Sex and Sensibility

Jane has discovered nipple-clamps; Cathy’s laid flat out on the moors with her petticoats around her head. Darcy proves quite the cunning linguist. Total-E-Bound, an erotic ePublisher, have added ‘missing scenes’ to the work of Austen, the Brontës, Conan Doyle , Jules Verne and Gaston Leroux. When I first heard about the Clandestine Classics, I’ll admit that my ears pricked up, if only for the concept. Some  derivative literature enables a revitalising of the original, an enlarging of what is already there and an extension of ground previously covered. Plenty of ranty literati are slamming the very idea of such textual ‘violation’. I decided to give the books the benefit of the doubt: thinking that we might encounter an interesting example of voices merging – centuries, cultures, belief systems – in one glorious polyphony.

Despite all this, a fairly large leap of faith is required to move from “Reader, I married him”, to “Reader, he secured me with his cravat.” Clandestine Classics incorporate their additions into the main body of the original text: so Jane, Lizzy, Mary, Kitty and Lydia take turns about the room, as Austen decreed, before this rather surprising insertion:

Instead of the whip falling on my behind, he touched me, with the finest of movements, again and again tracing the braised skin. I felt my quim weeping. If I didn’t know how much it pleased him, I fear I would know the despair of embarrassment.

“Hold this in your mouth, will you, Miss Eyre?”

A question, not a direct order! He reached around me and placed the makeshift whip against my lips. At first I thought I might refuse, not so as to inflame him, but because the request shocked me and I didn’t know why he would request such a thing.

The words that had issued forth were not a request. Instead it was a command couched in politeness. I dared not refuse.”

Suddenly Darcy is battling wet dreams. As far as re-writing goes, there isn’t any: the authors have simply imagined what they perceive as narrative absences in the texts. Is this is a valid enterprise? Modern works dedicate time and energy to describing the sexual experience, something which by modern standards appears non-existent in Victorian novels.

Such writing continues the dialogue which generations of novelists have tapped into: taking what another has begun and re-examining the implications of what has been ‘neglected’. When Pamela was published in 1740, Henry Fielding and Eliza Haywood both rushed to critique what they considered to be the text’s shortcoming and idealisms. More recently, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, du Maurier’s Rebecca, even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary have all, in their own ways, done the same. Readers who refuse to accept ‘The End’ have often become writers, elucidating and transforming. And yet whilst the above have been praised, indeed have become literary ‘classics’ in their own right, the Clandestine Classics are being mocked. This is delicate ground on which to tread: somewhere an invisible line is drawn between what can safely be termed ‘metafiction’, or ‘reconceptualization’ of a text, and what is mere ‘fanfiction’. If we are prepared to decry 50 SOG as Twilight fanfic, we should also note that Stephenie Meyers’ books owe a great deal to Wuthering Heights: literature begets literature, as it should. So what is the difference between something like Wide Sargasso Sea and sexy Jane Eyre by Sierra Cartwright? What makes one a fascinating insight into the life and mind of a character who is literally and metaphorically locked away by her creator, and the other a trashy hop on the erotic bandwagon? It could, rather simplistically, be argued that one is ‘good writing’ and the other is not. Again, this creates the kind of divide we really want to avoid when entering into a debate about literature. The ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture where some people can only wade through an Austen novel with the help of some BDSM isn’t helpful.

It’s not about the raunchy novels being good or bad writing – it’s about whether they add, or bring anything out, of the original. Total-E-Bound’s CEO Claire Siemaszkiewicz describes the intention of such works was “to add a deeper relationship and character development to them; to enhance rather than to distort.” And here is where the problem lies. I didn’t feel my understanding of Elizabeth Bennett or Mr Rochester was deepened for having read about their desires or sexual experiences; I just felt indifferent. It’d be like remixing Mozart with some electronica, or gluing vajazzles onto Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It adds absolutely nothing.

What we seek in EL James is not what we’re seeking in Jane Austen or the Brontës. What I mean by this is romance. Nobody wants to hear about poor Lizzy getting flogged by a leather-clad, gimp-masked Darcy. Whilst we don’t want her holier-than-thou or ‘above it all’ we also don’t want to ‘smut’ on her. Anastasia Steele’s tits can be spunked on until the cows come home, but Jane Eyre’s seem to be another story : a no-go area.

These ‘additions’ would work better as separate, rather than incorporated, supplementations to established and much-loved books. Take any of the works mentioned above, P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, or Christopher Hart’s The Venetian Carnival, selfdescribed as “an entirely scurrilous erotic prequel to Pride and Prejudice and soon to be published by ER Books . Instead of splicing their own views into the original, such writers take it as a useful starting point and go their own way; Coetzee didn’t interpolate Foe onto Robinson Crusoe but wrote it as a separate, completely defined entity.

There has been a concerted effort on the part of these writers to gel their work with that of Jane, Charlotte and Emily, but somehow they can’t quite pull it off, and instead we’re offered insights we don’t really want, and characters who don’t match up to those we fell in love with when we were thirteen. It’s not that I think of these texts as asexual – anything but. In their own way, they positively brim over with barely-concealed erotic undertones. The BBC got it right with their adaptation of Pride and Prejudice: what could be sexier than a fully-clothed Colin Firth in a wet shirt? Less, in these cases, is more. Some things are sexier if we don’t see them all. These re-workings can only be compared to such gems of pornographic pastiche as Spankenstein, A Midsummer Night’s Cream (What Horny Fool’s [sic] These Mortals Be) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Breast. Hilarious – titillating perhaps – but little else.