This was originally written a couple years ago after reading two erotic updates of English literature classics, which seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the monster mash-ups that became something of a fad after the surprise success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was reminded of its existence when I ran across a Northanger Abbey with sex writing mash-up recently. I haven’t gone back to see if my little theory about Austen and sex writing works at all, but I do applaud the mash-up writer for taking on one of my favorite Austen heroes. He was just the kind of gentle and mansplainy that I would expect.
A quick disclaimer: this isn’t really a “review”. That’s generally true when I’m writing “reviews”, but I felt squeamish reading through it for spelling errors and the like. This is a complete and total overreaction and overthink of some very silly stuff, and I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. If you really give a shit about whether you’ll like a smut version of “Daisy Miller” by Henry James, or the continuing erotic adventures of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I will repeat this quote attributed to so many people as to be a mysterious aphorism: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. I mean, seriously.
I get why contemporary writers do pulp retellings of 19th Century literature. So much of what gives the original stories juice is the unspoken or the alluded, all that subterranean emotion thrumming through the stories like blood. The thing I remember most from Wuthering Heights, for example, is Cathy running out into the moors, tearing all her clothes off, and becoming a werewolf. And before you get on me, yes, of course I know this didn’t happen. But the image is what my mind makes of all the subtext, all this howling and brutality and half-creatures. While Wuthering Heights is an absolute hatecast, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, a closed mouth about certain things which isn’t so much coy as withholding. I can see the instinct to nail it down, to make it be one thing and not all the others. So of course it’s dumb and painful that Stephenie Meyer, in Eclipse, remakes this story of blood and revenge into a doddering middle class non-problem, but she absolutely gets the werewolf right. She makes it one thing and not the others.
Conversely, let us consider Austen, who probably has the largest body of retellings of her works. (Interestingly, these mash-ups tend to be either horror or romance; maybe it’s the embodied angle of both genres? Or, wait, there are some mysteries, which I tend not to read, so this theory is more about my predilections than anything. Carry on.) Unlike the Brontës, Austen is very rarely, and only under the most dire of circumstances, a Romantic — heed my capital letter, friends — even while her stories are intensely domestic. It has been observed that no two men speak to one another without a woman present in all of her novels, as she has the concision of the documentarian. She has never seen two men speak without a woman (herself) present, and she’s hard-headed enough to stick to the things she’s seen, rather than the things she can imagine.
She’s got a mercantile bent, so much so that one almost despairs ever meeting the principles of Sense and Sensibility when one picks it up, given the reems of description of everyone’s financial state. Observe:
By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father’s inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife’s fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life interest in it.”Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Look, I love Austen like the catty, introverted cousin I hang on the wall with while at family functions, drinking — which is to say: a lot — but this is some bloodless stuff. Much as the mistaken asshole plot from Pride and Prejudice has become a mainstay of romance novels, Austen herself would not particularly care for the high emotions of such a thing, especially if the principles failed to take into account or straight up flaunted social/economic/racial divides. Which happens often in romance novels because the driving considerations of a match are emotional; love trumps all incompatibilities. Education heals all, to Austen, or possibly one’s good nature, or manners, or all three, but then only provisionally, and only for the narrowest of slices of society. Maybe. Money is most definitely very large factor.
So I can see why people want to sex her up. Austen doesn’t give us much to go on, in terms of physicality: Elizabeth has “fine eyes” and Darcy, honestly I don’t know if he is short or tall or blond or what. Elizabeth even pokes at the Romantic sensibility right before she gets her own moral/economic slapdown at Pemberley, so awed by her would-be lover’s stuff and things she doesn’t “know herself”:
“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” [all sic, because Austen can’t spell, bless her heart]Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
What are men, indeed, Elizabeth? The romance novel heroine might protest in much the same way: no, of course I do not love Slade, who is either wealthy or secretly wealthy. But her revelation that she loves him would never come at observing Slade’s tangible wealth; that would be too bald, strangely. Indeed the opposite is more often true: the romantic heroine’s lack of care for his wealth is the test that paradoxically provides her worthiness. She is no golddigger. She does not consider such hard, true, palpable things as money in her calculations of her happiness, except insofar as her poverty is a virtue. There are roughly one million romance novels that pair the noble poor woman with a dickish billionaire, running a redemption arc for the wealthy while both volorizing poverty and slyly denigrating the poor. The worthy poor get a hand out; the rest of you lot are probably getting what you deserve.
