Trouble in Faerie Land – Part 3: Searching for Duessa in “Troubled Blood”

by Dr. Beatrice Groves



On the Spring equinox, March 20, 2020, Rowling put an image of Spenser’s Florimell up on her Twitter header:


This is a print of the Faerie Queene JKR published on Twitter

Florimell from Walter Crane’s 1896 celebrated Arts and Crafts edition of The Faerie Queene


In response, I wrote up my hope that this might mean that The Faerie Queene would provide the epigraphs for Troubled Blood, and Rowling liked a tweet to that blog (confirming that I might be on the right track). As it turned out, the brutality endured by Florimell – a woman who spends almost the whole of her time either fleeing from or suffering from male violence – does indeed point to a major theme in Troubled Blood. But Florimell is important to Troubled Blood in a more subtle way too. Florimell has a shadow-twin – False Florimell – and as such, she is an example of the way in which Spenser, like Rowling, is drawn to doppelgängers. Both writers use identical doubles to explore the difficulties that beset moral interpretation, and the false and true Florimell are a tempting parallel for the false and true Mad-Eye Moody (for the Florimell, likewise, is trapped for the whole of Book 4 without anyone realizing she has been kidnapped since everyone – as with Moody – has been tricked by her doppelgänger).

One reason that we might guess (even prior to publication) that this aspect of Florimell’s story revealed something about Troubled Blood is that within the structuring of the Strike series Troubled Blood is paired with Career of Evil. Troubled Blood was, therefore, likely to contain a serial killer and extreme violence against women (both of which turned out to be correct). We might also have expected, as the Florimell/False Florimell parallel suggests, that the murderer – as they do in Career of Evil – will appear in two guises. In Career of Evil, there were clear Jekyll and Hyde parallels to the gentle man held to view and the monster lurking within (and Jekyll and Hyde, as I have argued elsewhere, is a story that has also long influenced Rowling). The central doppelgängers of The Faerie Queene, however, are women: Florimell/False Florimell and Una/Duessa. So the Spenser parallels in Troubled Blood suggest that this time the two-faced murderer will be female.

The Faerie Queene epigraphs nudge the reader to search for Duessa – the most famous malevolent figure in Spenser’s poem. As Nick Jeffery noticed prior to publication, the title of Troubled Blood is drawn from a passage about Una and Redcrosse in The Faerie Queene (a passage which also turns up as the epigraph to Chapter 64). Una (whose name tells us she personifies unity and truth) is the heroine of the opening book of The Faerie Queene, while Duessa (whose name points to her duplicity and doubleness) is her shadow twin. Duessa is created by the enchanter Archimago in order to trick the Redcrosse knight (whose name tells us he is England – alluding to the red cross of the English flag). Book 1 of The Faerie Queene is the Book of Holiness, but while the Redcrosse knight should be pursuing holiness by questing with Una (whose name figures the One True Church – which, for Spenser, means Protestantism), he dallies instead with Duessa (who is a personification of the Catholic Church, the Whore of Babylon, and – in Book 5 – Mary Queen of Scots). In Book 1, Spenser’s views about England’s insufficient reformation are played out in a heavy-handed allegory as Redcrosse strays from Una’s side (the True Church), tempted thence by Duessa (Catholicism).

Una is, in fact, named in the text of Troubled Blood – and not only in the epigraphs. Margot’s friend Oonagh explains she used to be called “Bunny Una” (264) because the punters could not pronounce her name. Oonagh is one of the few people in Troubled Blood (who was an adult in 1974) who the reader is certain had nothing to do with Margot’s disappearance. Oonagh, however, does herself form a “double” for Margot, being one of the women who is mistaken for her on the night she disappears. This moment marks out the way that Oonagh is Una within the novel – both a true friend and a moral center – for at that moment, she was entering a church and experiencing the most epiphanic moment of any character in any Strike novel: “’I was being called,’ said Oonagh simply” (279). And Oonagh followed through on this calling – she is now an Anglican priest (a neat parallel to the way in which Una figures the Protestant church in Spenser’s poem). At the moment, when Margot set off to meet “Una” on that fateful night, however, she was waylaid by “Duessa.”

Rowling/Galbraith gives two brilliant cratylic clues as to whom this “Duessa” might be. The first is that, as Elizabeth Baird Hardy explores, there is sotto voce pun on Janice, and the name of the most famous two-faced figure of all: Janus. (In a deeply satisfying Harry Potter crossover, Rowling’s literally two-faced character – Professor Quirinus Quirrell – is also named after Janus, for the god was sometimes known as Janus Quirinus.) The cratylic clue in Troubled Blood draws on the epigraphs (the feature which encourages the reader to look for a “Duessa” figure in the first place). Spenser’s name is a rare variant spelling of the more common surname “Spencer,” and hence, the killer “Spenser” clue is to draw the reader’s attention to a seemingly minor character: Clare Spencer. The Athorn’s social worker is mentioned in Chapter 38 and interviewed for the whole of Chapter 42, and – as John Granger has pointed out – Rowling/Galbraith’s murder mysteries usually reveal the murderer in the story center. Rowling keeps to her modus operandi here, placing Clare Spencer squarely at the mid-point of the novel but also cleverly varies her usual structure as we do not meet “Janice” here but a seemingly minor character whom we have no reason to suspect. (There are suspicious aspects to Clare Spencer however – neither returning a non-urgent call on a weekend nor using the phrase “well, not to put too fine a point on it, we think he was pimping her out” [504] are what we might call trademark social worker behaviors.)

