The couple pulled up into the little car park just after we did. It was a bright sunny morning after rain and the carpark at the back of the lodge was a bit mucky. But no one cared about that in that glorious sunlight. Our American hosts introduced us to them and instantly we were all delighted and laughing. It emerged very quickly that he, the husband, was a literature academic.
“Of what type?” I asked, and he briefly answered “the moderns”, to which his wife — and presumably this was inspired by our just having said that we were travelling from Ireland — ironically, if pointedly, asked him:
“Ah but have you read Ulysses?”
“No,” he said, a bit sheepish.
“Ah,” I said after a pause, “but there is one of us present who has!” — my tone and raised finger indicating that I was referring to myself, and this brought grins and instant laughter.
Then, smiling but with a narrowed eye, the husband shot me a question: “But have you read Finnegan’s Wake?”
“Only the first word!” I retorted and laughed aloud as if this was a great joke, because I had a vague recollection that the first word was somehow significant but in truth I couldn’t remember anything about that novel other than its title.
Either way, everyone chuckled, suspecting there must have been a humorous significance too. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
As we walked towards the lodge’s lovely entrance, it emerged that she, the wife, likewise had a literature background and said boldly that the only good literature was that written before the turn of the nineteenth century.
“Bravo!” I said.
“Give me George Eliot and Emily Bronte any day!” she said with a flourish.
It was amazing how well she fitted this “type”. She was lithe and artistic somehow, making flowing arm gestures and eyebrow raises; very ‘feminine’ if one can use that word. I could readily see her running across the moors in the wind.
We all said goodbye and the husband and wife went into their suite and we joined our hosts in the main part of the lodge. The hosts at once suggested that since we and the new couple were the only guests we should all have dinner with them some time. I said I thought that would be a great idea.
The dinner happened the very next night. The couple, as it turned out, were regular guests to the lodge, and knew the hosts quite well and were totally at ease in the kitchen and dining room as we all pitched in. While we were preparing the food and drinking some wine in the process, the wife surprised me by revealing that she now had a great interest in financial crises and other economic issues, and indeed worked part-time in the economics field, not in the field of literature at all.
My partner asked her about her specific interests, and the wife supplied details and even went on to explain that she had to find reading matter on such a such a topic but was having great difficulty doing so, to which my partner, who dabbles in that area, said:
“I’ve got a whole reading list on that very topic. I can email it to you right now.”
“Oh!” the wife said to my partner, raising her hands in a devotional prayer gesture, “I worship you!”
I said nothing, but feeling left out I contrived at the dinner table to bring the conversation back to literature, specifically by introducing a novel I’m sure the wife would’ve appreciated; it even won the Booker prize, I said.
“What’s it about?” she asked.
“Well,” I began, “it’s a novel of great complexity and is resonant with nineteenth-century writing. It’s structured according to the zodiac, each chapter representing a phase of the astrological system. Ingenious, really.”
She shook her head and frowned. “But what’s it about?”
I was aware of the husband watching me closely. “Well,” I said, “the story is really interesting…” — and I rather um’ed and ah’ed for a bit because the truth was that I’d read the opening fifty pages or so of the novel three times and couldn’t get past them. There was no story, I kept forgetting where I was and falling asleep and having to backtrack. There was a ship and a storm and many pages of small print, but that was all I could remember.
“Well,” I continued, “the novel’s antique style and arcane astrological system, the ascendant, the cusp affect and reflect the plot, so that as the star sign waxes and wanes so too do the characters.”
She blinked back at me in her round glasses. There was an awkward silence in which I felt my colour rise. Then everyone turned to each other and immediately continued on with their global financial crisis discussion, during which the wife was beaming at my partner.
I kept to myself after that. During dessert, however, the wife surprised me.
“I have a novel for you,” she said. “It’s pure nineteenth century. It’s one of my favourites of all time. It’s called The Romance of Lust.”
“Ha, ha ha!” I laughed. “An oxymoronic title!” Her bright eyes held me and I was desperately thinking what on earth that title meant. “A romantic saga!” I said. “An epic of never-ending polar opposites! Who’s it by? A woman?”
The wife shook her head, delighted with herself, and said to the whole company: “It’s by Anonymous!”
“Ah,” I said. “So it is written by a woman!”
