As you know, I have been reading a lot of pre-war novels recently. Even in those published more recently, in the 50’s and 60’s, the use of offensive terms to describe black and ethnic minority people and others is common place. Quite often the terms are used casually, not actively intended to offend but as part of the speaker’s everyday idiolect, however brutal that may have been. Authors setting the events of their novels in the past have to make a difficult decision whether to have their characters talk ‘authentically’ – that is using offensive words that were common terms- or to sanitise their portrayal of how people spoke and thought. As a result of all this I’ve become a bit de-sensitised to authors using offensive terminology or hateful language. In any event I knew not to expect James Bond to be politically correct or sensitive to other people’s feelings and ideas. But the venom and sheer unpleasantness of his portrayal in ‘Casino Royale’ was still shocking.
This short novel is the first of the Bond franchise, and sets the template for many of what were to become clichés about Bond. The repressed public school boy, the cold blooded killer (although he kills no-one in this novel, he does boast (twice) about his killings to date, two to be precise) his lechery, his misogyny, his tendency to drink and drive. We are told of his 00 designation, although here it is not a licence to kill, (that would come later), but rather confirmation that he has killed in the course of his work; in other words it is a designation of work experience, not an indication of authority. The femme fatale sidekick fated to die by the end of the novel is here, but missing are the dead-pan quips in the face of danger, and the gadgets provided by Q.
The novel’s plot is flimsy. The villain, Le Chiffre, a Russian Agent, controlled by SMERSH, is treasurer of a French trade union. Some villain. He is morbidly obese, and just to round the characterisation off, a sexual predator. He has lost the union’s money by investing in a chain of loss-making brothels, so tries to recover his losses at the baccarat tables at the Casino Royale. Bond’s master plan is to beat him at cards, bankrupt him, forcing into becoming a double agent. The novel is very clear that the trade union members he represents are a communist fifth column under the control of the Soviet Union, and must be broken up as part of the defence of the realm.
As a plan this obviously has its flaws, depending as it does on the luck of the draw, and is in any event always vulnerable to either Le Chiffre cheating, which is the sort of thing corrupt trade union officials are prone to, or violence after the event. The latter is the option chosen – after fluking a win at chards, Bond is kidnapped, stripped, tied to a chair and then tortured at length in a bizarre homoerotic sadomasochistic fashion which threatens his manhood painfully and literally.
As a spy novel this is flimsy stuff, but the portrayal of women, and Bond’s Neanderthal attitudes, is what I wanted to focus on. As I have said, I am not naïve enough to have expected Bond to have been a feminist. But he is an appalling throwback. When he hears he is going to have to work with a woman, he is dismayed.
“These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men”. (15)
Lynd, the female agent in question (Vesper Lynd is a homophone for ‘West Berlin’ by the way, a clue that she is a double agent) is in turns lusted over and treated with contempt by Bond. His reaction when she is kidnapped is:
“For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched ad probably held to ransom…the silly bitch. “
He imagines sex with her as having the “sweet tang of rape”. (23)
The final line of the novel is the blunt “The bitch is dead now”. (This of a woman who he was planning to marry a few pages earlier)
It’s important obviously to avoid the mistake of assuming that the thoughts and ideas of the novel’s central character are those of the novelist. But equally that doesn’t mean that sometimes authors don’t use their characters to articulate their prejudices. It’s not too difficult to spot the difference between this happening, and a character being constructed to represent prejudices which are held up to ridicule or contempt. If Bond was being presented as a misogynist in order to demonstrate how out of date these ideas had become, someone in the novel would challenge him, confront his chauvinism. That never happens. Alternatively his bigotry would be confronted by the events of the novel – for example when he consistently under-estimates women they go on to prove him wrong. Again, no such thing happens – by the end of the novel the reader is invited to agree that staying at home minding pots and pans and sticking to her frocks would indeed have been the better course of action for Vesper. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Fleming, the wealthy, Eton and Sandhurst educated former naval intelligence officer, was using Bond to express his own chauvinism.
The later Bond novels do nothing to dispel this idea. These are his thoughts on lesbians and gay men in ‘Goldfinger’, all caused apparently by giving women the vote!
“Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed-up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and “sex equality.” As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied.”