In some ways, adding sex to Austen balances the scale. All scandals, my dad once told me, have to do with either sex or money. Austen’s scandals tend to be about money. Though sex occasionally factors, money is always the prime mover, that thing that bends passions and taints the tentative beginnings. Austen is no Victorian: This isn’t because she’s squeamish or a prude. The bone fide sex scandals in her novels do not result in redemptive death for the woman; neither Lydia Bennet nor the Bertram sister from Mansfield Park get consumption and die as punishment. The consequences of their actions flow naturally, and are not there as moral instruction (which is actually astonishing, considering.) But latter day stories featuring Elizabeth and Darcy often find them, post nuptials, engaging in all the hard passions denied the satirist, because Austen’s aim is not moralizing but satirizing.
The latter day erotic retelling aligns Austen to more post-War middle class American sensibilities: you can talk about money, but only as a metric for plucky self-determination, or for virtue-signaling purposes. Virtue is rewarded, often materially, in the narrative, which is something that often doesn’t happen in Austen. Elinor Dashwood and her beau are quite impoverished, in the end, as are Fanny and Edmund. And sex in a certain species of boilerplate romance novel — the kind you find on the spinning rack — is weirdly morally pure. I once spend a wedding shower in the company of born again Christian in-laws, who regaled me with their sexual exploits in terms far too explicit for this humble humanist. Sex in the confines is exalted, apparently. It makes sense, theologically: emotions are more important that fact, faith more important than works, at least in ground game American evangelical Christianity, which I think has tangible impact on the morality of your average romance novel. Fuck all you want; you’re married.
This sainted carnality is well more important in the contemporary erotic retelling than Austen’s uneasy broodings about education and morality, the subtle differences between good breeding and good manners, with all the attendant, antique and oft unpleasant implications of such concepts. I like Austen because I do not agree with her in many things (insofar as anyone can “agree” with a society 200 years distant) but I adore how serious, subtle, and nuanced her considerations are. Austen’s creatures do something more interesting than fucking, but I get how people want to see the fucking as an outgrowth of the more interesting, how they want to see it flat and straight. How fucking simplifies all the problems brought up by Austen, makes them cleanly dirty.
Which brings me rather long-windedly to these two fictions: Daisy Miller: The Wild and Wanton Edition by Gabrielle Vigot and Henry Miller (snort), and The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray by Mitzi Szerto. Both of the original works are fictions with thick erotic subtexts, something near satire, almost didactic, definitely a hard examination of the author’s social milieu. It might be unfair to compare these two latter day appendage fictions: wild & wanton Daisy Miller is a mash-up, stitching sex writing into James’s short story, while Wilde Passions is a continuation, imagining the later day travails of the immortal Dorian Gray. I think it works in the way that Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sits uneasily yet surely with its inferior prequel: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. These are all fictions tied to the trajectories of larger gravities, unable to be considered as separate works by even the most New Critical of folk.
So. Wild & wanton Daisy Miller is probably easier to consider, what with its brevity and large chunks of the original text. I can see why it’s attractive just to stitch fuck sequences into 19th century lit — like porn, you don’t have to mess around with actual plot, etc — but such an enterprise becomes stylistically dodgy when dealing with an author as distinctive as Henry James. I have never read the original Daisy Miller, and I could tell, down to the sentence, where the graft occurred. But the early sex sequences were honestly adorable, with Daisy and Winterbourne enacting fantasy and reverie at the edges of James’s work. This dreamy, half-imagined fuckery seemed right in line with James’s aesthetic, with a brooding, half-real cast to it. It was only as the story unspooled that things got dumb. I guess what bothers me about the new Daisy Miller is that Winterbourne wins in the end, and that dude should fucking get it. Not that he gets it in James’s version, exactly, but he sure doesn’t get the girl. Wait, let’s back up.
