Many years before the Fifty Shades franchise was conceived came its singular predecessor. In 1954, a woman using the pseudonym Pauline Reage published a slim volume bearing the title l’Histoire d’O (Story of O). Like Fifty Shades, the book was epoch-making; and like Fifty Shades, the book was published pseudonymously. It was only after the author’s death in 1998 that Pauline Reage was revealed to be Anne Desclos, whose cautiousness regarding her identity was further underscored by the fact that she had also been known as Dominique Aury.
Story of O is quite literally the story of a young professional woman called O. Set in 1950s Paris, O consents to become her lover Rene’s slave, and is “given” by him to be the property of another man, whom we only know as “Sir Stephen”. Somewhat foreshadowing Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Reage paints a world in which absolute power is enacted by men upon women. Unlike Atwood’s novel, however, the women in O are complicit in their humiliation – even if the possibility of genuine consent is nuanced throughout:
Consent, O was telling herself, consent wasn’t the difficult part, and it was then she realised that neither of the men had for one instant anticipated the possibility of her not consenting; neither had she. Speaking, saying anything – that was the difficult part.
Though sharing with Fifty Shades the overall themes of sexual domination and submission, Story of O remains a work of substantial literary merit – one which won the prestigious Prix Deux Magots award. Desclos’s work describes sado-masochism, yes. But more specifically it portrays a woman’s inner life. Desclos, in her own life, was an academically-inclined employee at the publishing house Gallimard. She was frequently described – when she was described at all – as having a nun-like demeanour, despite her longstanding affair with a married man. Sexual pleasure, or jouissance, is not the dominant timbre of Desclos’s work. Rather it is the gradual, silent immolation of selfhood to which O consents, or rather, submits:
After all, she was no longer her own, and what of hers belonged least of all to her was, very assuredly, that outer half of her body which could be put to use independently of her, as it were.
It’s well known that Fifty Shades began not as a novel but as fan fiction based on the Twilight franchise. This too has a corollary in Story of O, since O too began, not as a novel, but as a series of love letters – or letters, at least – to the author’s married lover: literary critic, writer and publisher Jean Paulhan.
Slavery and submission
When the book was ultimately published, Paulhan prefaced it with a short essay entitled Happiness in Slavery, a supposedly true account of slaves on a Caribbean plantation in 1838 who, once emancipated, preferred instead to remain enslaved. The precise point Paulhan intended to make is not altogether clear – or perhaps it is only too clear. Was he suggesting that slaves ought to be content with a good master, or was he fantasising about his own personal relationships? Did he, perhaps, enjoy the illusion that he was the master – and his wife and mistress the slaves?
Desclos was known to be a particular fan of Proust, but writing in Paris during the 1950s it is likely that she was also influenced by the likes of such left bank luminaries as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. For Sartre, perhaps most memorably in his 1944 play Huis Clos, hell was other people; not simply the fact of having to live and work alongside them, but that one might be said to exist only, and exclusively, in the confines of others’ perceptions. O, too, exists only as an object for the men who control her, under whose gazes she attains a momentary grasp on solidity.
At times, Desclos’s words recall another honorary Parisian writer: Jean Rhys, whose roughly contemporaneous novels of lost, voiceless women carried the same echoes of lonely, inner emptiness while in the distant thrall of powerful – but indifferent – men. Like Desclos, Rhys too had been the “other woman” in a literary relationship, this time with writer, critic and editor Ford Madox Ford. The absurdities of their arrangement formed the sustance of her 1928 novel Quartet, which was also set in Paris. By the time O was published, Rhys had already begun on her literary tour de force, Wide Sargasso Sea; her prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre intended to breathe life into the Jamaican wife Rochester had imprisoned in an attic.
So how should we read Desclos now, more than 60 years later, and in the wake of EL James? In truth, the two authors have little in common beyond some superficial commonalities. While the 50 Shades franchise unarguably has an enormous fanbase, it ought to be possible to read O less as a work of erotic entertainment, and more as a damning piece of social commentary – or, perhaps discomfortingly, both.
As Desclos said, in an extremely rare interview at the age of 87: “They say that a leopard cannot change his spots. So it is with me: I will never change my contradictions, as you can see.”