The husband, in a narrow, suspicious way, leaned forward. “Why would you say that?”
“You know, ” I said. “Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, women and fiction and all that — a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow, some witticisms about Miss Mitford if possible.” I felt my colour rising again under the company’s gaze as I sought the words and quoted Woolf: “Anonymous, who wrote so many poems without singing them, was often a woman.”
The husband gave a derisive snort. The wife, however, laughed even more delighted and reached over the table, tapped my hand, and said, “I’ll drop the novel over to you later.”
True to her word, late in the evening after much red wine had been consumed, she placed the novel next to me without saying a word.
“Great,” I said, as she took herself to the other side of the room. I picked up the volume: The Romance of Lust: A Classic Victorian Erotic Novel.
I decided not to start it till the next morning when I’d have a clear head. The day dawned bright. The lodge was filled with soft light. Our hosts had given us the best room, on the second floor, with commanding views of the grounds and the surrounding woods. It was in this room, in a wonderful old armchair, that I sat back and began to read the novel.
It begins with the hero-narrator, Charles, as a boy being seduced by his governess (oh how wonderful to have a governess!), Miss Evelyn —
…she gradually removed every particle of dress within a couple of yards of me —
[at this point Charles is hiding in a cupboard in her bedroom and is watching her through a peephole]
— the effect of each succeeding charm, from her lovely and beautifully formed bubbies to the taking off her shoes and stockings from her well-formed legs and small feet and ankles, caused my pego to swell and stiffen to a painful extent. When all but her chemise was removed, she stopped to pick up her petticoats that she had allowed to fall to her feet, and in lifting them, raised also her chemise, and exposed to my view a most glorious bottom—dazzlingly white and shining like satin.
Oh, how little she thought of the passion she was raising. Oh! dear Miss Evelyn, how I did love you from the dainty kid slipper and tight glossy silk stocking, up to the glorious swell of the beautiful bubbies, that were so fully exposed to me nearly every night, and the lovely lips of all that I longed to lovingly embrace.
How delightful! How naïve and innocent was the writing! Ah the constraints of those days! The decorum! I slung my leg over one arm of the chair and thought of the wife — she must enjoy it, I thought, as I was enjoying it now, for the love of the language and the playfulness we as modern readers bring to it with all our sexual and publishing freedoms.
I examined the volume again. It was indeed old and well-thumbed and dog-eared, browned with age, some moisture damage here and there. I would’ve thought she would’ve taken more care of it. But maybe the book’s ragged condition was a sign of its status with her: she was happy to take it everywhere and throw it around like an old knockabout friend — Herodotus, or Pride and Prejudice perhaps.
I read on. The novel got a bit edgier and I laughed: The governess had taken to putting young Charles over her knee and spanking him (delightful!) —
This, together with the intense tickling irritation communicated to my bottom, as well as to the friction of my pego against the person of Miss Evelyn in my struggles, rendered me almost delirious, and I tossed and pushed myself about on her knees in a state of perfect frenzy as the blows continued to be showered down upon my poor bottom —
Then I sat up, for the book took a dramatic turn altogether; the innocent beginning is a clever trap. Once Charles’s sexuality is awakened, he and Miss Evelyn engage in, to use the novel’s own words, “the lewdest and most lascivious indulgences” and practise “every act of lubricity”.
I will not, could not, detail for the reader what follows in the novel, beyond saying that the four-letter words become the norm and that the novel contains more sex than I’ve ever read before; and not normal sex-sex, but the most excessive, explicit, extreme and taboo-ish encounters that … that I could not hope to … that are like … that one could not … over hundreds of unrelenting, shocking pages —
And this book was handed to me by the wife, and it was one of her favourites! I stood up. I pictured her in her boudoir, thinking of me reading this thing in my hands. Was her thought erotic? Exhilarating?
