Before Fifty Shades: ‘The Dying Slave’.
by Marie Marshall
It almost seems strange to be saying this, but there was life, and lifestyle, before Fifty Shades of Grey, and it made its way into literature. Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs was published over 140 years ago. For some time before I became a ‘legit’ (what does that even mean?) author and poet I wrote about love, sex, domination, and the areas where they did and did not overlap. I wrote the vignette below in a deliberately-mannered and sentimental style, to reflect the formality that often exists within Dominant/submissive relationships; the era in which it is set is not mentioned, but it could belong to any time…
“I have made her as comfortable as I can.” These had been the doctor’s parting words to Greta. Now Greta sat by Leonora’s bedside as the late afternoon sun struck aslant at the covers, through half-closed curtains. The room was almost silent. Outside, absurdly cheerful birds were twittering, oblivious to the sadness inside, where the only sound was the quiet rasping of Leonora’s breath.
“I do not have long,” said Leonora, very quietly. “I know this, Mistress.”
Greta reached out and took her hand, surprised by the strength of the grip she felt. Looking at Leonora’s face, her eyes met the dying woman’s, and held, and locked. She was surprised how bright they were, how much love and happiness they seemed to contain at this time. Leonora was smiling. Greta forced herself to smile in return, though she felt her heart was breaking.
“You will be fine, darling. Very soon you will be well and strong, and you will leave that bed. We’ll take our walks together again, and do all the things we love doing. And just call me Greta for now – there is no need for formality.” To herself she thought, “Why do we always say these absurd things to those whom we love, while life is slipping away? We know they are dying, they know they are dying, and yet we toss bright phrases about as if they are suffering from nothing worse than a slight migraine. Can we not bear the truth, even though we all know it?” She refocused on the sweet, submissive woman in the bed – the loving one who was slipping away from her – and fought hard to keep her composure. It did not break.
At the admonishment to drop her Mistress’s formal title, Leonora shook her head weakly, but with some vehemence. “Please, Mistress, I beg you not to deprive me of that – not now, please. I could not bear it, Mistress.”
There was something bold, almost forward in this petition. Greta’s thoughts rolled back through the decades to the time that Leonora had first come to her. By mutual consent Greta had offered her protection and command, and Leonora had offered herself. Her enthusiasm for being a submissive woman to Greta’s need to dominate had been tempered with a little hesitancy at first, but often the enthusiasm had got the better of her, and she had blundered into many a transgression, for which Greta had not been slow to chastise her pet. Now Greta sat, looking down at Leonora, wondering if she had been domineering rather than dominating, cruel rather than magnificent. But all she could see in Leonora’s eyes was love and devotion. If her slave had ever felt hard-done-by, she did not show it now. She showed only the faithful adoration that Greta had become so used to over the years. Leonora’s willingness to be led down any path of experience had surprised Greta, but to Leonora it had simply been a duty she had been resigned to – no, not resigned, one to which she had come singing with joy. Step by step her Mistress’s will had become second nature to her, as vital as food and drink, and as air, and she had learned to obey almost unbidden, knowing and anticipating Greta’s wishes, reading her needs, and submitting herself to them.
Now it was to end. That perfection of love was to wink out in an instant, a bare moment which seemed to be racing upon the two women as they faced each other now. Greta struggled to find the words she needed to say. In her mind, after all this time, were doubts about the life they had chosen. She asked herself, “What great things might Leonora have done, if she had been free?” And in an unspoken, inner dialogue she seemed to hear Leonora talking back to her, telling her how she had blossomed as a singer, as and artist, as a whole person, in Greta’s service, and how wonderful it had all been.
“Dear Leonora,” said Greta finally. “If I have never succeeded in telling you how grateful I am for your lifelong gift of yourself, please let the action I am about to take be an explanation. Darling, all those years ago you gave yourself to me unreservedly. Today, all debts are cancelled, all pledges redeemed. I give you the only gift I can – yourself. You are free.”
As Greta spoke, Leonora tugged urgently at her hand, in a way that she would hitherto not have dared.
“…And my parting gift is to return yours to you. I wish to die belonging to you, Mistress. It is all I have ever wanted – to serve you all the days of my life, right until my death. I am your slave for life, for my whole life.”
The grip on Greta’s hand was a little weaker now. The tugging seemed to have sapped Leonora of much of her strength.
“Very well, little one,” said Greta, using a term of endearment she had not used to Leonora in a long time. “It is my pleasure to grant your wish. I remain your Mistress to the end, and you my slave. But know this…”
Greta bent low, kissed her slave on the forehead, and the lips, feeling as she did so the barely-perceptible breath on her cheek.
“…in Paradise there is no slavery. In Paradise you will stand by my side as my eternal wife, and only as that. Even you cannot go against a law made in heaven. Be peaceful, my darling little one, be peaceful…” Greta’s commanding voice fell away, and she simply sat, holding Leonora’s hand, looking at the silent devotion and love in her eyes.
She sat and looked into those eyes until all the devotion and love had finally faded away, along with all other light and lustre, and all that was left was the eyes. Leonora’s breath had stilled to nothing, she was free, and her hand lay gently in that of her earthly Mistress.
That was the moment – when she was finally alone – that Greta surrendered her life-long dignity. She bowed her frame over her dead love and, as the birds sang with incessant merriness outside, she wept.
Powerful writing, indeed. It has one relating to people and feelings which would normally strike no chord.
btw – a really good production of Venus in Furs was done here recently.
“It has one relating to people and feelings which would normally strike no chord.”
Normally I don’t make replies here, preferring to leave the comment thread to others. However, I felt I had to reply to that sentence. I greatly appreciate what you said. If a writer can do that, it is no mean achievement. If I had noticed it in another writer I would have seen it as evidence of craftsmanship, so I am flattered and honoured by your comment.