July 19, 2012

Porn and the classics

by

Edith Wharton

And now for an important round-up of erotica, the driving force of the literary industry since the E.L. James spring of 2012, when publishers of all other types of literature drowned in their own tears.

The Rumpus’s latest Saturday History Lesson was on That Time Edith Wharton Wrote Erotica. In case you don’t know about this: in researching Wharton’s papers, biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff stumbled over the outline of a story called ‘Beatrice Palmato’, in which she found the following fragment about a father and daughter, annotated by Wharton as ‘unpublishable':

As his hand stole higher, she felt the secret bud of her body swelling, yearning, quivering hotly to burst into bloom. Ah, here was his subtle forefinger pressing it, forcing its tight petals softly apart, and laying on their sensitive edges a circular touch so soft and yet so fiery that already lightnings of heat shot from that palpitating center all over her surrendered body, to the tips of her fingers and the ends of her loosened hair.

Like several Wharton biographers before her, Rumpus writer Michelle Dean muses on why the author would have left this ‘unpublishable’ passage in her notes, surely knowing that it would be found and, likely, published. After all, she was careful about her papers, specifying in her will that they were off-limits to scholars until 1968. Dean doesn’t reach a firm conclusion, but ends her piece as follows:

Could she have known that 1968 would coincide with the sexual revolution, that what might have been obscene in her lifetime would change and no longer be? Could she have predicted that her narrative now sound so tame, set alongside our childhood V.C. Andrews collections, not to mention any current romance-bondage pulp-sensations That Shall Go Unnamed? Did she predict that at some future there would be no call from primness, or embarrassment, about these sorts of fantasies? Of course we’ll never know. But that might just be how she wanted it.

That characterisation of the nineteenth century as one of thoroughgoing primness is now pretty much debunked, but it is true that most of the literature we still read from the era is coy when it comes to sex and relationships. What, then, are we to make of Total-E-Bound, the erotica publisher making waves in the UK for raunchy rewrites of the classics? It’s been done before, but this is the first time a publisher has smuttified Victoriana and the like on such a scale. They even got an article in the Daily Mail, leading to a situation so ironic that when I try to think about it my brain repeatedly folds in on itself until just it’s a microscopic fleck of furious, throbbing gristle: readers of the Daily Mail (!!), who have deliberately sought out an article about porning-up fiction, take to the comments to complain about prurience in today’s society. Sublime.

Anyway, writers for Total-E-Bound (which, by the way, is a frickin terrible name) will work with the original prose of the classics, rewriting it at various points to be more sexy. Here are a few examples of how that looks:

From towards the end of Pride and Prejudice, when Jane and Bingley are engaged and Elizabeth and Darcy have reconciled:

ORIGINAL: In anticipating the happiness of Bingley, which of course was to be inferior only to his own, he [Darcy] continued the conversation until they reached the house. In the hall they parted.

TOTAL-E-BOUND REWRITE: In anticipating the happiness of Bingley, which of course was to be inferior only to his own, he continued the conversation for a little while… Darcy’s words set Elizabeth alight and when his lips finally descended on hers, she murmured her approval… The fresh, earthy smell of the forest, the pine trees, the grass beneath their bodies combined with the delicious scent of Darcy. Hot, spicy, and all man.

From Jane Eyre, after Jane learns about Rochester’s first marriage to Bertha Mason:

ORIGINAL: ‘Jane, be still a few moments; you are over-excited; I will be still too.’

Mr Rochester sat quiet, looking at me gently and seriously. Some time passed before he spoke; he at last said: ‘Come to my side, Jane, and let us explain and understand one another.’

TOTAL-E-BOUND REWRITE:  ’Jane, be still a few moments; you are over-excited; I will be still too.’

My master captured my wrists and secured them behind my back, imprisoning me and preventing my movements… He exerted the force of his will as effortlessly as he schooled my person, relentlessly and with an inexorable force, he commanded me against his body… No matter how I controlled my mind, my very flesh was weak.

If Edith Wharton was capable of writing, if not publishing, her own erotica, isn’t this actually a pretty interesting experiment? The originals will continue to exist and be studied, after all, so there’s no threat to their integrity. Reimaginings of this type can help us to reconsider the historical contexts of materials we’re already familiar with — histories that, as Wharton’s erotica demonstrates, are easily skewed by time and editorial selection.

The only real shame is that the rewriters couldn’t do better than ‘Hot, spicy, and all man.’

 

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.

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