Responses to my first novel, Honey, have, by and large, been generous. One criticism, however, has mortified me. Because the central character is raped and experiences orgasm, some reviewers have concluded that I am, therefore, a misogynist deluded by a common male fantasy that women enjoy rape. No one who is familiar with my plays and stories, in which, mostly, women have positive and sympathetic central roles, would ever imagine such a thing. Consider, for example, my cycle of one-woman plays.
A little background explanation is needed. The heroine of Honey is a young woman (Beatie Bryant from my play Roots, in fact) who, having been jilted by her boyfriend, finds that in the process of recovering, she has found her own voice. This self-discovery, a kind of pulling herself together, leads her to decide that education must be part of the ongoing process. She studies for her O- and A-levels and, finally, earns a place at St Hilda's, Oxford.
The novel begins when she emerges from university and embarks on a search for her purpose in life. Candide-like, she encounters people and events that fragment her; she keeps needing to put the parts together again. The rape is her final fragmenting, a trauma from which she must recover, a ruin in which she must rebuild the parts again.
It is not an obvious and violent rape, but one perpetrated by two educated young men experimenting to see if a rape can be gentle and give pleasure. They seek no self-gratification. They concoct their experiment prompted by a newspaper report about a fatal rape of the wife of a wealthy businessman by two electricians whom the couple had engaged to wire their house for floodlighting, but to whom they had not paid the bill in full.
The businessman had told them he would pay the bill less the 10 per cent he knew they had added, because it was normal practice to add 10 per cent knowing the customer would ask for that 10 per cent to be taken off; that was the way all business was conducted. The two electricians told him they didn't conduct business that way, and demanded their bill to be paid in full. The businessman refused and they decided to teach him a lesson.
They plotted to rape his wife while he was away. The rape would be easy, they thought, because they had imagined the woman's smiles, while working in the house, had been lascivious. They had misjudged her. She fought them violently and, suffering from a weak heart, died after the indignity of two entries. They were caught and sentenced to five years each for rape with violence, and a further 15 years each for manslaughter.
The two young boys argue about the significance of the incident. One thinks it's a story significant of nothing but male stupidity and bad luck. The other disagrees, claiming it is about crime and punishment, about who is to blame (had the husband honoured his bill, would his wife still be alive?), and choice: they could have chosen to burgle the house rather than rape the wife - why did they choose one rather than the other? Then there's the wife - did she or did she not cast flirtatious looks at the electricians? Had they been led on? And why did they choose to take revenge at all, rather than leave it alone and learn a lesson?
They discuss and argue until one of them suggests that, although he doesn't believe the asinine male view that the fantasy of all women is to be raped, he is intrigued to know how a woman would respond who realised that no brutality was involved. How would she respond to a "beautiful" rape? They talk themselves into actually carrying out what they think is such a rape.
The incident, as I shaped it in the novel, is based on two facts. First, the daughter of an American friend was raped by four young men with whom she successfully created a friendly, conversational, "relationship" hoping to avoid repetition and violence. She succeeded. They parted having respect for her.
Second, researching for my play Denial, about the false memory syndrome, I read about rape victims who suffered guilt because they had experienced orgasm. They were told to ignore the experience because, they were advised, the body and the mind operate on different levels - orgasm most certainly did not equal pleasure, they were informed. Indeed, a forced orgasm must be a deeply distressing experience because of the confusion it sets up. At no point in Honey was it suggested that my heroine experienced pleasure. I never would have written about rape and orgasm had it not matched actual recorded evidence from rape victims.
Although my intention was to expose Beatie to a final fragmenting from which she would need to put the parts together again, along the way I also demonstrated that, no matter how "beautifully" executed, rape remains an unacceptable violation and usurpation of sovereign privacy. A violent rape, such as the one reported in the newspaper, would have been easy to recreate in a novel and condemn, a "gentle" one less so.
The writer must never make it easy for himself.
'Honey' is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99. Arnold Wesker's play 'Chicken Soup with Barley' is playing at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020-7328 1000) to 19 NovemberReuse content