The Fourth Queen

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Overview

A lush historical epic, The Fourth Queen is the story of one woman’s struggle for power and love in the court of the eighteenth-century Emperor of Morocco. Poetically intense and sensual, it marks the debut of a gifted new author.

Beautiful Helen Gloag is determined to escape the cycle of poverty and early death that has destroyed so many women in her native Scotland. Barely out of her teens, she flees her hometown and sets sail for the Colonies on a ship bound for Boston. But ...

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Overview

A lush historical epic, The Fourth Queen is the story of one woman’s struggle for power and love in the court of the eighteenth-century Emperor of Morocco. Poetically intense and sensual, it marks the debut of a gifted new author.

Beautiful Helen Gloag is determined to escape the cycle of poverty and early death that has destroyed so many women in her native Scotland. Barely out of her teens, she flees her hometown and sets sail for the Colonies on a ship bound for Boston. But the ship falls prey to a band of corsairs—pirates from the Barbary coast of Africa. Helen is taken captive and sent to a procuress in Morocco, where women are sold into the slave markets of the nobility. In the procuress’s house, she is discovered by the witty, soft-hearted dwarf Microphilus, who oversees the Harem of the Emperor himself. Knowing her red hair and milky skin will enthrall his master, he takes her to Marrakech, and the imperial palace.

The Harem of the Emperor is a mysterious, voluptuous, and forbidding place, a hive of dangerous political tensions and unlikely friendships. Microphilus, himself a Scot captured by pirates as a young man, has found his fortune in the Emperor’s Harem, where he serves the Queens, including the charismatic, amazonian African empress Batoom, who is his lover. With Microphilus’s help, Helen learns to negotiate the politics of the Harem and compete for the Emperor’s favor.

Cast into the luxurious but sinister world of the Harem, Helen is at first terrified of the godlike and often cruel Emperor, but she soon becomes his favorite. Eventually, out of all the Harem women, she is chosen to become his fourth wife—the greatest of honors, since the Emperor may have hundreds of concubines but only four official wives. With her marriage, however, comes the greatest danger. Helen’s predecessor, the other “White Queen,” has succumbed to a mysterious, disfiguring illness and is slowly wasting away. Poison is the most likely cause, and Microphilus knows that Helen is destined to be the next victim.

In the Harem, hundreds of women are vying to be one of the four queens, thus setting the scene for the tragic power struggle and love story that ensue.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Inspired by true stories of 18th-century kidnappings, debut novelist Taylor produces an imaginative and bawdy romp through the harem of the emperor of Morocco. Young Helen Gloag, bound from Scotland to the colonies in 1769, is captured by pirates and brought to the slave markets of Tangiers. There, she is purchased for the emperor's harem by the dwarf Microphilus, who procures and manages the hundreds of women selected as royal chattel. Instantly smitten with Helen's pale skin and red hair, Microphilus conceals his passion for her as she learns to make her way in the languorous-and competitive-world of the harem. Initially at a loss in terms of language and culture, she is dismissed by the emperor; under the tutelage of Queen Batoom (the first of the emperor's four wives), she eventually charms him and is soon his favorite. But with favoritism comes danger: one of the other queens has succumbed to a mysterious wasting illness, and when Helen is chosen as the emperor's fourth wife, it appears that she is also doomed. Instrumental in unraveling the mystery is Microphilus, who-having long been Queen Batoom's secret lover-eventually becomes close to Helen as well, as the two take comfort in remembering their shared homeland. Alternating between third-person sections from Helen's perspective and entries in Microphilus's diary, Taylor conjures up the shimmering exoticism of the emperor's court. Most notable is the concentration on fleshy exuberance (the emperor's women must be fat, and nearly all of them, including Helen, become giddy with sex in their forced idleness). Amid all the rolling rumps and alliterative saucy sex talk, Taylor manages to tell a highly unusual and satisfying love story. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
According to Islamic law, a man may have up to four wives. In 1769, the emperor of Morocco has a harem of a thousand women, but only three wives. He sends the dwarf Microphilus, his chief eunuch, to seek out more women. On a ship bound for the American colonies, Helen Gloag, a young Scottish woman, is taken captive by Barbary pirates and brought to the slave markets of Tangiers. Knowing she will be a treasure in the harem, Microphilus buys Helen. It is not long before the emperor is enamored of Helen and chooses her to be his fourth wife. With this great honor comes grave danger. One of the other queens has mysteriously fallen ill and poison is suspected. Microphilus fears Helen will be the next victim and puts his own life in danger to find the villain. Told alternatively from the points of view of Helen and Microhilus, whose narration borders on the florid with a superfluous use of adjectives and French phrases, the story moves along predictably until the conclusion, when the true culprit is discovered. Even though the rather passive character of Helen is never fully developed (compared with Microphilus, she is merely cardboard), this debut novel holds the reader's attention with an unusual setting and intriguing cast of characters, many of whom are based on actual historical figures. Recommended for larger fiction collections.-Karen T. Bilton, Somerset Cty. Lib., Bridgewater, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Vivid details, graphic sex, and violence in yet another novel about a woman who takes on the world—in this case, an 18th-century Emperor of Morocco. British newcomer Taylor has done her research, and the story, which has some historical basis, is loaded with appropriate lingo—lots of Scottish expressions and period minutiae. Heroine Helen Gloag, however, is bonnie but not appealing. The narrative alternates between Helen and a Scottish dwarf, Microphilus, an adviser to the Emperor who believes him to be a eunuch like all the other men who have dealings with his harem. When Helen, unmarried but pregnant, flees Scotland and heads for the Colonies, she naturally hopes to make a better life for herself. But pirates attack the ship and Helen finds herself in the harem of the Emperor of Morocco. There are currently three Queens, and the harem women are competing to become the fourth. Except for Thursdays, when the Emperor selects his women for the week, the days pass in grooming, gossiping, and eating—the Emperor likes fat women, and Helen is force-fed like a goose. Her first encounter with the Emperor is a failure, but, helped by Queen Batoom, Microphilus’ lover and confidante, Helen, more a notion than a credible character, becomes an accomplished—and buxom—mistress of the sexual arts. Smitten, the Emperor makes her his fourth Queen and rewards her with sumptuous presents. As Microphilus records Helen’s progress and his own love for her, a young woman escapes, then is captured and brutally tortured, and Helen becomes violently ill. Witchcraft is suspected, but the anxious Microphilus has other suspicions. While he searches for the culprit, he tends to Helen, who hasbeen abandoned by the Emperor since her illness. More deaths follow, and Helen, finally deciding that life as a Queen isn’t all that appealing, makes other plans. Sometimes it’s not all in the details. Agent: Alice Tasman/Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400053766
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/28/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Debbie Taylor lives in Newcastle, England.

