Marston published his one novel, The Private Life of Julius Caesar, in 1932, nine years before he started his Wonder Woman series.
It’s…pretty bad, honestly. Marston’s cloying prose, which can be kind of charming when sprinkled about amongst pretty pictures, is well-nigh intolerable over 300-plus pages.
“I love you dear,” she said simply, “it’s an awful funny feeling — as though you were blown up with feathers that tickle you inside from head to foot! I never felt that way before. Do — you love me — a little?”
See? Even a sentence or two is too much.
Moreover, the Mary Sue aspect of his version of Julius Caesar is gag-worthy, not to mention deadly dull. Caesar sleeps with this slave girl, Caesar saves that slave girl, Caesar fights off twenty men, Caesar pardons that evil-doer, everybody hails Caesar, and on and on. The ruthless, battle-hardened, ambitious tyrant ends up as a invincible do-gooder, motivated mostly by chivalric gallantry towards the fairer sex.
That chivalry gets at the heart of why this early Marston vision is so much more irritating than his work on Wonder Woman. In “Caesar”, as in WW, Marston is devoted to showing the superiority of all things female. Caesar himself is repeatedly described as effeminate (high voice, delicate, etc.), and that effeminacy is clearly meant to demonstrate his superiority) Further, Julius Caesar (like WW after him) is a worshipper of the God of Love (Venus, in this case), and Marston’s goal is to show that all the great things Caesar did were inspired by women. For instance, Caesar broke the strength of the pirate fleets because they captured one of his loves; he made Octavius his heir rather than Brutus at the behest of his female political advisor and lover, a British barbarian princess, etc. etc. There are other girl-power notions tossed about…for instance, it’s revealed that women are more disciplined and effective (and perhaps even stronger) galley slaves than men (is that girl power exactly? well anyway…)
But, of course, effeminate or not, and lover of women or otherwise, the protagonist is still male, and the whole “man is inspired to great deeds by woman” narrative is just a lot more tired, and a lot less feminist, than having women cut out the middle, er, man, and just do the great deeds themselves. Marston very much wants to turn chivalry into feminism — to make the case that love of and fetishization of women translates into power for women. Unfortunately, that’s just pretty much nonsense; love and fetishization are as likely as not to translate into oppression, not power…and if that weren’t true, you’d have a Julia Caesar on the throne, not a Julius.
The historical setting, in other words, is a real problem. The feminist and imaginative strength of WW, I’d argue, is that it’s aspirational — it’s a utopian vision. That freedom is what gives it its ideological force (“women can do anything!”) and its vertiginously nutty dream logic (flying octofish! gorillas evolving into apes! peace-bestowing venus girdles! etc.) In writing about actual people and events, though, Marston is more constrained…to using a male ruler, for example, rather than the numerous female ones he would sprinkle about in his WW stories. (He does have a female barbarian princess, but we don’t get to see her do much ruling.) And, you know, no seal men, or magical lassoes, or invisible airplanes, or space kangaroos, or…well, you get the idea.
Perhaps even more importantly, the historical setting is bad for Marston because dealing with the real world simply isn’t his forte. As a thoroughgoing crank, he’s best when expounding the nuttiness occurring between his ears. When it comes to real gender relations, or how people actually interact with each other in any situation, or how power actually works — he kind of doesn’t know jack. Visionaries can certainly make great visionary art…but you don’t want Henry Darger writing “The Prince.” Oh, sure, it sounds kind of fun in the abstract…but the Private Life of Julius Caesar demonstrates pretty conclusively that, in practice, it doesn’t work out so well.
Though it is a failure in most senses (aesthetically, entertainment wise, etc.), “The Private Life of Julius Caesar” does provide a couple of interesting insights into Marston’s thinking. He doesn’t like eunuchs, for example…and the utter absence of male homosexuality from a milieu in which it did in fact exist suggests, perhaps, a level of discomfort there as well. Most telling, maybe, is the lesbianism, which is a lot more explicit in this than in the WW stories. For example…
“Woman is made for love. She knows how to love, and how to be loved. Consequently, if a loving couple is composed of two women, it is perfect.”
There are several examples of such loving female couples in the book…and though there aren’t sex scenes, per se, there is at least one instance of impassioned canoodling. After reading this, it becomes very, very difficult to believe that Marston was unaware of the lesbian implications of Paradise Island, or of his other female-only communities in general. And, yes, it also suggests fairly strongly that the polyamorous relationship between Marston, his wife Elizabeth, and their live in friend Olive Byrne was a triangle that was, shall we say, aware of lesbianism as a possibility.