Over the next four days I read the novel at every possible opportunity, and often secretly for fear of anyone developing any opinions about me. I was determined to know it, to finish it. I would be talking to the wife about it. I wanted to know everything. And I was not going to be found wanting again like I was with the Booker Prize book over dinner, and that rude, mean snort from the husband. I took mental notes. I jotted down page numbers to revisit. I stayed in the room while my partner, sometimes in the company of our hosts, strolled the grounds or walked through the Appalachian woods. I kept my eye out for the wife, whom I would occasionally see from our bedroom window. Her and the husband’s suite was in full view; I could even see inside their suite. I would listen for their comings and goings, lift back our curtain and look down. She would stroll in and out of view, a Penguin Classic in hand. One afternoon, hearing their door slide open, I put aside The Romance of Lust and strolled to the window and looked down. She was, miraculously, scantily clad. I thought she was in bra and panties. I did not bother to conceal myself. I felt my expression was hard, my gaze imperious, but I did not care. I almost willed her to look up at me. It turned out that it was a bikini she was wearing and that she was about to join her husband in the lodge’s outdoor hot tub. Another time, her door opened and I went to our window to watch — and there she was holding in her delicate hands two huge leather boots! Woodsman’s boots, I thought, with a flared cuff at the top. Her husband’s no doubt. She was cleaning the muck off them. They looked so big next to her.
I suppose this was sobering, though my curiosity did not wane. Yet I felt the need to get out too, and at times joined my partner and our hosts in journeys through the woods. This was liberating! Oh the fresh air! It was so evocative. I was reminded very powerfully of The Last of the Mohicans with all that exciting running through the forest. And I took to reciting that line where Daniel Day Lewis says to his love in the spray of the waterfall and with the cruel Huron Indians in pursuit: “No, you submit, do you hear? You be strong, you survive…You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.”—
I felt strong. I needed purpose. I had to finish reading The Romance of Lust, of course, but I wanted more. I embarked on making comprehensive lists of appropriate phrases and words used in the novel to describe the sexual organs — this was in preparation for work on my own novel which I’m going to submit to my local publisher when it’s written (having been inspired by the publisher in my recent encounter with him, see Episode 7).
Here are some examples of the female bits from The Romance of Lust:
her beauteously covered mount
I glued my lips to the open pouters below me
the entrance of love’s grotto
delicious cave of delight
the orifice of the lower temple of Venus
mossy mons Veneris
the delightful callipygian recesses of Venus’s second temple of lubricity
the more secret temple of salacious delights
before the smaller temple of lust
the second orbit of love
her well-rounded globes of dimpled ivory
the divine temple of Priapus
the generative vase
that narrow abode of bliss
the vermilion nut
the exquisite recess of Venus
the divine entrance of that rapture-giving receptacle
And the male bit:
the great development of my weapon
The days and nights flew by, and in that time I saw the wife and her husband only in passing, whereat although I tried it was not possible to engage her. I tried — all in good fun of course — shooting meaningful glances at her, tried to insert allusions to the novel, with a flick or two of the rakish eyebrows, but breezily she went about her business. So I satisfied myself that I would have the opportunity to connect with her, to continue our plutonic relationship, at another dinner in the lodge.
But then when my partner and I returned from a walk one afternoon it was to see the husband and wife throwing their bags in the car.
“You’re leaving?!” we said.
Yes, they nodded. I looked to our hosts, who were nodding happily: this was no surprise to them. Why hadn’t anyone mentioned their imminent departure to us? And what about a second dinner and some nice bottles of red? And what about — Christ, the book!
I ran upstairs, grabbed it, and flew back down. The husband was leaning into the car boot. The wife was talking to the hosts. I went straight up and handed her the novel.
“You’ll be wanting this,” I said.
“Oh no,” she said, waving me back. “I was only kidding. I found it in the suite, it’s not mine. Someone must have left it there.” She looked a little embarrassed, or surprised.
“Of course!” I said and laughed. “Ha! ha! ha!”
“Is it any good?” she said. “I didn’t get to have a look at it.”
“Engrossing!” I said with alacrity, and repeated the word a few times until the hosts leaned in, curious about the book, and I duly handed it over to them with a brief, formal bow, and that was the last I saw of it.
The wife and husband jumped into the car and they were off with a beep of their horn. We waved goodbye, then went inside for a cup of tea.
Soon my partner and I also left the lodge, and then began our long journey through more of the Appalachians and farther north into Quebec, with many a hill-walk and brief stopovers in small towns as the road took us on further across two countries. And everywhere we went, in every little town, I headed to the bookshops, mostly old and secondhand, in a quest to find a copy of that ‘Classic Victorian Erotic Novel’. The road draws me ever on, and still I have not found it, but I know, no matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find it…