Biography

An advocate for women around the world, author Debbie Taylor has always found her experiences as a journalist informing her writing. But her first career as a psychologist must have certainly influenced her creative writing as well. After all, her first novel, never finished, was about a woman with a frontal lobe tumor. The "very bad first draft of a novel" as she calls it, was written in Africa on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

The writer, born in Cardiff, Wales, on March 5, 1969, had given up her burgeoning career as a psychologist after earning her Ph.D. in neuropsychology at University College in London, England. She had been a research fellow investigating frontal lobe deficits in brain-damaged patients. But when she was offered a permanent position, she had to decide between writing and psychology. By resigning and going to Africa, she chose writing.

Taylor's time in Botswana was the start of adventures that would not only yield reports for the United Nations, but would lead to books of fiction -- most notably, The Fourth Queen -- published in December, 2004, to critical acclaim.

Although the novel about the woman with the brain tumor was never finished, Taylor worked in such jobs as counseling Zimbabwean refugees. She was even initiated into the local Batlokwa tribe following a month-long women's initiation process.

After returning to the United Kingdom, she wrote about the initiation for The Guardian newspaper and began working full-time as an editor at New Internationalist, an award-winning monthly magazine about social issues.

During her six-year stint, she was commissioned to write State of the World reports for such United Nations organizations as UNICEF and WHO. One of these -- The State of the World's Women -- was published as a book of essays called Women: A World Report (1987).

When commissioned to write factual reports about Zimbabwe and Thailand for the WHO, Taylor wrote a novel, The Children who Sleep by the River (1989), and a book of short stories, A Tale of Two Villages .

In The Children who Sleep by the River, Taylor captures the tenor of modern Zimbabwe. The novel chronicles four generations of women, of whom one is dead and another has not yet been born.

By now Taylor was using her journalism fees to subsidize more fiction writing. In short intense periods, she wrote the early chapters of The Fourth Queen, based on the true story of a Scottish girl who was captured by Moroccan pirates in the 18th Century and ended up in the Emperor's harem.

During this time, Taylor also raised funds to write a non-fiction book about single mothers. The research took her to seven countries, where she lived for a week beside seven single mothers. The book she wrote, My Children, My Gold (1984), was short listed for the Fawcett Prize for women's writing.

When Taylor's daughter was born, she wasn't able to travel freely, so her career as a development journalist came to an end. She was living in Newcastle, and was invited to co-edit Writing Women, the long-running women's literary magazine which she developed into an annual anthology published as the Virago Book of Writing Women until 2000.

Her journalism continued to become more literary. She joined two writing workshops and started working again on her fiction. A nearly $4000 grant at this point re-ignited her stalled work on The Fourth Queen, and she completed a first draft.

In parallel with this she began planning and fundraising for a new quarterly magazine for women writers, Mslexia, which was launched in March 1999 and has now developed into an influential publication.

During these productive years, The Fourth Queen, remained untouched. Finally, in the autumn of 2001, she took out a bank loan, hired a Guest Editor and took a three-month leave-of-absence. Finally, she completed the book.

The novel is set in 1769, when, according to Islamic law, a man may have up to four wives. The emperor of Morocco has a harem of a thousand women, and is looking for a fourth wife. His chief eunuch, the dwarf Microphilus, buys Helen Gloag, a young Scottish woman, from the slave markets of Tangiers. Helen had been traveling to the American colonies on a ship that was taken captive by Barbary pirates.

It is not long before the emperor is enamored of Helen and chooses her to be his fourth wife. But with this great honor comes intense jealousy and grave danger. One of the other queens has mysteriously fallen ill and poison is suspected. Microphilus fears Helen will be the next victim and puts his own life in danger to find the villain.

Currently, Taylor is working on Hungry Ghosts, a contemporary novel about an infertile woman, Sylvia, who quits her job as a hospital pathologist to live on a Greek island. She is trying to purify her body so that she can conceive a baby. On the island Sylvia meets Martin, a secretive young vagrant builder, with whom she has a love affair and become obsessed with finding out about Martin's past.

In an article she wrote on creativity for Mslexia, she talks about "how vital it is to keep challenging your normal perceptions." She said that when her daughter received her first pair of shoes -- turquoise jellies -- she was so besotted with them that she slept with them. "If the child's job is to understand the world for the first time, the writer's job is to help us see the world with fresh eyes."

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Taylor:

"I live in a converted 18th century lighthouse overlooking the mouth of the River Tyne with the poet W.N. Herbert who I met at a martial arts class."

"My daughter, now aged ten, was conceived following two failed IVF attempts and traditional fertility treatments by witchdoctors and shamans in China, Uganda, India and Brazil."

"My first novel was written while living in a mud hut on the edge of the Okavango Desert, where I underwent a month-long initiation into the local Batlokwa tribe."

