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
Saturday 28 October 1995
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.
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Isis 'jihadi bride' claims forced sex with Yazidi girls is never rape because Koran condones it
- 2 Woman accidentally shoots herself in the head while posing for a selfie
- 3 Art Garfunkel: Paul Simon is a 'monster' with a Napoleon complex
- 4 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 5 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
Eurovision 2015: Graham Norton returns with another cutting commentary - his best lines
Game of Thrones rape scene criticised as 'disgusting' by US senator Claire McCaskill who says she's 'done' with show
Art Garfunkel: Paul Simon is a 'monster' with a Napoleon complex
Eurovision 2015 winner: Sweden beats Russia and Italy to take the title from Conchita Wurst
Dheepan, film review: Palme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Gay marriage 'Bert and Ernie' cake bakery found guilty of discrimination in Northern Ireland