While I am more or less focusing on BDSM literature for my reviews on this site, what interests me most in erotica is the complex interactions between desire, power, and sometimes cruelty, hopefully channeled positively: the basic components of BDSM.
As long as these components are present, I am interested, even if a book or film may not be overtly concerned with binding, whipping, obedience or whatnot. I’m just not a very vanilla person, I guess, but I don’t necessarily need harsh whippings to get me going. I personally do need some kind of power dynamics in my kink, however. I’ve been seeing some rave reviews for The Gentlemen’s Club, an erotic novel that takes place in Victorian London, and decided to take a look.
I like this book a lot and found it very interesting, though not entirely in ways that I’m guessing the author intended—though I certainly did find it interesting in those ways, as well. It’s got a story that’s definitely worth following, and some very hot scenes. It is not overtly BDSM. It is kinky, and there is indeed some striking of bodies with a riding crop, but it’s not especially harsh. Its kinks lie more in the public display of sex acts, various bisexualities, and, oh yes, the use of power in desirous relationships.
I am old school (and thus the perfect reader for a Victorian tale, yes?), and I am holding the print version of this novel in my hands, so let me address the physical object first.
I absolutely love the book’s cover image and the concept of its design. In this age of self-published cookie-cutter Shutterstock imagery, usually featuring a black-and-white photo of a nude woman’s back, kneeling in front of a man’s six-pack peeking through the unbuttoned shirt of his tuxedo, it is so refreshing to see something such as this: a page from an old illustrated ornithological primer, a neat grid of drawings of birds, in alphabetical order. It hints obliquely at the contents within, and smacks of the Victorian Era’s concern with classification and order, also hinting that the idea of organizing typologies can lead to a certain tendency toward objectification, collection, and display—all very exciting themes to a certain strain of BDSM fan.
Opening the book, however, I have to confess a bit of dismay, even though this sounds petty. The design of the text—the selection of font (very modern), the font size (very large), and the current internet-friendly format of separating unindented paragraphs instead of indenting the first word of each—to me indicate a certain lack of thought as to how a better-considered design could truly accentuate the reading experience, of this book in particular. It feels like the ebook file was simply uploaded into the print version, without taking the time to really think through its possibilities.
Why do I harp on these details, the choice of font, of all things, when the contents of the book—the characters, the story, the sex—are actually very, very good? I will get back to that shortly, because it really does matter to my experience of reading this, though it might not to anyone else.
The story centers around one Lord MacCaulay, Victorian gentleman and member of the lower aristocracy, who happens to belong to an exclusive London club that specializes in somewhat unorthodox sexual entertainments. Lord McCauley lives with his sister Cecile, whom he greatly admires, but who—as far as we know, this book is the first of a series—does not share her brother’s more libertine tendencies. Nor would he want her to. They’re a respectable family, after all.
The Club’s entertainments consist of hosted stage shows, and vary in a refreshingly open-minded way: there are sometimes solo females brought onstage to be deflowered, but the audience also doesn’t seem to mind seeing a bit of male/male buggering, either; threesomes, audience participation, whatever—bring it on! One wonders at the research Ms. Maupassant did for the writing of this book—is there evidence of any such clubs at the turn of the last century? The British upper class, while certainly a debauched group of people if there ever was one, has always been stalwartly conservative in many respects. Would they have sat still for a little man-on-man action? One can only ponder. Or google it. In any case, the varied performances in this novel are pretty hot indeed.
It is during one of these late-night shows, in a special showing reserved for a smaller, selected audience, that Lord MacCaulay finds himself on stage in just such a performance, tricked there by the irresistibly beguiling new hostess, Mademoiselle Noire. Auburn-haired and fair-skinned, Mlle. Noire tempts him onstage in front of a seated row of his peers, leading him to think it is with her that he will be interacting. He is quite surprised when it is instead the massive African man who has accompanied her.
