White Knight – Part III: Diary of Vivienne Michel
Written by Jord Schaap
“But is it true that you’re a policeman?”
“Not quite. But I’m in that sort of business.”
“You mean a detective?”
“Well, sort of.”
“I knew it!”
He laughed. “How?”
“Oh, I don’t know. But you look, kind of — kind of dangerous.”
The Spy Who Loved Me, 1962
James Bond versus Bridget Jones
What would James Bond think of Bridget Jones? Since his reputation on women in both novels and films isn’t exactly in carrying out enlightened, feminist values, he would probably think she’s a irrelevant twaddling old-maid, desperately penning down her doubts about love and life in a hackneyed diary. On her turn, Bridget – being a typical 90s woman, modern, self-supportive, and single – would strongly support M’s observation about Bond, being a “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. But what she probably has to admit is that Bond looks very shagable. After all, Bond remains the handsome, dark secret agent who makes an indelible impression on any female creature.
Is this 2002? Indeed, the worlds of Bridget Jones and James Bond seem pretty incompatible. When you take a look at the way women are treated in the Bond novels and films you can easily state that their role isn’t exactly a blue-print of equivalence and feminism, despite the efforts of Xenia Onatopp and others to change that. However, women – e.g. the Bond Girls – have an important, if not essential role in the world of Bond, a point also recognized by the scheme of Umberto Eco that forms the basis of this three-part series of articles.
Eco identified three main characters in the Bond stories, being Bond, the Villain, and the Woman. Whilst the first two instalments of White Knight focused on the role of Bond and his relationship with the Villain, this final episode tries to uncover the truth about the Bond Women.
When it comes to Bond’s relationship with Women, three of the Bond polarities defined by Eco catch eye:
Love vs. Death
Perversion vs. Innocence
Duty vs. Sacrifice
The Spy Who Loved Me
Let’s see how these polar binarities take form in the way the Bond Girl is presented in both the Bond films and the novels of Ian Fleming, and in the identity of the Bond Girl. For that, we will make use of a quite remarkable, and quite underexposed Bond novel, being The Spy Who Loved Me, a story by Fleming that appeared in print in 1962.
The Spy Who Loved Me is so remarkable because, unlike the rest of the Bond novels, it is written through the perspective of someone else than James Bond, in this case the Woman: Vivienne Michel is her name. The novel starts as such:
I was on the run. I was on the run for England, for my youth, for winter, for a succession of untidy, nasty love-affairs […] and for the colourless, bored and snobbish London life I had […] In short, I was on the run for everything – except to escape law.
The Spy Who Loved Me
In the beginning, the reader gets puzzled: is this James Bond, speaking to us in a wretched state of affairs? Since the problems this person describes as causing her to escape, are the same things Bond has to cope with – in his off-duty life, that is.
But no: the heroine of the novel is Vivienne Michel, a 23-year old French-Canadian girl from Quebec. Her parents died in a flying accident, so she was sent to an English boarding-school to receive education. After two failed love-affairs and a series of short job careers in London, Vivienne (or ‘Viv’, as her friends call her very Bridget Jones-like) decides to go to the States, where she travels around on a scooter until she gets into trouble with two gangsters, carrying out a nocturnal attack on the abandoned motel she lives in temporarily. Highlight of the novel: James Bond who, as a lonely traveler, drops by accidentally and saves he heroine from the all too eager hands of the cruel gangsters.
The interesting thing of The Spy Who Loved Me is, apart from the form, the opportunity we get to take a look in the mind of the Bond Girl, and thus get to see James Bond through other eyes than his own.
What we see is remarkable: this time, the Bond Girl isn’t the innocent, docile and quite one-dimensional character we used to know, a character whose only function was to be beautiful. In the thoughts and remarks of Vivienne Michel, the Eco themes of Love and Death, Perversion and Innocence, Duty and Sacrifice become living and breathing. They become themes which play an active role in the relationship between Bond and Vivienne.
For in many ways, the heroine turns out to have the same character as her unknown saviour from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Her innocence lost in a dilapidated Berkshire cinema, she explores life, love and death in an unconventional way; she experiences love affairs – some clean, some perverse – and tries to make her way along boring life in London. Central theme of her life is the way she tries to escape everyday life; a theme not unknown when we look at the lives of James Bond and its creator, Ian Fleming. Their lives are about escaping too: balancing between boredom and adventure, between innocence and perversion, danger and safety, London and the exotic world.