"When traveling in Africa I usually lived in the villages I was writing about. In Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe the local woman gave me a name in their language. On each occasion, when I asked what the names meant, I was told they meant ‘honey bee'. The first time this happened was strange enough. When it happened in three different countries in three different languages, it was more than strange. My real name, Deborah, is Hebrew for ‘bee'. If you have read and loved Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, it will be obvious what shape my daemon must have taken."

"I love gardening, walking, swimming. I'm a very energetic driven person and these activities are my equivalent of meditation. I hate tight clothes. My natural blondeish hair has been dyed red for 20 years. When I'm 70 I plan to crop it short and go white overnight."

"I'm addicted to goats' cheese and rocket leaves. I never get drunk, but rarely go a day without a glass of wine."

"In a previous life I was a Greek peasant. With the help of the money from The Fourth Queen we bought a derelict mountain house on the Greek island of Crete, where my next book is set. (I related some of the nightmarish experiences involved in renovating it in Heat and Dust, a column I wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper here in 2003 and 2004). In twenty years' time I plan to retire to Crete with my husband and live on olive oil and tomatoes, and ride sidesaddle on a donkey."

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    1. Hometown:
      Newcastle, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 5, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cardiff, Wales, England
    1. Education:
      B.Sc. in Psychology, University College, London; Ph.D. in Neuropsychology, University College, London

Read an Excerpt

Helen lowered the bundle she was carrying onto the floor and stared around the ship's passenger cabin. It was crammed with people, blundering about in the semidarkness, tripping over one anothers' belongings, laying claim to the strange cloth beds that hung like strings of onions from the walls.

She sank back against the wall. She'd imagined little round windows, splashed with saltwater; perhaps a few neat partitions to separate family groups. Not this creaking barn, with its slimy, swaying floor.

To stop herself crying, she closed her hands into fists and forced her nails into the flesh of her palms. She'd no one to blame but herself. If she hadn't run away, what's the worst that could have happened? Meg couldn't have stayed angry with her forever. She thought of her old box bed at home, the blankets smelling of sweet hay and woodsmoke. If she left now she'd be back at Muthill in less than a fortnight.

Below water level the only daylight came from two trapdoors with ladders leading up to the main deck. She could smell rancid butter and rotting fish, and a midden stink was already seeping from the close-stools behind the screen in the corner. Vomit nudged at the back of her throat. She had to spend the next twelve weeks in this place, buried with a hundred other souls like worms in a coffin.

She squeezed her fists tighter and her nails bit deeper. Why did she never think before she did things? Going to John Bayne's house in the middle of the night, barefoot, like a hussy. Did she expect to be treated like a lady? No wonder he'd taken her to his servants' quarters. Retching into her shawl, she blundered toward a ladder and scrambled back up toward the light.

Outside there was shouting everywhere. Men were rolling barrels toward holes in the deck or spidering high overhead in a web of ropes and poles. Others leaned over the side hauling sacks up from the skiffs bobbing far below in the water. A man with porridge skin spied her standing there, young and dazed and pretty, and started toward her grinning like a dog. Stumbling over a coil of rope, she turned and fled toward the side of the ship.

There was still time. She could persuade one of the skiffs to take her back to the Greenock quay. Leaning over the railings, she looked down at the unruly flotilla nudging at the ship's belly like puppies. She thought of hailing one and scrambling. down a rope ladder. Then what? She'd no money for the stagecoach to Perth, and no one to go with. Her traveling companions, Betty and Dougie, were still in the cabin; they'd never go back with her. There was nothing back at Muthill for them but digging neeps for a pittance for the rest of their lives: this journey to the Colonies was their only hope.

Pressed against the ship's railings, Helen felt cornered. She thought of the sturdy, well-ordered cottage she'd left behind; of her father, Muthill's blacksmith, his big kind hands and leather apron; of the gray kirk school; of the river skipping over clean pebbles by the mill. How could she have run away from all that? And the weans; and Meg, her stepmother, for all her fierceness. Meg was right to be angry with her, sneaking home with bruised lips at five in the morning. But she'd have calmed down eventually--if Helen hadn't slammed out of the cottage. And seen Betty and Dougie in the distance, setting off on the first stage of their journey to America. Now it was too late. Now she was trapped on this ship and there was no going back. Her chest tightened and panic clogged her throat.

She needed somewhere to cry; somewhere no one could see her. Climbing over a pile of lumpy sacks, she squeezed behind a stack of hen coops and crouched down out of sight. The hens jostled and pecked at one another in their cramped quarters. Helen watched a smashed egg ooze slowly out between the bars and began to feel calmer.

After a while she knelt up and peered cautiously out. Soon she noticed a small group of people boarding the ship. They must have come on a special boat because they were far too well dressed to have been ferried out with the pea sacks and cheese barrels like the other passengers. She counted five men; but it was the one woman, in a vivid green cloak, that caught her attention.

The woman was swaying slightly, as if she were going to swoon, holding onto one of the men's arms with a lace-gloved hand. The other men clustered anxiously around her and one barked an order to a passing sailor, who ran off to fetch a small folding chair.

The woman hesitated, looking down at the chair. It was a rickety little thing, with thongs strung through it for a seat. Even at this distance, Helen could tell she'd never sat on such a crude thing in her life. The woman laughed and shook her head, clearly protesting that she felt much better. Then, in a sudden change of mood, she was tugging on her husband's arm and pointing, urging him to check on the sailors who were lugging their bags onto the ship.

Kneeling in her filthy skirt, Helen watched transfixed as grown men scurried to serve the pale-haired woman in her emerald-green cloak. What must it be like to be cared for like that? After a while, the man who'd ordered the chair bowed to the group and gestured toward the upper part of the ship, clearly offering to conduct them to their quarters. Quite forgetting her distress, Helen slipped out of her hiding place and hurried across the deck after them.