Angered (because of his own, shall we say, not entirely negative reaction), humiliated in front of his snickering peers, MacCaulay storms home and goes into temporary hiding. How can he show his face in his beloved Club again? And of course, he is furious at the beautiful Mlle. Noire, who, it should be mentioned, did take part in the talent show. A very pleasurable—and talented—part.
MacCaulay becomes hopelessly vexed. What to do? A woman, a female—hardly a worthy adversary in that day and age—has got the better of him, and the more he ruminates, the more he realizes just how fixated he has become.
He must go back.
Mademoiselle Noire is an extremely interesting character, and would have been a mesmerizing and fascinating woman to meet, especially during the times depicted in the novel. By night, always masked and dressed in formal gowns that may or may not show bared shoulder, she is in complete command of the proceedings, a skilled orator and director. By day … well, we don’t really know. Nor does Lord MacCaulay, and that fact drives him insane with desire. He tries in vein to discover her identity, yet she knows his name upon first meeting him.
The novel also follows Maud, a young lady of society who lives with her elderly great-aunt Isabella. Isabella is of the older school, in which a lady must behave like a lady, at least in public—but she does understand the ways of the human heart, among other organs, and their compromises as to what activities Maud may undertake make for interesting debates. Maud is also quite intellectually voracious, and one day, while observing the Waterhouse Building’s collection of taxidermied birds (again the cover art’s reference), she spies Lord MacCaulay on one of his outings as he tries to strategize/forget Mademoiselle Noire. As mesmerized by him as he is with Miss Noire, she does not speak to him. She secretly follows him home, as she does on several more occasions as they pass each other on the streets of London.
The first thing that demanded my attention while reading this novella (there are no page numbers, another quibble) is the language in which it is written. It is radically formal, and overwhelmingly Victorian.
At first, I found this very distracting. It is language up with which we in this century would not normally put, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, despite its use of the present tense:
Lord MacCaulay’s desire for revenge simmers steadily, assuaged by nothing. Neither his perusal of a fascinating article on the diverse birdlife of the Cape Verde Islands in Ibis, the ornithologists’ journal, nor time spent with his extensive collection of pornographic literature has the power to calm him.
His eyes search her face, seeking there some softness. If her lips were upward cast and parted, he would fling aside the crop and crush his own upon them, taking her kiss at whatever cost, even were she to suck forth his soul.
The vocabulary, and more importantly the rhythms are not at all what we encounter in contemporary fiction, erotic or otherwise. They feel unnatural, to this reader at least. It takes some getting used to.
I have read a fair amount of erotica, but I don’t know if this is a thing, this heavy use of Victorian syntax and vocabulary. It might very well be common, its own subgenre of porn. It’s not completely unfamiliar; we’ve all heard the distinct tones and formalities in movies if not other (in my case non-erotic) novels.
I was a bit put off by this, at first, I will admit. I found it mediating. It put a sort of wall of language between me and the characters. The best contemporary writing has a definite immediacy to it—it puts me there, in the character’s place, usually using great sensory detail. Descriptions of the setting and how the character exists within it—the smells, the tastes, colors, the touch of a hand (or whip) across the skin—make me feel it! I initially felt such formalistic language was getting in the way of achieving that.
Conversely, anyone who’s read much actual 19th-Century literature knows there is a great deal of description of setting—too much, in fact, for contemporary sensibilities. Do we really need to know the precise weave of the fanciful doily atop the tea tray?
In this novel, I do wish there was just a bit more detailed setting. Maybe not the endless listing of unnecessary details, but I do want to know more about what the insect room of the Waterhouse Building smells like, all those exotic creatures pinned in neat rows behind glass; her heels clicking on the (marble?) floor; or what the crowd of people smell like at the masked ball at which MacCaulay keeps seeing redheads and wondering if it’s her—did they reek, back then? Did the upper crust bathe enough that the flood of humanity at a masked ball was nothing but enticing to a man in unrequited heat? I did feel like some of these things were barely touched upon.