Vivienne Michel is an outsider, just like James Bond: Ian Fleming repeatedly tells us that Bond doesn’t look like an Englishman, and doesn’t really behave like one too:
In this narrow-minded little English world I was considered a foreigner, an outsider, and this automatically meant that I was outlawed. That I didn’t notice this in an earlier stage, isn’t exactly to my credit. I had been blind.
The Spy Who Loved Me
In the novels and in the films, James Bond is a woman-chaser, but does that mean he’s chasing every woman? No; Bond chooses the objects of his affection with care, and is only attracted to those women who show the same urge for independence and the same spirit of individualism as him. All the women of Fleming are independent characters who make a difference. Vivienne Michel seems to be the blue-print of this classic Bond Girl, and in her melancholic longing for independence and the feeling to be truly alive, a true female counterpart of James Bond:
“Loneliness becomes a lover, solitude a darling sin.” Where did I read that before? Who wrote it down? It expressed exactly what I felt, and how I felt since I was a child, until I forced myself to ‘fit in’, and be a ‘good girl’ […] It’s just that all true individuals are lonely people. That’s no credit. On the contrary. Who wants to be a useful member of the clan, has to be able to give as well as to take. The fact that I seemed to be so much happier when I was alone, only indicated a wrong, neurotic strain.
The Spy Who Loved Me
James Bond couldn’t have said it better. The way he falls for the independent character of his Bond Girls – Vivienne Michel in The Spy Who Loved Me, Domino Vitali in Thunderball, Honey Rider in Dr. No, Tracy di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service -, the Bond Girls fall for the air of danger, of adventure and risico that hangs around him like an strange kind of eau de toilette, an air that answers to their desire to be alive, and escape the conventions and codes of everyday life.
The first sight made me groan internally. My God, I thought, another one! The man on the threshold stood stock-still, and around him hung the same dangerous tension proceeded from the other two […] He was handsome – with a whisper of cruelty in his face – and there was a whitish scar on his left cheek […] He smiled, and suddenly I got the feeling that everything would be all right after all.
The Spy Who Loved Me
In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Tracy puts it this way:
She reached out an touched his cheek. “I wouldn’t love you if you weren’t a pirate. I expect it’s in the blood. I’ll get used to it. Don’t change. I don’t want to draw your teeth like women do with their men. I want to live with you, not with somebody else. But don’t mind if I howl like a dog every now and then. Or rather like a bitch. It’s only love.”
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963
A sexist, mysoginist dinosaur?
In spite of this interesting approach of women by Ian Fleming, his novels still breath an air that is reasonably out-of-date when it comes to the relationship between men and women: apart from their independent character and urge for adventure, they in the end still get laid by James Bond in a way that isn’t always that subtle, as Richard Johnson points out in his excellent article “The Law of Bond” for HMSS.com:
The Woman – Bond relationship is clearly one of dominated / dominator. The Bond girls of Fleming’s novels are little more than objects to satisfy Bond’s sexual appetite.
Harsh language, and I must say I don’t agree with Johnson totally, for the way Fleming depicts his female characters is often – as Vivienne Michel’s character clearly shows – very original and subtle. But Johnson is right when he refers to Fleming’s quite rude way of describing the female gender in common:
All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.
The Spy Who Loved Me
But we have to remind ourselves that Fleming lived in another time, and that his novels were written more than forty years ago. The Bond films, however, are still made, and luckily they do reflect the changing attitude towards women and equality of the sexes in a better way. The women in the Bond films aren’t silent beautiful cardboards anymore, but independent woman with a character – just like the woman of Fleming always were.
Natalya: “How can you act like this, how can you be so cold?”
Bond: ‘That’s what keeps me alive.”
Natalya: “No, that’s what keeps you alone.”
Back to Bridget Jones. Of course Bridget and 007 aren’t comparable, because they both represent totally different genres. But what the diary of Vivienne Michel – the Bridget Jones of Bondism – shows us, is that although Bond is a sexist, a mysoginist dinosaur, a relic of cold war if you want, he never was the one-dimensional woman-chaser as people tend to see him. The Bond Girl has – apart from the 60s bimboism, that unfortunately returned with Denise Richard’s outing as Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough – a clear function. Of course she has to be beautiful. Of course she has to fall in Bond’s arms in the end. But through her, and through her relationship with the intruiging character of James Bond as shaped by Ian Fleming, thrilling themes can be broached. Themes that touch the very core of Bond’s existence as undertaker on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Jord Schaap © 2002