Forbidden fruit

The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women, ed. A. Susan Williams & Richard Glyn Jones, Viking, pounds 17.99; A new anthology of women's erotic writing is sexy, scholarly and full of surprises. By Katy Emck

The opening tale in The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women was written in 1882 and its sexual politics are what one would expect for the time. It recounts the seduction of a virginal housemaid by an aristocratic roue. When the loosely-clad Violette throws herself on this man's protection, he experiences a struggle between lust and paternal solicitude. Luckily, Violette trusts him as she would a father, artlessly flinging her arms around him and climbing into his lap. He proceeds to install her in a lamplit room hung with mirrors and velvet, and things go from there.

There is a wonderful moment when the man, who is also the narrator, gallantly explains "certain articles" of men's "code" of seduction to his "ignorant" lady readers. The paradox, as with Violette's "artless" sensuality, is that this most knowing of tales is written by a woman. Its calculated blend of disavowed responsibility and seething carnality sets the tone for many of the stories in this fascinating collection, which is as much a history of censorship as of women's erotic writing.

The tales written before the Second World War bear witness to a lost world where sex, especially for women, was thrillingly taboo. Kate Chopin, Katherine Mansfield and Edith Wharton wrote stories about adultery, low rental passion and incest, but never printed them. Chopin's "The Storm" makes the reader feel as though she is sharing a naughty secret with a schoolfriend; Chopin may have suppressed it because its celebration of adulterous sensuality was provocatively guilt-free.

Intriguingly, an extremely explicit account of sex between a father and daughter by the "otherwise genteel" Edith Wharton is rendered not with disgust but in tones of high excitement. It's rather like discovering that the author of The Age of Innocence wore bondage gear beneath her petticoat. The illicit nature of desire gives many of the stories a breathless, furtive quality which can plunge from the sublime to the ridiculous. Gertrude Stein used her rhythmic, rambling style and a lot of confusingly skewed pronouns to capture the masked subtleties of lesbian love. Radclyffe Hall reaches unsurpassed heights of kitsch when she has her gruff heroine return to an earlier life as a horny caveman.

The woman on top stalks through many of the stories dating from the Sixties onwards, which provide a confident and dazzling tapestry of perversion, whimsy and social critique. Joanna Russ satirises the Playboy ethos with a wonderfully obliging Bunny-boy house servant who, it transpires, is a robot. A sorceress-cum-dominatrix manipulates the "pseudo-reality" of her apprentice between the sheets. Stories about female sex workers with whips and chains and abject male customers add to the role-reversing bill of fare. In other tales, female desire becomes a kind of foreign country; less a means of self-discovery or a cause for feminist triumph than a force which tragically alienates us from ourselves and each other.

This scholarly anthology is both a cultural history and a literary odyssey. Ranging from fairytale whimsy to postpunk invective, from fables of oppression to those of liberation, it is full of unforeseen delights, surprising us into reshaping our thoughts about familiar writers, about sexual politics and about the meaning of "erotica" itself.

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