Definite spoilers ahead.
In James’s version of Daisy Miller, a boring cipherous New Englander named Winterbourne meets the lush and lusty daughter of American industrialists in Geneva. They have a boring and cipherous semi-courtship, until they decamp singly to Italy. She falls in with Italians (gasp!), with whom she is either having sex, or having the socially disastrous appearance of sex. (Same/same.) Winterbourne is a dick and a bro about the whole thing; Daisy delivers some speeches about freedom (O, America); then she dies because sluts always die of the fever. The story reads as this weird superimposition of New York Belle Epoque morality, where the girl gets it because she’s a slut and/or the wrong class (same/same), and a criticism of that, because the industrialist son who oversees this tragedy is a drag and a buzzkill. (Should we be outside? Should you even be talking to me? Omg, this is all soooo informal; that’s hot but I’m scared.) You want to fling yourself at Italian men at the end, because godamn is society cold and cruel.
In the lush & lusty version, Daisy delivers her speeches, and instead of Winterbourne magically not be the worst (which he’s pretty much been in all the Henry James parts of the story) he discovers his love for her and rescues her from fucking Italians. (I mean “fucking” to mean “having sex with”, not as an intensifier, to be clear.) They make out and she’s cured of the Roman Fever, the end. Oh, also, her mom has a lot of buttsecks with the butler. I don’t really have a problem with that either, other than the usual squeamishness about, like, fucking the staff. But, you know, this is fine work if you can get it.
Winterbourne and Daisy getting together is the kind of end that makes me feel icky in my tummy. Sure, in the original, Winterbourne is an officious dick and Daisy a sheltered fool, but their ugly ends (while completely incommensurate) taught me something about rigid, boring, horrid class systems based on the finest of gradations. While I’m fine with Daisy surviving the usual Romantic illness that overtakes all fallen women since Victoria took the throne (at least), I am mos def not okay with Winterbourne being treated like some kind of romantic hero. Fuuuuck that guy; he is the embodiment of mediocre conventionality. Team Daisy.
This seems an altogether different kind of American social message to have Winterbourne win out against his girl fucking Italians. Instead of some quaint 19th century examination of the grasping newly middle class tripping over its inborn lusts in front of the more second generation moneyed asshole, we have the second generation moneyed asshole being redeemed by the quaint notion of love erasing all impediments, even the bone-deep character ones. Daisy opens her legs and her heart, and Winterbourne is tugged dickward towards his inevitable romantic emanation. (I love you. Daisy, and your fucking of Italians in the square is simply performance to my voyeurism. What happiness, etc.) It’s a petty, priapic kind of love, one where romantic love brutally wins over literally everything else.
Everyone forgets that Romeo and Juliet were the exact same damn thing, and that their thwarted romance had nothing to do with class or race or anything. It is the narcissism of small differences: that the more similar two people are, the more they are likely to focus on the points of divergence, sometimes to animosity. (Which explains things like, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which to outsiders looks like an pointless ginger fight.) R & J would have cemented a dynasty had they had text messaging, and I gotta say, that’s not a play I want to see. It would be gross to watch two rich, white assholes get together, and it’s a damn good thing they died. So too, in the updated Daisy Miller. Daisy survives Winterbourne’s bourgie morality so they can canoodle, pretty much destroying all actual criticism of James’s social milieu. I really haven’t got a lot of time for this, but then I also admit I’m a vicious crank. Someone has got to die to prove the situation serious. All the unintended consequences to the shifts in Daisy make it kind of a bummer.
