Fans of Robert E. Howard frequently find themselves having to correct all manner of misapprehensions about him and his literary output. Two such misapprehensions concern Howard's portrayal of women characters and the mistaken belief that the man from Cross Plains had anything to do with the character of Red Sonja. About the latter, very little needs to be said, as it's a fact of history that REH did not create the chainmail bikini-wearing Hyrkanian swordswoman, who made her first appearance in the pages of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian comic book in the early 70s. It's true that Howard did create a female character named Sonya of Rogatino for a single story called "The Shadow of the Vulture" (published in 1934), but this Red Sonya hails from the 16th century, not the Hyborian Age, and her prowess with pistol and blade stems from skill rather than a divine blessing.
The question of Howard's portrayal of women characters is a complex one, but I think it's fair to say that, much like his male characters, his primary agenda was spinning a good yarn. Consequently, his females are what he felt they needed to be in order to tell the kind of story he wished to tell. Many were mere accessories to male protagonists, yes, but there are multiple examples to the contrary. Indeed, I think Howard deserves far more praise than he often gets for his female characters, both in the Conan stories -- Bêlit and Valeria, for example -- and elsewhere. When he wished to do so, he could create female characters every bit as real and multifaceted as his male characters.
Which brings me to Agnes de Chastillon, better known as Dark Agnes. Though created in the 1930s and the protagonist of three short stories (two complete and one not), she never appeared in print until 1975. Later in the same decade, these three two stories, the last of which was completed by Gerald Page based on Howard's synopsis, were collected together in the paperback volume depicted with this post. As depicted in her first story, "Sword Woman," Agnes is a Frenchwoman about to be married off to a man she does not love by her father, a former mercenary, who beats her when she shows signs of wishing to defy his plans.
Unbowed, Agnes kills her husband-to-be on their wedding day and flees her father, hoping to make her own way in the world. She eventually makes the acquaintance of Etienne Villiers, who offers to help her find work so that she might not starve. Of course, the work Villiers has in mind is prostitution and Agnes soon makes him regret his intentions, nearly beating him to death in her anger. Agnes nevertheless forgives Villiers and meets another man, Guiscard de Clisson, who teaches her to use a sword so that she might better defend herself in the future. She takes to the blade with astounding speed and then attempts to join Guiscard's mercenary company as a soldier. What happens next sets the stage for the short stories that follow.
Dark Agnes provides quite a counterpoint to Red Sonja, being an independent, capable swordswoman with a plausible backstory rather than being a mere vehicle for titillation. It's worth noting that Howard thought enough of Agnes that he sent his drafts to C.L. Moore, creator of Jirel of Joiry, to get her opinion. Moore was quite enthusiastic about Agnes, according to a letter she wrote to REH in January 1935. In addition, Howard goes to some lengths in "Sword Woman" to have male characters note that a female mercenary, while not the norm, was nevertheless not without precedent. As written, Agnes is remarkably believable -- not your typical "warrior woman," with all the pathologies that implies but rather simply a woman who wishes to be treated as an equal by men and women alike, a person who wishes to forge her own destiny.
It's a pity that Agnes de Chastillon is not better known among aficionados of pulp fiction, as she's an interesting character who ably demonstrates Robert E. Howard's remarkable skill as a writer. Fortunately, her stories will be included in a new volume of the Del Rey REH library in 2011. Here's hoping Agnes, along with some of Howard's "lesser" characters, will soon become enjoy the readership they deserve.