Duessa remains a background presence throughout Troubled Blood with a number of The Faerie Queene epigraphs drawn from the Una/Duessa/Redcrosse storyline. But the reader is also nudged to watch out for Duessa via the lurid connections made between the murderer and the Whore of Babylon. The Whore of Babylon is famously described in the Book of Revelation:

So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon The Great, The Mother Of Harlots And Abominations Of The Earth.”
(Revelation, 17:3–5, King James Version)

Bill Talbot’s astrology driven breakdown of the secret to Margot’s murder is linked to this apocalyptic imagery from Revelation. Talbot comes to the Whore of Babylon via Aleister Crowley’s rewriting of her as Babalon, the Mother of Abominations (also known as the “Scarlet Woman” or “sacred whore”). Just like the biblical Whore of Babylon, Babalon rides upon a beast, carries a chalice, and is associated with the number seven. Babalon turns up throughout Troubled Blood“Babalon rides a seven-headed lion on the card representing Lust in the Thoth tarot” (335); “SCARLET WOMEN who RIDE UPON THE BEAST” (710) – and in the page from Talbot’s “true book” in particular where he has drawn “Babalon the Mother of Abominations” (774). The emphasis on the number seven in this drawing – a symbolic number shared by both Babalon and the Whore of Babylon – is, as John Granger has noted, a clue pointing towards the suspect whom Talbot has interviewed seven times.

Long before Crowley reimagined the Whore of Babylon as Babalon, however, Spenser reimagined her as Duessa. It is noticeable that Talbot’s annotations around his image of Babalon are obsessed with poison (something which is not germane to either the biblical or occult figure): “POISONED DARKNESS in the MAGICK CUP,” “poisoned darkness of the BLACK MOON,” “blood and POISON” (774). As Elizabeth Baird Hardy has noted when looking out for who Duessa might be in Troubled Blood, we should, perhaps, be looking out for a poisoner who lives in an oppressively red house.

For it is the scarlet-clad Duessa (rather than Babalon) who carries poison in her magic cup – a literalization of the biblical image in which the Whore of Babylon carries a “golden cup in her hand full of abominations” (Revelation 17:4):

The proud Duessa full of wrathfull spight,
And fierce disdaine, to be affronted so,
Enforst her purple beast with all her might
That stop out of the way to ouerthroe…
Then tooke the angrie witch her golden cup,
Which still she bore, replete with magick artes;
Death and despeyre did many thereof sup,
And secret poyson through their inner parts.” (Faerie Queene, 1.8.13–14)

The epigraph to Chapter 71 tells us that this is the chapter in which the murderer will be unmasked. This is the first epigraph to name Duessa: “Such is the face of falshood, such the sight/ Of fowle Duessa, when her borrowed light/ Is laid away, and counterfesaunce knowne” (Faerie Queene, 1.8.49; Chapter 71). Indeed, this epigraph marking the chapter of the murderer’s unmasking is drawn from the moment in The Faerie Queene in which Duessa herself is unmasked:

Which when the knights beheld, amazd they were,
And wondred at so fowle deformed wight.
Such then (said Vna) as she seemeth here,
Such is the face of falshood, such the sight
Of fowle Duessa, when her borrowed light
Is laid away, and counterfesaunce knowne.
Thus when they had the witch disrobed quight,
And all her filthy feature open showne,
They let her goe at will, and wander wayes vnknowne.”
(Faerie Queene, 1.8.49)

The Faerie Queene epigraphs, therefore, like Rowling’s Florimell Twitter header, point the reader to look for the deadly woman who is masquerading as a kind one – and also provide a number of hints as to whom this “Duessa” figure might be.

And there is one final pairing to muse over. Spenser dedicates The Faerie Queene in the most sumptuous style to his monarch:


This poem by Spenser is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth


Elizabeth I towers over the whole poem, figured above all as the impossibly beautiful and unreachable Gloriana. Gloriana is never even seen by the reader, her physical presence in the poem as evanescent as the compressed grass which Arthur sees when he wakes after dreaming of her – the only proof that his dream of her was true. Spenser’s queen was a similarly absent presence for the poet, and the poem speaks to some of the frustrations of worshipping a quixotic monarch from afar. But there is another muse (and another Elizabeth) tucked away in The Faerie Queene’s final book. This is Pastorella, the heroine of Book 6, who is a figure of Elizabeth Boyle, the woman Spenser married in 1594 (two years before the second edition of The Faerie Queene was published). Spenser’s “most mightie and magnificent” muse, Elizabeth I, is being replaced in his affections by a real relationship with a very different woman. The two Elizabeths are the subtlest pairing in the poem, but they form a satisfying parallel for the way that we see Strike – finally and indubitably in the fifth novel of the series – moving on from his infatuation with a distant, aristocratic beauty (Charlotte) to a real, reciprocal union with Robin.

Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Solve et Coagula: Part 1 – Rowling’s Alchemical Tattoo” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.

Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.
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