Ask Andronica! Biology of Transformation & Historical Discrimination

Recently I took a short break from my column and went on holiday for the first time in ages. Through my work at MI6, I travel constantly and visit many exotic locations, but my trips abroad are typically combined with murder and mayhem, so they’re usually not very relaxing. Therefore I decided to make a tour of Tuscany with an ex-almost-girlfriend who was on leave from her CIA post in Cairo (read about Cynthia herehere and here).

I think we were both hoping for a romantic holiday, but the trip was an unmitigated disaster. First of all, although she was initiated into the Sisterhood nearly three years ago, Cynthia still hasn’t got her wolf under control, a problem doubtless caused by her complete lack of mental discipline (she’s from California). Imagine a horny werewolf with Attention Deficit Syndrome and an iPhone. Every time Cynthia saw a particularly attractive ragazza on the street in Florence, she became long in the tooth. Even worse was her utter failure to appreciate the cultural splendour of Renaissance Italy – Cynthia said that she preferred The Venetian casino-hotel in Las Vegas because the room service there had “burgers” on the menu. By the end of our tour, I was beginning to regret that the Apostates hadn’t eaten her back in Libya where we first met.

To be fair, I’m sure that Cynthia was no less irritated by my company, since I was constantly reminiscing about life in the Fifteenth Century and trying to explain to her the stylistic differences between trecento and quattrocentro painting. Cynthia claims that she prefers older women, but our age gap is just too extreme. Finding someone within the werewolf community for a serious relationship is not easy. Anybody out there care to play matchmaker?

Now for this week’s questions.

Dear Lady Andronica,

As a university biology student I am, shall we say, “skeptical” about the reality of your affliction. However, as a fan of Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, I am also happy to suspend my disbelief in pursuit of some “creature” fiction, especially when the creature in question is presented sympathetically. In order to satisfy both parts of my brain, and as someone who has not yet read your book, I would like to ask about the physiological aspects of your metamorphosis. How long does it take, are you fully conscious during the process, do you benefit from pain- or memory-suppressing hormones? Thank you.

[location withheld]

Dear Peter from Nowhere,

In nearly every fictional treatment of lycanthropy, whether in film or print, great emphasis is placed on the “transformation”. Regardless of the result – bipedal or four-footed – there are endless portrayals of bones crunching, hair growing, skin stretching, and fangs tearing through bloody gums. Werewolf films are usually judged by the visual quality of their transformation effects rather than by the literary quality of their screenplays.

The basic assumption of most fiction – and indeed of your question as well – is that lycanthropy is biological in nature. Usually it is represented as a disease transmitted by bite (or unprotected sex, see Ginger Snaps), as if werewolves were suffering from something akin to a severe case of rabies. The Underworld films even promote the absurd idea that vampirism and lycanthropy both resulted from variant strains of the same virus.

With all this emphasis on biology, it is only natural that there should be such an obsession with the physical aspects of the transformation process. Our society craves scientific descriptions and wants to understand how things work. As readers of Memoirs of an Eighteenth-Century Werewolf already know, I myself was no exception to this. Following my first transformations in 1748, I too searched for a rational explanation for my condition, and initially believed that I was suffering from some kind of sexual aberration associated with puberty.

I soon learned, however, that lycanthropy is not a natural condition but a supernatural one, in the truest sense of the word. In the long-forgotten Sanctuary of the Sisterhood hidden beneath London’s ancient Roman fortifications, I discovered the truth: our ability to change from one form to the other is a gift from the Wolf Spirit, obtained by initiation and not by infection. Transformation is therefore not a biological process but a spiritual one, an act of will which manifests almost instantaneously in the physical body. Governed by the mind, it can be slowed and even stopped at mid-point, resulting in the bipedal form which some of us prefer because of its enormous capability to deal damage.

Not only is the transformation from human to wolf entirely painless, sometimes it is barely perceptible, since the consciousness of the subject transforms along with her body. During my first lycanthropic episodes, I didn’t even realise that I had changed at all, as the lupine state felt entirely natural. It was only later that I noticed the main physical symptom of the shift: loss of colour-vision as the world faded into monochrome.