"Helen! Thank God! We were afeared you'd gone over the side!" It was Betty, red-cheeked and breathless, running toward her. "Listen, we've to go down the stores with our tickets. One of they sailors said we've to get our names set down on a list before we can get our food. He said the food's not that good, but if we talk sweet to the steward, he'll maybe let us have some of what they keep for the captain's guests."

Helen started, as though jolted from sleep. She looked at Betty's scabby chin and rabbit teeth, her stained armpits and stringy hair. With a wee thump of shame, she saw the two of them on the deck together: a pair of flea-bitten peasant girls plotting for rich folks' tidbits.

Letting herself be dragged back to the rear of the ship, she ducked in through a low doorway and followed Betty along a narrow corridor and down two ladders into the very belly of the ship. It gurgled like intestines at this depth, creaking and rocking, lit here and there by lanterns that spilled unsteady stains of yellow light on the dank boards.

"Phew! It smells worse than a tinker's knob down here." Betty wrinkled her nose and squinted down the passage. "Look, down the end where those folks are waiting. That must be the steward. Here, you're the bonny one. Take these tickets and show him a bit of titty--" And she thrust three wooden tickets into Helen's hand and gave her a shove.

The steward was sitting in a pool of lamplight, unshaven and grunting. He licked a stubby forefinger and riffled through a ledger on a small table wedged between his fat knees. His wig perched on a barrel beside him and a few long, gray hairs clung to his greasy scalp. His small eyes flicked across the faces in the queue.

A few minutes later Helen was standing in front of him, holding out the tickets. At Betty's urging, she'd loosened the front of her blouse and shaken her copper curls around her face.

"Name," he grunted, dipping his quill.

"There are three of us," she said and spelled out their names while he printed them laboriously on his ledger. A fly landed on his head and staggered over the shiny skin as he wrote.

"Two lassies and a lad, eh?" He looked up and his eyes narrowed. "And is Master Douglas your sweetheart, Miss Helen?" His eyes were level with her crotch. For a split second Helen saw herself running headlong down the passageway, running and climbing into the sunlight, running and diving into clean, bright water.

"I haven't got a sweetheart." She forced her lips into a smile and swayed her hips. "I'm still looking for the right man."

"And what kind of man would that be?" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"We-e-ell," she pretended to consider. "It'd have to be a generous kind of man, one who'd take care of me and my friends. Do you know anyone like that?"

Now he was grinning broadly up at her. She could smell raw onion on his breath, see tufts of hair bristling from his nostrils. "Well, Miss Helen, I may know someone exactly fitting that description. Why don't you come back later this evening, so I can introduce you to him?"

"YOU DON'T HAVE TO RADGE HIM," whispered Betty excitedly on the way back to the cabin. "Just let him squeeze your arse, and suck on your paps a wee bit."

Helen shuddered: "I can't, Betty. Did you see his teeth? I couldn't bear to let him kiss me with that mouth of rotten pebbles."

"It won't kill you." Betty rounded on Helen. "You owe us at least that much for bringing you with us. I don't know what you're moaning on about anyway. It's only a wee cuddle."

"But I've never done anything like that before--"

"Well, aren't you the lucky one, Helen Gloag? Maybe it's about time you learned what it's like. Maybe it's about time you had to waggle your arse like the rest of us for a bit of something decent to eat!"

"I'm not whoring for anybody's vittals."

"So, I'm a whore now, am I? And what makes you think you're any better? Do you think you're the only lass as ever canoodled with John Bayne?"

"What do you mean?" Helen's forehead felt clammy.

"I mean I've seen him giving money to a lassie in Crieff--and he wasn't paying for conversation. What's the matter? Did you let him have it for nothing?"

But Helen didn't wait to hear any more. She was running down dark passages and up ladders, elbowing past people, not caring where she was going. She saw a door half-open to her left and rushed through it, slamming it behind her. And suddenly she was in a different part of the ship--quieter, cleaner--and she was standing, panting, facing three narrow doors with polished brass handles. As she stood there, one of the doors opened and a tall man stepped out.

She recognized him immediately. It was the husband of the elegant woman on the deck. "I knew I'd heard something!" he said. Then, over his shoulder to his wife: "It's just some lassie--lost her way by the looks of it. I thought you were the cabin boy with our tea," he explained to Helen with a smile.

Then a thought struck him and he took a coin from his waistcoat. "Could you go and hurry him up? My wife claims she's dying of thirst." And he put the coin into her hand and closed the door in her face.

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First Chapter

Helen lowered the bundle she was carrying onto the floor and stared around the ship's passenger cabin. It was crammed with people, blundering about in the semidarkness, tripping over one anothers' belongings, laying claim to the strange cloth beds that hung like strings of onions from the walls.

She sank back against the wall. She'd imagined little round windows, splashed with saltwater; perhaps a few neat partitions to separate family groups. Not this creaking barn, with its slimy, swaying floor.

To stop herself crying, she closed her hands into fists and forced her nails into the flesh of her palms. She'd no one to blame but herself. If she hadn't run away, what's the worst that could have happened? Meg couldn't have stayed angry with her forever. She thought of her old box bed at home, the blankets smelling of sweet hay and woodsmoke. If she left now she'd be back at Muthill in less than a fortnight.

Below water level the only daylight came from two trapdoors with ladders leading up to the main deck. She could smell rancid butter and rotting fish, and a midden stink was already seeping from the close-stools behind the screen in the corner. Vomit nudged at the back of her throat. She had to spend the next twelve weeks in this place, buried with a hundred other souls like worms in a coffin.

She squeezed her fists tighter and her nails bit deeper. Why did she never think before she did things? Going to John Bayne's house in the middle of the night, barefoot, like a hussy. Did she expect to be treated like a lady? No wonder he'd taken her to his servants' quarters. Retching into her shawl, she blundered toward a ladder and scrambled back up toward thelight.

