The Barbarian Princess
by Snowden Wright
Next to a table stands a beautiful woman with blond hair and a dark tan, naked except for a Confederate flag wrapped around her chest. She rests one hand on her cocked hip and with the other holds a glass of iced tea. Beneath her appear the words, “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen,” in two-toned home-style font.
That cheekily risqué image on Florence King’s 1975 guide to the South negates an old literary proverb. Some books actually should be judged by their covers.
A self-described misanthrope, conservative, and monarchist, King was born in Washington, D.C., to descendants of Virginia’s first settlers, graduated from American University with a BA in history, wrote feature stories for the Raleigh News and Observer, was dubbed the “Queen of Mean” for her column at The National Review, and, throughout her career, authored numerous pulp novels and erotica under various pseudonyms, including a toga-ripper titled The Barbarian Princess. King’s first full-length publication under her own name was Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. The book is just as satirical, fun, knowing, wry, and provocative as her bio would indicate.
The tagline on its front cover declares, “The bestseller that catches Dixie right between the sheets,” though does declare may be more apt. Written as a sort of regional guidebook, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen is what would happen if Arthur Frommer had crossed the Mason-Dixon line instead of the Atlantic, except Florence King doesn’t give two cents about what can be done on five dollars a day. She’s more interested in people. The book’s chapter titles include “Would Youall Be Good Enough to Excuse Me While I Have an Identity Crisis?” or: “The Cult of Southern Womanhood” and “I’d Be More Than Happy to Carry You Upstairs, Ma’am” or: “The Cult of Southern Manhood,” followed by ones that focus on social distinctions more specific, such as “The Poor Thing, I Bet No Man Ever Looked At Her” or: “Old and Young Maids,” “He’s a Little Funny, But He’s Nice” or: “The Gay Confederation,” and The Three Fates or: Dear Old Things, Rocks, and Dowagers.”
King clearly enjoys taking an anthropological lens to Southerners. Nonetheless it would be incorrect to claim she stereotypes them. In the Author’s Note for her follow-up, Wasp, Where Is Thy Sting? — which satirized WASP culture three years before The Official Preppy Handbook did the same — she writes, “I wish to thank all the people who wrote to me about my last book, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, to tell me that I stereotype people and to ask them please not to write me again with the same complaint.” Using informed examples, a cool head, and nary a split infinitive, she goes on to describe her intentions as “perceptive pointing-up,” an “ancient and honorable ingredient of the humorous literary genre.”
Savage in its intent but regal in its delivery, King’s pointing-up, whether coiled into a single line or sprawled across a whole chapter, can take the form of an aphorism, a joke, or a narrative. She writes of “that fine old Southern custom of bestowing the mother’s maiden name on children of either sex,” a particularly sharp dagger to the heart of a writer from Mississippi whose mother’s maiden name is Snowden. She describes the “self-rejuvenating virgin” as someone for whom “it didn’t happen” because of inebriation, lack of his climax, lack of her climax, or clothes having not been taken off. She notes the “creative selfishness that good bed sport demands.” She sums up a particular kind of matron with the quip, “The Wife of Bath is alive and well and living in Raleigh, North Carolina.” Henry James would have admired and feared a writer like Florence King. She is someone on whom nothing is lost and by whom no one should want to be found.
What keeps Southern Ladies and Gentlemen from being cruel, however, is its frequent use of first-person plural, how King, not using “they” or “you” but “us” and “we” for pronouns, includes herself with her subjects. Consider her definition of flirting in the South. “We are egocentristic, the last pre-Copernicans left. Flirting, like everything else Southerners do, is self-dramatization, a personal form of secession to assure our individuality and our determination to be the center of attention and stand out in a crowd — to make people and events revolve around us.”
The most interesting pointing-up in the book concerns the dichotomy in its title. King, who prefers to be addressed as “Miss” rather than “Ms.” and who welcomes the label of spinster, considers the South a “gynecocracy but an unofficial one.”