I also admit I’ve entirely overthought just about everything. Lighten up! It’s just a bit of fun! And look, I know. And I did have some fun, mostly because of the dizzying whiplash of stewing in James’s page-long sentences, and then being treated to rapid fire anal sex scenes. There’s something charming about how silly the whole prospect is, which is why I undertook this at all. Brontës and Austen make sense to me to graft in some love and zombies, but James? Is there, like, wild & wanton versions of Melville? Ethan Frome? They’re both stories with thick erotic subtexts, and even some unrequited love! (If only that big white Dick would put out, sigh.) It takes stones to take on James with a project this goofy, and I do earnestly applaud the effort. You’d never get me to set my prose style against James’; no fucking way.
And so, to move on after far too much ado, a quick google unearthed for me the latter day adventures of Dorian Gray. Unlike Miss Daisy, Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is not a mash-up, but a continuation. Szereto rewrites the very end of Dorian Gray (the only novel Wilde ever wrote), rescuing Dorian from death by his own hand, and recounting the plot of Wilde’s novel though flashback and reference. Dorian bottoms through the next century or so, moving from various literary and/or exotic locales: Paris in the beginning, where he runs with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (though why they are never named confuses me); on to Marrakesh, where he enacts an ooky Orientalism; then to South America, where he tempts the faithful, and finally ending in New Orleans in an unconvincing redemption of sorts. With vampires.
While the wild & wanton “Daisy Miller” feels like a goof or a lark — hey, let’s stitch some fuckery into Henry James! That’s hi-larious! — I get the distinct impression that Wilde Passions is rather serious. Wilde Passions is not simple stroke material, but an earnest grappling with the ambiguous messages of Dorian Gray. This is odd, really, because Wilde, as you may be aware, was one of the funniest dudes ever, and the shift in tone is notable. I scanned a little of the original Dorian Gray, and shit, yo, is that man droll. At least Wilde Passions doesn’t have the source material cheek to jowl with the continuation, because that would be ruinous. As it stands, the different tone is not distracting, and trying to write like Oscar Wilde, one of the great comic writers, is probably doomed anyway.
So, I guess what I want to talk about is the erotic, and sex writing more generally. Sex writing is one of those things that is more variegated that it would appear from the snickering. It’s probably harder to pull off than a fight scene, which I would say is damned difficult to do well, because even just the writer’s choices for body terminology can turn a reader off. I know I have the words I cannot take seriously in a sexual context, which is not the same for “arm” or “leg” or “knife”. The verb “to lave” doesn’t get much play beyond sex writing, and feels both clinical and euphemistic to me. I’d much prefer cunts and cocks to honey pots and manroots, but I know many readers of sex writing, almost ironically, find these terms far too aggressive or smutty or something.
It seems to me we’ve ceded sex writing to romance novels, and I don’t mean this to be an indictment of romance novels, but an indictment of literary fiction. Most of the best sex writing I’ve read has been in a romance novel, because that’s where sex writing occurs most often. But romance novels generally present a very, very narrow slice of the stunning variety of human sexuality. I’m not just talking about kinks or whatnot, I’m talking about how it’s generally middle class white women knocking boots with middle class white men, all between the ages of 25-35. The sex is going to be good, mind-blowing even, and no one has tired, married sex to get it over with. I’m not saying romance novels should start depicting that, necessary, though some older, less white folk would be greatly appreciated. I get that they’re wish fulfillment narratives. But it’s notable to me, for example, how many people shit the bed over the tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein dude removes her tampon before banging her, when, right now, literally thousands of people are having sex on the rag. Tens of thousands. It’s such a mundane, everyday detail to freak out over. Romance novel sex is often weirdly prissy.
But it’s dreadfully hard to find sex in literary fiction, and when you do, it’s often just painfully bad. The British literary magazine Literary Review does a Bad Sex in Fiction prize every year, and the esteemed and prized writers who make the list make one wince. From Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner, and the Bad Sex in Fiction winner for 2014:
“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”
I mean, really. This is what sex would be like on Monty Python, the bombs bursting on air and all that. I can think of some really cringy sex scenes from literary novels, with this just terrible mix of platitudes and overwrought metaphors. And this is of course when there is any sex writing at all, this vital component of many relationships simply elided.