Outside there was shouting everywhere. Men were rolling barrels toward holes in the deck or spidering high overhead in a web of ropes and poles. Others leaned over the side hauling sacks up from the skiffs bobbing far below in the water. A man with porridge skin spied her standing there, young and dazed and pretty, and started toward her grinning like a dog. Stumbling over a coil of rope, she turned and fled toward the side of the ship.

There was still time. She could persuade one of the skiffs to take her back to the Greenock quay. Leaning over the railings, she looked down at the unruly flotilla nudging at the ship's belly like puppies. She thought of hailing one and scrambling. down a rope ladder. Then what? She'd no money for the stagecoach to Perth, and no one to go with. Her traveling companions, Betty and Dougie, were still in the cabin; they'd never go back with her. There was nothing back at Muthill for them but digging neeps for a pittance for the rest of their lives: this journey to the Colonies was their only hope.

Pressed against the ship's railings, Helen felt cornered. She thought of the sturdy, well-ordered cottage she'd left behind; of her father, Muthill's blacksmith, his big kind hands and leather apron; of the gray kirk school; of the river skipping over clean pebbles by the mill. How could she have run away from all that? And the weans; and Meg, her stepmother, for all her fierceness. Meg was right to be angry with her, sneaking home with bruised lips at five in the morning. But she'd have calmed down eventually--if Helen hadn't slammed out of the cottage. And seen Betty and Dougie in the distance, setting off on the first stage of their journey to America. Now it was too late. Now she was trapped on this ship and there was no going back. Her chest tightened and panic clogged her throat.

She needed somewhere to cry; somewhere no one could see her. Climbing over a pile of lumpy sacks, she squeezed behind a stack of hen coops and crouched down out of sight. The hens jostled and pecked at one another in their cramped quarters. Helen watched a smashed egg ooze slowly out between the bars and began to feel calmer.

After a while she knelt up and peered cautiously out. Soon she noticed a small group of people boarding the ship. They must have come on a special boat because they were far too well dressed to have been ferried out with the pea sacks and cheese barrels like the other passengers. She counted five men; but it was the one woman, in a vivid green cloak, that caught her attention.

The woman was swaying slightly, as if she were going to swoon, holding onto one of the men's arms with a lace-gloved hand. The other men clustered anxiously around her and one barked an order to a passing sailor, who ran off to fetch a small folding chair.

The woman hesitated, looking down at the chair. It was a rickety little thing, with thongs strung through it for a seat. Even at this distance, Helen could tell she'd never sat on such a crude thing in her life. The woman laughed and shook her head, clearly protesting that she felt much better. Then, in a sudden change of mood, she was tugging on her husband's arm and pointing, urging him to check on the sailors who were lugging their bags onto the ship.

Kneeling in her filthy skirt, Helen watched transfixed as grown men scurried to serve the pale-haired woman in her emerald-green cloak. What must it be like to be cared for like that? After a while, the man who'd ordered the chair bowed to the group and gestured toward the upper part of the ship, clearly offering to conduct them to their quarters. Quite forgetting her distress, Helen slipped out of her hiding place and hurried across the deck after them.

"Helen! Thank God! We were afeared you'd gone over the side!" It was Betty, red-cheeked and breathless, running toward her. "Listen, we've to go down the stores with our tickets. One of they sailors said we've to get our names set down on a list before we can get our food. He said the food's not that good, but if we talk sweet to the steward, he'll maybe let us have some of what they keep for the captain's guests."

Helen started, as though jolted from sleep. She looked at Betty's scabby chin and rabbit teeth, her stained armpits and stringy hair. With a wee thump of shame, she saw the two of them on the deck together: a pair of flea-bitten peasant girls plotting for rich folks' tidbits.

Letting herself be dragged back to the rear of the ship, she ducked in through a low doorway and followed Betty along a narrow corridor and down two ladders into the very belly of the ship. It gurgled like intestines at this depth, creaking and rocking, lit here and there by lanterns that spilled unsteady stains of yellow light on the dank boards.

"Phew! It smells worse than a tinker's knob down here." Betty wrinkled her nose and squinted down the passage. "Look, down the end where those folks are waiting. That must be the steward. Here, you're the bonny one. Take these tickets and show him a bit of titty--" And she thrust three wooden tickets into Helen's hand and gave her a shove.

The steward was sitting in a pool of lamplight, unshaven and grunting. He licked a stubby forefinger and riffled through a ledger on a small table wedged between his fat knees. His wig perched on a barrel beside him and a few long, gray hairs clung to his greasy scalp. His small eyes flicked across the faces in the queue.

A few minutes later Helen was standing in front of him, holding out the tickets. At Betty's urging, she'd loosened the front of her blouse and shaken her copper curls around her face.

"Name," he grunted, dipping his quill.

"There are three of us," she said and spelled out their names while he printed them laboriously on his ledger. A fly landed on his head and staggered over the shiny skin as he wrote.

"Two lassies and a lad, eh?" He looked up and his eyes narrowed. "And is Master Douglas your sweetheart, Miss Helen?" His eyes were level with her crotch. For a split second Helen saw herself running headlong down the passageway, running and climbing into the sunlight, running and diving into clean, bright water.

"I haven't got a sweetheart." She forced her lips into a smile and swayed her hips. "I'm still looking for the right man."

"And what kind of man would that be?" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"We-e-ell," she pretended to consider. "It'd have to be a generous kind of man, one who'd take care of me and my friends. Do you know anyone like that?"

Now he was grinning broadly up at her. She could smell raw onion on his breath, see tufts of hair bristling from his nostrils. "Well, Miss Helen, I may know someone exactly fitting that description. Why don't you come back later this evening, so I can introduce you to him?"



