively sure my readers would find it distasteful to get darkness when they were expecting a romp.

    The sequel novel, which I am now preparing to write, will include more complex fallout from Kauz’s actions as well as a German pacifist character, who will be much more sympathetic. The German heroine of a story that is in progress will also be much more sympathetic.

    As for Hailey and her army medical exam, I didn’t decide, but the main possibility I considered was taken from an account of a woman who served in the American Civil War. She paid a man to pretend to be her for the medical exam.

    Are you sure there weren’t any werewolves in the trenches? *checks again in Osprey book collection*

  2. Posted March 21, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    More reviews of mucky books please!


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