One of the questions I'm invariably asked when I tell people I'm reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels is: "Aren't they a bit sexist?" (The other question is even shorter: "Really?"
– often accompanied by an arched eyebrow.) This line of enquiry probably dates back to Paul Johnson's 1958 New Statesman
review/essay "Sex, Snobbery and Sadism"
, which he wrote after reading the sixth book in the series, Dr. No
, but more recently the question of Bond's misogyny in the novels has become conflated with the on-screen antics of the movie Bond(s) (see here
...). Because for some people, many of whom I suspect have never read Fleming's novels, the Bond of the films and the Bond of the books equate to pretty much the same man: a smirking smoothie who shags his way through at least two floozies every story.
I haven't read Dr. No
yet, so I'm not going to mount a blow by blow defence of that particular book. But I have read the five novels preceding it (well, nearly; I haven't quite finished Diamonds Are Forever
yet), so as part of Espionage Week
, I thought I'd examine James Bond's attitude towards women in those five books from Casino Royale
to From Russia, with Love
, disentangling the novels from the later portrayals of 007 by messers Connery, Moore et al to see if that sexist reputation is really deserved.
While much of the criticism of how Bond regards and treats women stems from the films, there is one line in particular from the novels that regularly crops up in critiques, and which, so far as the accusers are concerned, lends weight to their argument. It's the closing line of dialogue from the debut Bond novel, Casino Royale
(1953), where Bond is informing his superiors of the fate of Vesper Lynd, and it runs thus:
"Yes, dammit, I said 'was'. The bitch is dead now."
What's worse is that this isn't the first time Bond refers to Vesper as a bitch in the book. Much earlier, before he's even met her, he broods on how, having been told by Mathis he'll have a female number two on the mission to bankrupt Le Chiffre, he thinks she'll get in the way, closing out chapter four with a couple of hearty exclamations of "bitch" to the four walls of his hotel room. But the key phrase here is, 'before he's met her'. Yes, at this point in the very first novel, Bond has little regard for women, considering them essentially as little more than recreation. However context, as ever, is all. At this juncture Bond is also seething over the fact that his cover's been blown and the Russians are on to him, and so his anger also gets directed at Vesper, who he thinks he'll have to protect.
Now, I don't want to be too much of an apologist here; Bond's attitude towards women is
frequently chauvinistic. But it's worth remembering that these novels – at least the ones I'm considering – were written in the early- to mid-1950s, when chauvinism wasn't exactly out of the ordinary. On top of that, Bond is really only reflecting the attitudes of his creator, Ian Fleming (which is why he's also such a snob for the more luxurious things in life): Fleming, at least in the early books, tends to write women as fairly simpering sorts (the Vesper of the Casino Royale
novel isn't nearly so sassy as the Vesper of the 2006 movie
Thing is, the Bond of these early books really isn't
the unfeeling shagger of the movies. In Casino Royale
he falls hard for Vesper; he finds in her something which has eluded him in previous relationships, to the extent that he's on the verge of proposing to her before her treachery is finally revealed. And it's the revelation of that treachery and the letter that Vesper writes to him that drives Bond to tears and causes him to utter that last line. As a consequence, we're left with the impression that Bond will henceforth be unfeeling, uncaring: a hater of women, even.
What's surprising is that this couldn't be further from the truth. In the next book in the series, Live and Let Die
(1954), Bond again falls for a woman – not as hard as he did for Vesper, sure, but it's also clear that Solitaire doesn't merely represent a fling for him. He reflects at length on her allure, telling her, "You kiss more wonderfully than any girl I have ever known." And if you think that's simply a line on his part, I should point out that it's much, much worse than that: Bond actually means
it. In fact, the picture that develops over the course of the next few books is of a man who, far from being a serial sex fiend, is actually more of a serial monogamist. Book to book, when it comes to women, Bond is a big ol' softy.
One thing to bear in mind here, I think, is that although the Bond novels are obviously a series, they're also designed to be standalones, and lean much more towards the latter design than the former. You can pick up any Bond book and dive in, with no knowledge of previous books required. Historically, particularly in the years before the internet made finding out in which order to read books in a series a hell of a lot easier, that's almost certainly the way they were
read – bought at random, devoured equally haphazardly. In which light, Bond's romancing of a different woman in each book perhaps isn't so objectionable: for many readers, there wouldn't have been a previous book to compare it to.
But even not taking that into account, the evidence on the page is irrefutable. Moonraker
(1955), the next book in the series, presents Bond with a slightly more feisty female in the shape of Gala Brand, a Special Branch agent working undercover at Hugo Drax's missile facility. What's interesting in this book is that 007 doesn't get to sleep with Gala. They share a kiss on a beach and an emotional moment after surviving a bomb blast, but that's as far as it goes. Gala is engaged, and the novel finishes with Bond resolving to "get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere". Despite Bond's misgivings about the relative temperature of his heart, however, it's abundantly clear throughout the novel that, once again, he's tumbled head over heels for a dame; for evidence, look no further than a couple of lines earlier, as a tortured 007 ponders, "Why had he imagined that she shared his desires, his plans?" James Bond: denied.
Indeed, by the time we get to Bond #5, From Russia, with Love
(as I say, I'm still reading #4, Diamonds Are Forever
, although two-thirds of the way through it looks as if Tiffany Case will have the same effect on 007 as every woman before her), it's become so evident that Bond will go utterly gaga at the sight of a pretty lady that the Soviet spy organization SMERSH actively plays on this weakness to bring about his downfall. They dispatch a secret weapon in the shape of Tatiana Romanova, who poses as a defector carrying a stolen decoding device. Ostensibly that's the hook for the British Secret Service... but in reality SMERSH know that Bond will lose his senses at the sight of Tatiana and consequently prove no match for their assassin, Red Grant. Which is very nearly what happens.
I can't yet comment on the books following From Russia, with Love
, but if those first five are anything to go by, it's a safe bet that Bond will continue to be beguiled by the birds and frequently determine to down tools and take whichever lass he's besotted with in that particular book off to live in a farmhouse in the country and raise chickens/goats/pigs/children. There's a pattern of behaviour established for 007, one which doesn't really tally with the idea of him being a sexist pig – at least no more than countless other characters – and indeed real live actual men – from the same era.
Based on the novels I've read so far, you could, I think, accuse James Bond – and possibly Ian Fleming – of being many things: a snob, certainly; a masochist, definitely; a homophobe, potentially; a racist, casually – although again those last two are more a product of their time than an active agenda. But a misogynist? I'm not so sure. If anything, I'd suggest that James Bond is, in fact, an illustrious example of that most unfortunate and ultimately doomed of beasts: the incurable romantic. And it'd be churlish to criticize a man for that.