"YOU DON'T HAVE TO RADGE HIM," whispered Betty excitedly on the way back to the cabin. "Just let him squeeze your arse, and suck on your paps a wee bit."

Helen shuddered: "I can't, Betty. Did you see his teeth? I couldn't bear to let him kiss me with that mouth of rotten pebbles."

"It won't kill you." Betty rounded on Helen. "You owe us at least that much for bringing you with us. I don't know what you're moaning on about anyway. It's only a wee cuddle."

"But I've never done anything like that before--"

"Well, aren't you the lucky one, Helen Gloag? Maybe it's about time you learned what it's like. Maybe it's about time you had to waggle your arse like the rest of us for a bit of something decent to eat!"

"I'm not whoring for anybody's vittals."

"So, I'm a whore now, am I? And what makes you think you're any better? Do you think you're the only lass as ever canoodled with John Bayne?"

"What do you mean?" Helen's forehead felt clammy.

"I mean I've seen him giving money to a lassie in Crieff--and he wasn't paying for conversation. What's the matter? Did you let him have it for nothing?"

But Helen didn't wait to hear any more. She was running down dark passages and up ladders, elbowing past people, not caring where she was going. She saw a door half-open to her left and rushed through it, slamming it behind her. And suddenly she was in a different part of the ship--quieter, cleaner--and she was standing, panting, facing three narrow doors with polished brass handles. As she stood there, one of the doors opened and a tall man stepped out.

She recognized him immediately. It was the husband of the elegant woman on the deck. "I knew I'd heard something!" he said. Then, over his shoulder to his wife: "It's just some lassie--lost her way by the looks of it. I thought you were the cabin boy with our tea," he explained to Helen with a smile.

Then a thought struck him and he took a coin from his waistcoat. "Could you go and hurry him up? My wife claims she's dying of thirst." And he put the coin into her hand and closed the door in her face.



BETTY FOUND HER, HOURS LATER, shivering, wedged again behind the hen coops on the deck. A sea mist had risen and the timbers were dark and wet.

"They've pulled up the anchor," said Betty, taking her hand. "D'ye want to say good-bye to Scotland?"

Copyright© 2003 by Debbie Taylor
Read More Show Less

Introduction

When Helen Gloag storms out of her father’s cottage and heads for the coast, her plan is simple: an escape from Scotland, a pleasant sea voyage, a new start in the American Colonies. Yet what begins as an adolescent rebellion quickly turns into the stuff of nightmares. The grueling poverty and desperation Helen had hoped to escape by leaving home is magnified ten-fold in the hold of the ship, where illness and starvation run rampant. Then one day, Helen makes a startling and useful discovery about the gross stratification of society: while she and the other passengers wrestle for scraps in the squalid pestilence of the ship’s belly, the captain’s silk-clad guests enjoy claret and crumpets above-deck. The germ of a resolution takes hold in Helen’s mind. She will do whatever it takes to become a proper lady, with gorgeous clothes and sumptuous food, soft hands and idle days. Helen has no idea just how soon her wish will come true—and what a bizarre and devastating price she will pay for it. This guide is designed to direct your reading group’s discussion of The Fourth Queen.

Read More Show Less

Foreword

1. The first time we meet Helen, she is dismayed that conditions on the ship are not how she had imagined them. Rather than “little round windows, splashed with saltwater… a few neat partitions to separate family groups,” she finds a filthy, pestilent debacle. Only then does she realize that her decision to run away has been rash. Does Helen continue to act impetuously in the rest of the novel, or does she learn from this one horrible mistake?

2. Fijil waxes rhapsodic on “God’s penchant for the crooked.” He feels that he has found his niche among God’s “cock-eyed creations.” He writes, “In this Land of Giants I am the runt pup escaped from the drowning sack. In my darker hours I muse on the motives of our Good Shepherd for hauling my sack, and others like it, from the river.” What does he conclude? How would you compare Fijil’s self-esteem with that of Helen? Batoom? The Emperor? Is this a real faith in the divine he alludes to, or is he only joking?

3. Fijil describes power in the harem as “wielded constantly downward, like a very waterfall of tyranny, from the Emperor at the apex, inexorably down through the hierarchy of wives and slaves… ” Where do Fijil, Malia, and the three Queens fall in this hierarchy? Which characters wield power without the Emperor’s knowledge? Fijil and Malia could easily blackmail each other with secret knowledge—what stops them? Discuss how Helen’s role in the hierarchy shifts throughout the novel.

4. Analyzing the Emperor’s hunger for riches, Fijil observes that “a man whose vocation is Accumulation often looks onthat which he has accumulated with a sort of repugnance. Once a thing has been purchased it loses much of its value, much as the food, once chewed and swallowed, becomes a loathsome wet bolus contaminated with gall juices of the foulest kind. Thus the very Act of Consumption degrades that which it consumes.” Discuss hunger as a recurring theme in the novel, including hunger for money, sex, power, home, freedom, belonging, acceptance. Which characters are able to satisfy their hunger? In which cases does Fijil’s theory—that “once a thing has been purchased it loses much of its value”—hold true?

5. The author conveys a pivotal shift in Helen’s self-perception and heralds a major plot twist, with the introduction of a simple object—a purple dress—and the sentence, “And one day, when she’d scrubbed herself thoroughly and washed her hair, and the Bairds were off playing cards in the captain’s quarters, she decided to try it on.” What are the ramifications of Helen wearing the purple dress at the moment the ship is captured? What does the dress represent to her? How does it function as a sign that Helen is ready to dump her friends Betty and Dougie if a better opportunity comes along? What is ironic about this episode?

