The Gothic Element in Story of O: Roissy

“books are full of summonses. Of these some are constantly heard, others once only… all our secrets lie there.” Dominique Aury: Literary Landfalls

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O in the garden at Roissy, as portrayed in the 1975 film Histoire d’O.

“The unfortunate, persecuted maiden! The subject is as old
as the world…”

Mario Praz The Romantic Agony

It is said the Gothic novel was invented almost single-handedly by Horace Walpole, whose The Castle of Otranto (1764) contains essentially all the elements that constitute the genre. The Castle of Otranto has influenced the novel, the short story, poetry, and film-making, ever since. The principle element, the remote castle, has been repeated down the ages with the addition of secret passages, abandoned wings, trap doors, secret rooms,Corridors and trick panels. Such a powerful motif of unease and abandonment has also in modern times, found its expression as the old dark house and its opposite, the modern home haunted by the past.

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The ancient walls of de Sade’s La Coste

Dominique Aury writing as ‘Pauline Réage’ drew upon her huge store of knowledge and reading (she was familiar with the English Gothic novels) as well as from her repository of personal fantasies, in the formulation of her Histoire d’O. The castles of de Sade faultlessly become the novel’s private house of clandestine assignations to which ‘O’ is taken by her lover Rene, amid a secluded avenue of dwellings in “Roissy”.

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Did Aury imagine the chateau at Roissy-en-France or Roissy-en-Brie, both on the outskirts of Paris?

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The discreet mansions of the Faubourg Saint-German

Roissy is described variously as a house or small private home (depending on which internet version of the novel you are reading), or as a hôtel (mansion – if you are reading the original text), in the style of those found about the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris.

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Roissy as imagined by photographer Doris Kloster

By the following page the mansion is described as a château, presumably of some size. A ‘red wing’ is mentioned, marble floors lead to antechambers, drawing rooms, corridors, and the library, – long windows look out onto gardens – there are subterranean vaults. Little wonder many writers refer to the O château as simply a castle. In a trice we are in our very own Château de Lacoste. Our imaginations conjure a well furnished Castle of Otranto, Udoltho, or the Chateau d’O which Guido Crepax re-imagines, taken from its green Normandy riverside and perched upon a rocky cliff, Gothic and forbidding as approached by O and Rene.

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The romantic Chateau d’O in Normandy, France, the inspiration for the Roissy of Italian comic-strip artist Guido Crepax

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“she is typically incarcerated in a castle or monastery
and menaced by a sadistic nobleman…”

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A cold draught does indeed blow all the way from Otranto and Mrs Radcliffe’s Udoltho to the corridors of Roissy. Walpole describes the,

lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloisters…an awful silence reigned throughout these subterranean regions, except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the door she (Isabella) had passed and which grating on the rusty hinges were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness.”

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Compare this with Reage;

Her bare feet froze on the icy tiles, she realized that she was walking down the red wing hallway, then the ground, as cold as before, became rough, she was walking upon flagstones, sandstone, perhaps granite. Twice the valet brought her to a halt, twice she heard a key scrape in a lock and a lock click as a door closed.”

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Despite O’s acquiescence (her gaolers continually seek her approval) her stay at Roissy is tantamount to imprisonment well within the tradition of the damsel in distress. She suffers painful whippings, sexual assault, and many hours chained in silence and solitude. O takes her place in a long line of women in peril.

Wikipedia explains, “Reprising her medieval role, the damsel in distress is a staple character of Gothic literature, where she is typically incarcerated in a castle or monastery and menaced by a sadistic nobleman, or members of the religious orders. Early examples in this genre include Matilda in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Emily in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Antonia in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk.”

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Mario Praz in his authoritative The Romantic Agony has shown how essential features of the Romantic (‘Gothic’) literature were the peculiar “erotic sensibility” – a sensibility obsessed with the idea of pleasure obtained through cruelty, inflicted or received, sadistic or masochistic; and the presence of the ‘persecuted woman’, existing beside her opposite the Fatal Woman or femme fatale.


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Praz identified the legacy and archetypes of the fatal man, the “Fatal Nobleman with piercing eyes and deadly ambition”, and also that oh so powerful a motif, the castle as “ruin”, one that now “implied the possibility of sinister developments – since old superstitions believed ruins haunted.”

Charles Lamb recorded, “the archetypes are in us and eternal.”

“In our sleep and in our dreams,” Dr Jung quotes Nietzsche, “we pass through the whole thought of earlier humanity. I mean, in the same way that man reasons in his dreams, he reasoned when in the waking state many thousands of years… the dream carries us back into earlier states of human culture…”

As if reiterating the sentiment Dominique Aury (“Pauline Reage”) wrote aptly,

“Who am I, finally, if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part… which communicates through the subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself – ?”

THE OLD DARK HOUSE:

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Old dark houses are, of course, traps.” writes Kim Newman. “The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly,” Count Dracula comments in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931).

The continuing tradition of the ‘old dark house’ inspired Kim Newman to write, ” Old dark houses squat atop Carpathian mountains or moulder deep in Louisiana swamps, sit quietly in America suburbs or fester ion British council estates. They are hard to find on the map but impossible to avoid in a storm.”

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Count Dracula’s Carfax Abbey as it appears (although at night) in the 1978 John Badham directed “Dracula” starring Frank Langella. In actual fact, St Michael’s Mount, a walk away from my home in Penzance, West Cornwall.

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“The house was like a castle with its turrets, buttresses and matriculated towers
– a landmark to sailors who would know where they were when they saw that
pile of ancient stones…” MENFREYA Victoria Holt

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PULP FICTION: Barrymore Tebbs writes. “To heighten the sense of threat, the foreboding house often had a narrow sliver of light in a single window like a watchful eye keeping track of the desperately fleeing heroine to make certain she didn’t stray too far from the grounds of the estate. This lighted window, in fact the entire motif of the Gothic Romance cover, was the brainchild of one man, Lou Marchetti.

From the early 1950s through the late 1980s, Marchetti was a prolific cover artist in all genres for the leading paperback publishers of the era including Avon, Ballantine, Pocket Books, Dell Warner, Lancer, Popular Library and Fawcett Publishing.”
(http://barrymoretebbs.blogspot.co.uk)

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The women of Roissy from the 1975 film Histoire d’O

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One thought on “The Gothic Element in Story of O: Roissy

  1. Pingback: The Gothic Element in Story of O: Roissy | Story of O

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