The sex — and there is a lot of it — in Wilde Passions cuts a weird middle distance. It’s not explicit enough to be stroke material — it’s not erotica — but then it’s too omnipresent to be truly literary. Dorian enacts just a host of transgressions in his quest for hedonistic sensuality and fading youthful beauty, like he does in Wilde’s novel. He ruins a Marrakeshi prostitute boy with shame and drink; he seduces a monk, which leads to the monk’s suicide. He brutalizes and murders women in New Orleans. But, here’s the thing: I just kinda didn’t get why.
Wilde somewhat famously added a preface to Dorian Gray after Victorian critics got all up in arms about its “sham morality”. You’re just writing smut with the lamest of censures tacked on the end, they said, to which Wilde replied: all art is quite useless. Morality or immorality has no place in the process of creating beauty. Art is a not a tool — it should not have a use — or it is not art. I can’t say I agree, but then I also understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s putting it so starkly. He goes to explore a life decoupled from consequence, driven by an amoral worldview, and then a bunch of howling censors accuse him of corrupting babies. Fuck you, I’m not making tools for your morality. Make them your damn self.
Continuing on Gray’s amoral quest, after removing what you could even consider a moral, is an interesting experiment, honestly, but I have some reservations about how successful this is. His transgressions are all sexual in nature, and I begin to weary of the fuckery. Why can we not change up his violations of the social contract with, say, a Ponzi scheme or selling cancer cures made of chicken bones? I guess what I’m saying is it seems a failure of imagination to cast all his amorality in terms of the bedroom. He even killed a dude directly in Wilde’s tale. Sure, you could argue that it’s the culture around Dorian which casts his homosexual sex acts as villainous, but, as a first person narrative, that doesn’t really work. He’s pretty gleeful about the ways he ruins people through buggery, and, ultimately, it reads a little like, omg, the homosexual agenda! I don’t think that’s the intent, not at all, but it can be read out of the text pretty easily.
But, my disquiet aside, Szereto is clearly grappling with something here, something real. And let’s put my disquiet back into it: Wilde Passions invoked for me the same brutal, chilly eroticism of mid-century fiction by women — stuff like The Story of O and Ice by Anna Kavan — and that shit frays me. She takes this odd, amoral remnant from the most squeamish of times, Victoriana, and then runs him like a VHS tape on fast forward. Wilde Passions ends somewhere in Anne Rice’s vampire eroticism, all kudzu and rot, which would be relevant 20 years ago but feels weirdly antique now. All of it feels antique: the Fitzgeralds, the Orientalism, the Thomas Mann inflected monastery, New Orleans before Katrina. Hell, maybe this takes place after Katrina, but that wouldn’t rightly be the point.
On some level, Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, and the ways it doesn’t work are indictments of the form. The erotic in literature is built partially on shame, and shame is a sad, lonely, and conservative beast, more worried about body parts than injustice, more worried about degradation than violation. So Dorian’s burgeoning, transformative love for a girl he both brutalized and terrorized is part and parcel of the romantic narrative: love is redemptive, and requires no agency in its actors. You will be an ideal person whether you like it or not. You are simply a player in someone else’s story. Once again, love brutally wins over literally everything else, only this time, you’re not supposed to see that as a good thing. God help us all.
It’s intensely clever the way Szereto removes the Victorian “moral”, weak though it is, and then runs Gray’s amoral sensation seeking through changing literary erotic landscapes. She then ends with a modern “moral”, which looks just a weak as the Victorian. You rarely notice how blinkered the idea that romantic love is a moral agent, but boy can you see it here. Wilde Passions was a very pleasant surprise for me, an essay on sex writing and morality which is deeply considered. Who knew?