But—I got used to the language as I kept reading, and then I had a revelation: This novel should not be viewed merely as an erotic tale clothed in a thin sheen of Victorian diction that distracts from a more direct experience. No, it’s the other way around—the language is the basis of this novel. It is the liquid in which the action (and there is some pretty hot action!) bathes.
In that, this book is unique—unless, as I said, this is part of a genre, a subculture, some tradition that I know nothing about. One has to submerge oneself into both its Langue and Langage, as well as its Parole (to cite a bit of Post-modern linguistic theory), to get what really is a new experience. In other words, just let go and allow the language to flow over you—it will bring you very interesting and unexpected experiences.
So, then. If I no longer demand more immediacy in our own era’s language, but accept that this novel has its own way of delivering an authenticity of experience, why did I pick on its font size and paragraph design, when most people will likely be reading this as an ebook anyway?
Because I think it could still be more. I think that the experience of being transported into the novel—the goal of all erotica, yes? Being in the character’s shoes, or lack thereof—could still be enhanced, via a means perfect for the approach this author has taken.
This is the first book of a series, although I do not know how many sequels are intended. If it’s to be a small number, say, a trilogy, what I would love to see is a complete, immersive design for the entire set, in one volume. Even if it’s released after the entire series is completed, a reissue. I would urge Ms. Maupassant to research every detail of 19th Century book design—yes, the actual fonts used, back then; every aspect of how the words appear on the paper. Even how books were bound at the time.
I would then urge her to eventually release the series as one volume, with a visual appearance that is as authentic as possible, or at least financially feasible. A leather, hand-bound volume? Probably not; we’re in an era of declining profitability in erotica, and not everything is worth risking such a high investment. But a faux-leather cover, even if just the appearance of leather, printed on paper, which more importantly when opened also looks exactly how the pages of a Victorian novel would appear?
If I’m to engage in this story—and I do want to continue engaging in it—via the language chosen and its immersive feel, then make that actual intake of this language as authentic as possible. Make me feel like a Victorian reader, holding my volume of incredible smut, like Lord MacCaulay did during his dark night of the soul.
Of course, none of this even matters if you choose to purchase the ebook.
There’s so much to like about this novel—there is an enticing story as Lord MacCaulay tries to figure out how to win the heart of a woman who simply does not want to be won—she’s doing quite well on her own, thank you. How does one catch the uncatchable? She hosts programs of people fucking each other onstage, after all—and often participates. He is suddenly no longer the unconventional one. In that odd rhythm:
He little doubts that professions of devotion will repulse her. She might only scorn him with laughter, but she might also revile him, denouncing his romantic conventions. He has long held the state of matrimony to be undesirable, since it places irrevocable constraints upon a man, forcing him into the company of a wife chosen to fit his place in society.
One of the interesting things about this story is the background of the nascent Suffrage movement; all of the female characters embracing or coveting the freedoms that are simmering just below the surface of the very prudish and sexist society that had prevailed in Britain for so long and is about to give way, but isn’t quite there yet. That must have been so frustrating, and their frustrations make up a nice thread of the tapestry in this novel’s story. There is so much potential in setting a series of erotic novels right on that cusp of change, of so many changes—technological, social, sexual.
But at its center is poor lovelorn—and lustlorn—MacCaulay, accustomed to having his own way and thoroughly desperate that he’s not getting it, even though he occasionally “gets” the object of it. She is certainly not unwilling, just uncompromising in her own pursuit of freedom. This butterfly refuses to be pinned behind glass.
There is only a partial resolution to the various, opposing predicaments in this novel, and I will not share it with you. The next installment in the saga is to be titled Italian Sonata, so while we do know where it takes place, we don’t exactly know where the story leads.
As it should be. Lead on, Mademoiselle Noire. Lord MacCaulay and I will follow.