6. The Fourth Queen is Helen’s story. Yet Batoom is arguably the heroine of the novel. Do you agree? Why or why not?

7. The first time Helen is chosen for the Emperor’s bed, Fijil feels like a pimp: “She is his: every curl, every eyelash. And I am his Pimp, with his emerald, my Pimp’s wages, in my pocket.” Forty-eight chapters later, during one of Helen’s last visits to the Emperor, Fijil again calls himself “a most superlative pimp.” Why is his meaning completely different this time? Why does this second episode mark a turning point in Fijil’s life?

8. The harem is described as a claustrophobic, walled maze of “fripperies and cloying oils,” dulled by “a terrible ennui.” Fijil writes: “It’s all slippers here, you see, night and day: shuffling along down at heel, as if there were no tomorrow, as if each destination were of like importance (by which I mean of no importance) and each appointment equally pressing (by which I mean not pressing in the least). What projects do Naseem, Lungile, Batoom, and Douvia use to circumvent the boredom of the harem and create exciting interior lives for themselves—as well as a vision of the future? Why is Helen unable to employ this trick?

9. The extent of the Emperor’s cruelty is woven subtly into the novel. Douvia’s torture, the maiming of servants, the dismissal of unwanted women, and so on, are dropped casually into the text. Why do you think the author uses this method to unveil the character of the Emperor?

10. At what point do you realize that Helen is ruthlessly self-preserving? Does this make you like her more or less? Why do you think she loses her sense of caution after becoming the Emperor’s favorite, since she can clearly see the dangers inherent in becoming queen? Is her recklessness based on naiveté, or does she have a self-destructive streak?

11. Fijil, Batoom, Naseem, Lungile, even Malia, view the world outside the harem with hope, longing, and memories that are fond even if they are painful. But for Helen, “Thinking of the outside world made her feel edgy, like being reminded of an important chore she’d forgotten.” How do you account for this difference? What is Helen escaping by embracing life in the harem?

12. Discuss Fijil’s motto about our human capacity to collude with tyrants: “By donning clean garments and a winning smile, a monster may monster unmolested forever. And we will be dazzled by the white of his linens, and rub our eyes, and sigh with relief that the shadows have receded. And forget his dark deeds. And so become culpable, too.”

13. After Naseem’s grisly death—which Helen chooses to see as merely a disappearance—Helen stops seeing Fijil. “Since the Berber died, she seems to feel my very presence as an irritant… she will not, will not, look at me…she has left nary a chink in the tight armor of her days… Nothing can pierce the quilts of her satisfaction.” Why?

14. Fijil catches on to the true lesson behind his precious button when he states, “I have had my true mother in my pocket all along, but I never saw it before, so caught up have I been with the false one who threw me away.” What decision does this epiphany prompt? Why does he revisit the lesson of the button right before he leaves the harem? What’s the significance of his comment, “ I have retrieved my button and placed it on my table, with its sheen down and its dull surface uppermost. Love is in the bone of a person. There is no pearly gleam; naught to see at all save with the mind’s eye”? Do you think he is truly finished with Helen at this point?

15. Why is Helen so enchanted by Melissa’s helplessness? How do you think her adventure would have been different had Helen not met the Bairds on the ship?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. The first time we meet Helen, she is dismayed that conditions on the ship are not how she had imagined them. Rather than “little round windows, splashed with saltwater… a few neat partitions to separate family groups,” she finds a filthy, pestilent debacle. Only then does she realize that her decision to run away has been rash. Does Helen continue to act impetuously in the rest of the novel, or does she learn from this one horrible mistake?

2. Fijil waxes rhapsodic on “God’s penchant for the crooked.” He feels that he has found his niche among God’s “cock-eyed creations.” He writes, “In this Land of Giants I am the runt pup escaped from the drowning sack. In my darker hours I muse on the motives of our Good Shepherd for hauling my sack, and others like it, from the river.” What does he conclude? How would you compare Fijil’s self-esteem with that of Helen? Batoom? The Emperor? Is this a real faith in the divine he alludes to, or is he only joking?

3. Fijil describes power in the harem as “wielded constantly downward, like a very waterfall of tyranny, from the Emperor at the apex, inexorably down through the hierarchy of wives and slaves… ” Where do Fijil, Malia, and the three Queens fall in this hierarchy? Which characters wield power without the Emperor’s knowledge? Fijil and Malia could easily blackmail each other with secret knowledge—what stops them? Discuss how Helen’s role in the hierarchy shifts throughout the novel.

4. Analyzing the Emperor’s hunger for riches, Fijil observes that “a man whose vocation is Accumulation often looks on that which he has accumulated with a sort of repugnance. Once a thing has been purchased it loses much of its value, much as the food, once chewed and swallowed, becomes a loathsome wet bolus contaminated with gall juices of the foulest kind. Thus the very Act of Consumption degrades that which it consumes.” Discuss hunger as a recurring theme in the novel, including hunger for money, sex, power, home, freedom, belonging, acceptance. Which characters are able to satisfy their hunger? In which cases does Fijil’s theory—that “once a thing has been purchased it loses much of its value”—hold true?

5. The author conveys a pivotal shift in Helen’s self-perception and heralds a major plot twist, with the introduction of a simple object—a purple dress—and the sentence, “And one day, when she’d scrubbed herself thoroughly and washed her hair, and the Bairds were off playing cards in the captain’s quarters, she decided to try it on.” What are the ramifications of Helen wearing the purple dress at the moment the ship is captured? What does the dress represent to her? How does it function as a sign that Helen is ready to dump her friends Betty and Dougie if a better opportunity comes along? What is ironic about this episode?

6. The Fourth Queen is Helen’s story. Yet Batoom is arguably the heroine of the novel. Do you agree? Why or why not?

7. The first time Helen is chosen for the Emperor’s bed, Fijil feels like a pimp: “She is his: every curl, every eyelash. And I am his Pimp, with his emerald, my Pimp’s wages, in my pocket.” Forty-eight chapters later, during one of Helen’s last visits to the Emperor, Fijil again calls himself “a most superlative pimp.” Why is his meaning completely different this time? Why does this second episode mark a turning point in Fijil’s life?