Of course, there are some concomitant biological manifestations of lycanthropy, such as increased aural and visual acuity, rapid healing, and our annoying allergy to silver. As a biologist, perhaps you can investigate these phenomena from a scientific perspective, assuming that you can find a werewolf willing to assist in the experiments without eating you first.

Kind regards,
Andronica Llewellyn

Dear Lady Andronica,

You’re a werewolf, a lesbian, and over two centuries old. Which of the three makes you feel the most ostracized from society?

With curiosity and respect,
Kyle H., Los Angeles

Dear Kyle from LA,

Allow me to rephrase your question. Which form of discrimination do I find most degrading: speciesism, ageism, or homophobia? Let’s add sexism to the list too.

I don’t want this to become a rant about discrimination, since I’m sure most of us will agree that it’s a bad thing in any form (except maybe against male werewolves, because of their poor personal hygiene). So I’ll restrict my comments to my own experiences, which have varied over the years as societal attitudes have changed.

Speciesism, of course, affects everyone in the shifter community. Humans generally don’t react well when confronted by large hairy beasts with fangs and claws, especially if they are in the process of being disembowelled. Discrimination against us is therefore commonplace, and usually takes the form of mobs carrying torches and pitchforks. My own family had me burned at the stake in 1648. I got better, obviously, but it was an experience I would not care to repeat, so I learned to stay in the lycanthropic closet. Over the years, most of the humans who discovered my true nature became the main course at dinner – a kind of reverse discrimination in which I took inordinate pleasure.

Ageism has never been a major problem for me, since I don’t look a day over forty. In this respect, being a supernatural creature does have its perks. Some of us do have trouble adapting to changing times, like Livia, who didn’t leave her villa in Rome for nearly two thousand years, but within the Sisterhood she is highly respected and is certainly not looked down upon for her traditionalist views. I myself have always belonged to the progressive faction within the Sisterhood of the Wolf, perhaps because of my fascination with human culture and its ever-changing fashions. You should have seen my wardrobe in the 1960s.

Homophobia is a tricky one, because it manifests itself so differently in different places at different times. My sexuality was an open secret in eighteenth-century London, not officially tolerated (the Princess of Wales was certainly not amused), but the men of the time were so fascinated by the rumours about my bedroom company that this gave me extraordinary power over them. At the court of Frederick the Great, who himself was gay, it was unnecessary to hide my preference for female companionship, and the feeling of personal freedom I enjoyed in Prussia was exhilarating. My experience in nineteenth-century India was exactly the opposite, because the British criminalised homosexuality there in 1860, an unfortunate colonial legacy which continues in South Asia even today. (As an aside, it is worthy of note that nineteenth-century racist attitudes towards Indians were largely fostered by the wives of British officers, rather than by the officers themselves.) In any case, the long-standing public aversion to homosexuality in Britain prevented me from coming out at my workplace until just ten years ago. The leopard can change its spots, however, and today it seems like a minor miracle that same-sex marriage has been approved in all parts of UK except Northern Ireland.

Of all the forms of discrimination, sexism has affected me most through the centuries. It began with the tacit assumption on my father’s part that I would marry an English nobleman for his money, which led in no small part to the rebelliousness of my youth. Sexism in its purest form was the order of the day at the Prussian court, as Frederick the Great was an avowed misogynist. It was only after I saved his life during an assassination attempt in 1753 that he grudgingly acknowledged my worth as a human being (though of course I wasn’t one). Ironically, whilst I find it personally degrading, I have often benefitted professionally from sexism. My career as a spy at the royal courts of eighteenth-century Europe was made possible by the fact that no one believed a woman capable of understanding political or military strategies, so prime-ministers and field-marshals openly discussed their plans in my presence. Even my success as an MI6 operative during the Second World War was due in large part to the arrogance of certain Gestapo officers who didn’t suspect that an attractive Frenchwoman could intercept and decipher their encrypted correspondence.

Many of these topics are addressed in the forthcoming second volume of my autobiography. Stay tuned!

Kind regards,
Andronica Llewellyn

Attention all fans of “Ask Andronica!” Your questions have become few and far between. There are only two submissions remaining, so the next column will be my last unless you send more queries now!