The Story of O.
“The Story of O” (L’ Histoire d’ O) written in 1954 is one of the great classics of erotic literature; a hauntingly arresting story of love and submission which has provoked admiration and controversy since the day it was penned. That the author was French would surprise nobody. That the author was a woman was so surprising and shocking that for nearly four decades many refused to believe it.
The story has it that the author, Anne Desclos, wrote the novel initially in response to a challenge from her lover, the writer, critic and publisher, Jean Paulhan. Paulhan was an admirer of the works of the Marquis de Sade and he chanced to remark to Anne one day that no woman could possibly write such works of erotic literature. Despite her later vilification by certain critics within the feminist movement, Anne was an independently minded intellectual and the suggestion that a man could achieve something artistically which no woman could aspire to was like a red rag to a bull to her.
Anne, according to her own version of the story, wrote the novel in a series of love letters to Paulhan. Jean was staggered by the body of work his lover had produced and presented it to a publisher. It was published under the nom de plume Pauline Reage (Anne would hide her authorship of the book for forty years) and was instantly acclaimed and denounced simultaneously. It won the prestigious French literature prize, Prix de Deux Magots in 1955, the same year the French authorities filed obscenity charges against the publisher for its publication. It wasn’t until 1965 that anybody dared print it in English. Even now, nearly sixty years later, the novel still has the power to shock and excite controversy.
It is not hard to see why. The novel’s atmospheric, almost dream like plot, traces the story of a young and beautiful Parisian fashion photographer and her consensual journey into complete submission. The heroine is called “O” and even her name has been the subject of controversy with many critics claiming that O is merely a symbol for an opening and that the author has degraded women to the status of an orifice. In fact the name O is simply an abbreviation for the name Odile, the heroine’s name. Throughout the book O consents to greater and greater demands upon her submission. She is whipped, trained to be completely subservient to men, obliged to take a female lover and enslave her, branded, kept in chains and finally becomes a faceless slave proud in her nakedness and chains. This is not bedtime reading for the k**s!
The book has raised a howl of criticism for nearly sixty years. Quite apart from its startling erotic imagery the book, with its tale of female submission went down like a lead balloon with the feminist movement who complained heatedly about its subjugation of women and its apparent endorsement of the abuse of women. It was evident from an early point that the author’s name Pauline Reage was a pseudonym and many believed the novel to have been written by a man. Anne kept her head down through all the storm and did not finally reveal her authorship of the book until 1994 at the age of 86!
By that time the novel had entered into the mainstream of modern culture and become recognised as a landmark in erotic literature. Jean Jaekin produced the movie “Histoire d O” in 1975 and I have borrowed heavily from the film to produce the picture gallery to accompany this blog. The film stars the beautiful Corinne Clery as O and this lovely French actress dominates my gallery. There are even a couple of shots of Corinne which are not from the movie but I put them in anyway because she’s gorgeous and for me she has always been the face of O. The film was every bit as controversial as the book although not as critically acclaimed. It was not permitted to be shown by the British Board of Censors until 2000.
The original novel has never been out of print but there is some uncertainty as to the origin of the sequel “Retour a Roissy” with nobody quite sure whether Anne wrote that as well. A comic book version of the story was produced by the Italian artist Guido Crepax in 1975 and I’ve used several of the pages of the comic in the gallery. The book has also been a major influence in erotic literature with many authors and filmmakers taking inspiration from it. Emmanuelle Arsan (the pen name of the Eurasian French authoress Marayat Rollet-Adrienne) was inspired by “The Story of O” to write her own erotic classic, “Emmanuelle”.
I know the story has been an influence in my own writing. In my own work “Slaves of the Amethyst” there are a number of direct references to the novel and one character, a part time fashion photographer called “U”, is a direct homage to Anne’s masterpiece. I have loved the book since I first read it and even the movie captured my imagination.
Love it or hate it, there is no doubt that “The Story of O” speaks to something very deep and fundamental in the psyche of the submissive woman. I have always been impressed that the people who seem to adore the novel the most are largely women in spite of the feminist backlash against it. Somehow to me there is almost an empowerment about O’s consensual slavery; a mystery about her that however much she places her body at the disposal of her masters her inner pride and sanctity remain inviolate and unknowable. When she appears at the end dressed only in an owl’s mask it is as if she says “This body is all yours but behind this mask you can never tread.”
Jean Paulhan wrote the foreword to the novel in 1955 and, despite his being a lover of Anne’s, wrote the foreword as if he was unaware of the identity of the authoress. Somehow that is very telling. He writes, "But from the beginning to end, the story of O is managed rather like some brilliant feat. It reminds you more of a speech than of a mere effusion; of a letter rather than a secret diary. But to whom is the letter addressed? Whom is the speech trying to convince? Whom can we ask? I don't even know who you are. That you are a woman I have little doubt."
This gallery then and this accompanying blog is dedicated to Anne Desclos and the many, many people who have found some strange little secret part of them touched by her extraordinary and evocative vision.