The sexes are psychologically reversed in the South. Underneath the veneer of the Southern male’s dominance, he is — so to speak — techy and oversensitive, a fluttery creature who lapses into hysterics whenever his ego is abraded. It is men who suffer the famous attacks of the vapors when their self-images are threatened. The Southern woman has actually played oak to his ivy—by humoring him, by letting him know, in effect, that he need not trouble his sweet, pretty, little head about such vexing matters as his ego, for it is her duty to rescue a gentleman in distress.
In her memoir, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King delves further into gender roles in the South. The book concerns her upbringing in a 1940s household that proves one of her own adages. “Families composed of rugged individualists have to do things obliquely.” King’s mother is a chain-smoking tomboy unconcerned with teaching her daughter the behavioral norms of femininity from that era. For that reason King’s grandmother, a grand dame with delusions of grandeur, takes charge, attempting to mold her granddaughter into a “Perfect Southern Lady.” An armchair academic from Britain who plays trombone in a band, King’s father is content to remain in the background, where, with his witty asides undermining his mother-in-law, with his appreciation of literature, with his quiet confidence in his own intelligence, he has a much greater, though less noticed, influence on his daughter.
Those three people form a crucible for King. Growing up “a shabby genteel Southerner” with “bottomless wells of aristocratic disdain and empty thimbles of aristocratic power,” she becomes an advocate for “that 14th Amendment of the human spirit known as ‘Everybody stinks.’” Unfortunately she is attractive. “Something told me that if I had been plug ugly or a boy, no one would have cared what I was like, but a pretty girl was supposed to be a melody, not a misanthrope.” Even her different drummer, she notes, has a different drummer.
Once King enters college, the two most interesting aspects of her character — her passion and her independence —collide in one particular activity: sex. Despite earlier, oral experiences with a boy she considered nothing more than “a mouth and a rapidly circling tongue,” King decides to lose her virginity to one of her professors, whose receptivity to the idea allows for one of her best lines: “My ruin was coming along nicely.” In addition to brief sojourns participating in and then being ousted from not just a sorority but also the Marine Corps, that goal of ruin eventually leads her to the realization, “I wanted to be an independent woman, but there was no name for it.”
If any of us had heard the word “feminist” we would have thought it meant a girl who wore too much makeup, but we were, without knowing it, feminists ourselves, bound together by the freemasonry that exists among intelligent women who know they are intelligent. It is the only kind of female bonding that works, which is why most men do not like intelligent women. They don’t mind one female brain if they can enjoy it privately; it’s the idea of two or more on the loose that upsets them.
King begins graduate school at the University of Mississippi with the expressed purpose of finding out how women of the Deep South compare to those of the Upper South. She succeeds in that purpose but not in getting a degree. During the one year she spends in Mississippi, she begins an affair with a woman named Bres, a graduate assistant in the Classics department. “The ego of the female is rarer than the male’s but much deadlier, and we both had one. We needed the I-ness of Lesbianism, the unbroken circle of self in which she was me, I was her, and we were us.” Due to the South’s “worship of femininity,” King comes to understand during her affair with Bres, “Lesbianism can emerge as conventional behavior. I doubt if there is any other place in the world where eating pussy makes a woman feel like just plain folks.”
Although the relationship eventually ends in heartbreak, it proves helpful by guiding King to a better comprehension of not just her sexuality but also her personhood, that the type of woman she strives to be is a virago, “a woman of great stature, strength, and courage who is not feminine in the conventional ways.” It is also because of the relationship that King decides to be a writer instead of an academic. Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady in that way becomes the origin story of the woman who will write Southern Ladies and Gentlemen.
Both books may leave readers questioning how their author really feels about the South. At the end of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Quentin Compson is asked why he hates the South, to which he thinks, “I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” Florence King does not hate the South. More importantly, if someone were to ask her that question, she would never sound like such a basket case saying so.
Snowden Wright’s first novel, Play Pretty Blues, was published by Engine Books in November 2013. He has written for The Atlantic, Salon, Esquire and the New York Daily News. Author of the e-book “How to Get the Crabs,” Wright can be found online at snowdenwright.com.