8. The harem is described as a claustrophobic, walled maze of “fripperies and cloying oils,” dulled by “a terrible ennui.” Fijil writes: “It’s all slippers here, you see, night and day: shuffling along down at heel, as if there were no tomorrow, as if each destination were of like importance (by which I mean of no importance) and each appointment equally pressing (by which I mean not pressing in the least). What projects do Naseem, Lungile, Batoom, and Douvia use to circumvent the boredom of the harem and create exciting interior lives for themselves—as well as a vision of the future? Why is Helen unable to employ this trick?

9. The extent of the Emperor’s cruelty is woven subtly into the novel. Douvia’s torture, the maiming of servants, the dismissal of unwanted women, and so on, are dropped casually into the text. Why do you think the author uses this method to unveil the character of the Emperor?

10. At what point do you realize that Helen is ruthlessly self-preserving? Does this make you like her more or less? Why do you think she loses her sense of caution after becoming the Emperor’s favorite, since she can clearly see the dangers inherent in becoming queen? Is her recklessness based on naiveté, or does she have a self-destructive streak?

11. Fijil, Batoom, Naseem, Lungile, even Malia, view the world outside the harem with hope, longing, and memories that are fond even if they are painful. But for Helen, “Thinking of the outside world made her feel edgy, like being reminded of an important chore she’d forgotten.” How do you account for this difference? What is Helen escaping by embracing life in the harem?

12. Discuss Fijil’s motto about our human capacity to collude with tyrants: “By donning clean garments and a winning smile, a monster may monster unmolested forever. And we will be dazzled by the white of his linens, and rub our eyes, and sigh with relief that the shadows have receded. And forget his dark deeds. And so become culpable, too.”

13. After Naseem’s grisly death—which Helen chooses to see as merely a disappearance—Helen stops seeing Fijil. “Since the Berber died, she seems to feel my very presence as an irritant… she will not, will not, look at me…she has left nary a chink in the tight armor of her days… Nothing can pierce the quilts of her satisfaction.” Why?

14. Fijil catches on to the true lesson behind his precious button when he states, “I have had my true mother in my pocket all along, but I never saw it before, so caught up have I been with the false one who threw me away.” What decision does this epiphany prompt? Why does he revisit the lesson of the button right before he leaves the harem? What’s the significance of his comment, “ I have retrieved my button and placed it on my table, with its sheen down and its dull surface uppermost. Love is in the bone of a person. There is no pearly gleam; naught to see at all save with the mind’s eye”? Do you think he is truly finished with Helen at this point?

15. Why is Helen so enchanted by Melissa’s helplessness? How do you think her adventure would have been different had Helen not met the Bairds on the ship?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 14, 2009

    One of my faves!

    This is a very engaging story of life as it is lived in a harem. That this book honestly portrays the full sized nature of the women is refreshing and historically accurate. It is not a distracting element except to the very shallow. This a good read that i thoroughly enjoyed.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2008

    Let Down

    Up until the last page, I LOVED this book. I could not put it down. However, after reading the last page, I found myself examining the binding to make sure none of the pages fell out. Hopefully this means there is a sequel.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2006

    thoroughly enjoyed it

    Anyone who says this is 'all about fat people' missed the whole point of the book. Maybe you should go back and read it again! My only problem was the ending~it just ended, leaving you hanging. I hope there is another book in the works I would love to know what happens!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2005

    not good

    this book was all about fat people i couldnt care less not that anything is wrong with that but come onn if you want to read about a harem read harem not this novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2005

    Thoroughly Enjoyable!

    I could not put this book down! The diverse characters and storylines kept you intrigued right to the end.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2004

    Couldn't Put this Book Down

    Thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Two characters tell the story, each with alternate chapters - Helen a Scottish 19 year old who flees her village, and the Chief Eunuch of the Harem - a dwarf named Microphilius. There are eclectic characters in this book that live such interesting lives. I found the story to be very believable and fascinating. Filled with love, tragedy, lust, hope, mystery, friendship, terror, betrayal and truth throughout the pages. An exciting story definitely worth the read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2004

    A HUGE disappointment

    I got this book because I saw it was recommended from a bn book club online, but it was far from being anything memorable. You dont know whether its a love story or just another trashy romance novel. I can see where the author tries to show her obvious knowledge on the culture, but its still lacking some substance, some depth. Its one of those books, which you feel youve wasted time in reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2004

    I Enjoyed It !

    Wow! I'm surprised by the total disappointment of the other reviews. I enjoyed this book. I particularly liked the diversity of the characters, ...Helen the Scottish girl captured, sold then to become wife of the Emperor; Microphilus the dwarf who overseas the Harem; Malia the crone who knows all that goes on inside the Harem and Batoom the Black Queen, to mention a few. I was pleasantly surprised by the bit of mystery within the story. I would read other books by this author and look forward to what I imagine will be the continuation of this one since there were a few threads to the story line left unfinished.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2004

    Don't read it!

    I chose this book for our first bookclub meeting due to the fact it was recommended by B&N--it was highly dissapointing. Most people didn't even finish, whereas those who did had nothing at all to say about it. It's one of those books that you forget the second you finish it. I would not recommend it to anyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2003

    PEEEEEEEEEEEEWW

    THE worst book i've read.Polt skips way to much....and very confusing!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2003

    Disappointing

    I was very disappointed with this book. It had potential to be a great novel, but I found it trashy and vulgar. I normally will not criticize the author's choice of material or the writing style, but I thought this book was just plain bad. I am amazed that it has been given so much press.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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