Title: A Woman Naked
Author: Christopher Priest
Collection: Real-Time World
Publisher: New English Library [now available from GrimGrin Studios – gav]
Publication Date: February 1976
Christopher Priest sold his first short story in 1966. A Woman Naked first appeared Science Fiction Monthly in 1974. Which makes it a relatively early piece. Certainly it is a far more obvious story than the novels for which Priest is now known, such as The Prestige or The Separation.
A Woman Naked is a simple but powerful story. It makes no effort to describe its world, or explain how it came about. The reader knows only “that men outnumbered women” and women are “accorded special treatment in society”. It could be our own world. Except the opening line of the story makes it clear that it is not:
“The crime was sexual promiscuity; the punishment was probation. Now she walked to the courthouse for her appeal, a woman naked.”
The protagonist of A Woman Naked is referred to using the “temporary name” Mistress L—-. Her crime was adultery: at a party, she had been given “illicitly-distilled liquor”, and then seduced. A week later, she was arrested. Someone at the party, she later realised, must have been a police informer.
The walk to the appeal is dangerous, as there is “no penalty for the rape of a woman naked”, but Mistress L— is protected by her brother. Not openly – that would be illegal; but he does his best to ensure his sister comes to no harm.
She eventually arrives at the court, to witness a young naked woman being ejected. She had lost her appeal. The procedure is explained to Mistress L—-. If her appeal is upheld – which depends entirely on whether her confession matches that of the prosecution witnesses – she will be given a “one-piece, grey dungaree, made of rough, badly-cut material” to wear when she leaves.
She enters the courtroom. “Everyone present was male.”
A Woman Naked is frightening in its simplicity, in the way it presents with no commentary, no histronics, the subjugation of a sector of society. Priest gives no argument, no justification or rationalisation, he simply recounts what happens to Mistress L—-. He describes a system so despicable the only hope of salvation for the victims requires them to collude in their victimisation. Mistress L—‘s crime is not adultery; her crime is being female, being a member of a minority that is different. The “seduction” was not the only rape she suffered; her entire life has been a violation.
And still the ordeal is not over: “She opened her mouth and started the account of her crimes. The rape had begun.”
Ian Sales is a man of many talents it seems – he is both writer and critic and you can find more about him in these places amongst others:
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