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Sexual politics: Maureen Freely

There are three things you notice when you look at the novels that have charted and changed our ideas on sexual politics. First, how fast they date. Second, most of the books that caused the greatest scandals in their day are now unreadable. Third, how rare it is for the protagonists in even the very best and most enduring books to know pleasure without punishment, sex without death.

Why is this? Most of the authors included here send their characters to cruel fates and have double-edged motives for doing so. The tragic endings both confirm the moral codes of the day while also suggesting that they are too harsh and need changing. But there are exceptions. Although Anna Karenina (1873–7) was written a century and a half ago, about a society that no longer exists, its portrayal of married life is complex and ultimately enigmatic. Tolstoy based it on a real story, about a love triangle that ended with the adulterous wife throwing herself in front of a train. When he sat down to write the novel, he disapproved of the Anna character. But as draft followed draft, she became increasingly noble, brilliant, tragic, while the two men in her life became less and less admirable. Her suicide is all the more disturbing for her having weighed up all the moral questions before throwing herself away.

In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) Edna Pontellier is a disenchanted housewife who discovers sensuality—and younger men—while summering at a resort near New Orleans. By the end she knows the game is up—she is going to have to return to her duties or else. We leave her swimming into the night, almost too tired to continue, but still taking great joy from her every stroke. It was, I think, Edna's refusal to feel guilty about her love of pleasure that made the book so distasteful to most readers of the time. It got dreadful reviews. It was only in the post-feminist 1980s that Kate Chopin's books came back into vogue.

In the intervening years, she was entirely forgotten. The same cannot be said of Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness led to one of this century's most infamous obscenity trials, in 1928. For many lesbians of the time, this was the only book that affirmed them as human beings. Stephen Gordon, its handsome, noble, ‘invert’ hero(ine) is now a very dated creature. The mood of the novel is high melodrama. But it describes with eloquent indignation wrongs that no one should have to endure, and so it still grabs the heart. As does Stephen's final plea to her unfeeling critics: ‘Acknowledge us, oh god, before the whole world. Give us the right to our existence!’

It would be another forty years before real people could make that demand in public. But it took even longer for E. M. Forster's Maurice (1971) to make it into print. In this case, it was the author himself who suppressed publication. He was perhaps very wise, because his aim was far more radical—to suggest that the open expression of homosexual love could be a good, and even a redeeming, thing. This is not, however, a lesson that comes easily to the eponymous hero. His first real love-affair, with the almost patrician, ultra-ambitious Clive, ends abruptly when Clive decides after an illness that he prefers women. Off Clive floats into marriage, politics, and the sombre beauties of convention, ‘while beyond the barrier, Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips, and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.’ He has become such a bitter man by the time he meets a man who knows his worth that he comes very close to losing him.

The most remarkable thing about Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928) is its refusal to admit even the slightest glint of bitterness. This is the story of a dashing Englishman who manages two great feats: to remain almost youthful even after staying alive for more than four hundred years, and to rise from his sickbed after a bout of fever to find that he has become a woman. However, the bending of her own gender does not stop her from taking great pleasure in the company of both men and women. Virginia Woolf was an exact contemporary of Radclyffe Hall. Although there are passages in Orlando that are far more radical than anything in The Well, it managed to get past the censors because of its clever use of disguises and distancing techniques. These ploys become less important as we move on to the second half of the twentieth century, but ‘just deserts’ continue to feature in all serious writing about the various types of love that continue to dare not say their name.

This is true even of the post-war he-men sexual liberationists like Henry Miller, Phillip Roth, Norman Mailer, and James Jones. If I were going to be fair, I would perhaps include at least one of them here. But the two books from this era that I like most stand well outside the then prevailing ideas about masculinity. One is James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956), about an allegedly heterosexual American writer living in Paris in the 1950s. He has an intense affair with a beautiful young Italian man while his girlfriend is away. We know from the start that it all ends badly, with the girlfriend leaving him and the beautiful Giovanni sitting in a dungeon, waiting to be guillotined. The idea, I would say, was to make easy moral condemnation harder, and demand that the characters be seen and understood in their own terms. The book was extraordinarily open for its time in its evocation of homosexual love. It still has great power today as an indictment of emotional dishonesty.

And it's the same with my other choice from the post war era—Nabokov's Lolita (1955): the story of an ageing and urbane European gentleman's infatuation with a 12-year-old all-American girl. Possibly it is even more shocking today than it was when it first came out. I can't pick it up without marvelling at its high-wire stylistic brilliance, and its humility in the face of the passions that (sooner or later) make fools of us all.

The great feminist blockbusters are not big on ambiguity and humility. Their purpose was to get their readers so angry they had no choice but to ‘wake up’. But now that we are all so very wide awake, they seem rather simplistic. Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973), once infamous for its zipless sex scenes, seems tame, and rather too personal. Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977) has a bigger heart—but this heart is flooded with resentment. I prefer Margaret Atwood's cool, elegant feminist dystopia, A Handmaid's Tale (1985). Its description of a fascist gender-state is the purest picture you'll ever get of ‘patriarchal society’ as feminists of the time understood it. Could it ever come true? Visit Afghanistan and see for yourself.

The past two decades in this country have been a gentler place for sexual political fictional explorations. I've chosen books that (in my view) break most successfully with the gallows-and-tears conventions of their predecessors. None suggest that breaking with conventional morality is easy. The girl in Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985) has great difficulty coming out as a lesbian, most especially to her holy roller mother. The gay narrator of Joseph Olshan's Night Swimmer (1994) does not belong to the mainstream—he prefers the protection of a community of his own. But in both books, the overwhelming sense you have is that these characters are comfortable inside their own skins. The problems they have with their lovers are problems that all humans have with their lovers. In this greater security it is possible for Winterson to view her heroine's nutcase mother with generosity and humour. And even as Olshan evokes the pain of a community haunted by loss and death, he never forgets how to laugh.

Michèle Roberts' exquisite folding novel, Flesh and Blood (1994), begins with a story set in England in the present, which leads to another story, and then another that takes us over the Channel and deep into the past, eventually to meet the man whose name is shorthand for the mixing of pain with pleasure, and punishment with sex. Then the story retraces its steps until we are back at the beginning. Never once during the journey does anyone suggest that pleasure might be bad for you.

It's the same with my final offering—a Belgian novel that was written long before its time. Madeleine Bourdouxhe's Marie (1943) is about a married woman who is tired of her husband's casual infidelities, and dragged down by her suicidal sister's demands. She meets a younger man, and has an amazing affair with him. But nothing happens to her marriage. The only thing that changes is that she enjoys life more than ever. Imagine that!

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction