There is a fantasy England populated by “brutal aristocrats with enormous sexual equipment and violent tastes…”. The ‘vice anglais’ is spanking on the buttocks sometimes referred to as CP or ‘corporal punishment’. Apparently the English have spanking and flagellation all to themselves as both proclivities tend to be labelled as the ‘le vice anglais’ (flagellation stemming from the Latin flagellum, “whip, lash, switch”). The term can also be applied to buggery, though why this should be a purely English proclivity makes no sense.
The English ‘public’ school system used corporal punishment for many years. Commonly it is claimed that many an English schoolboy acquired a taste for such treatment that carried on into his adult life. The poet Swinburne recalls ‘birching’ at Eton, claiming that his own proclivity for that particular pastime had been cultivated by such school practices.
“It seems to be an assured fact,” writes Praz in his chapter entitled Swinburne and ‘Le Vice Anglais’ (The Romantic Agony), “that sexual flagellation has been practised in England with greater frequency than elsewhere -”. In the broadest sense of the term the English vice can be interpreted to suggest the Englishman’s penchant for cruelty, both received, given or observed.
This derives not surprisingly, from the huge reputation gained by one George Augustus Selwyn (1719-91), the sadistic English nobleman, politician and member of the notorious Hellfire Club. Selwyn’s obsession with executions and corpses was so well known he is referenced in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, de Goncourt’s Le Faustin, and Chrysal; or, the Adventures of a Guinea, by Charles Johnstone.
It was widely reported that he had travelled to Paris to witness the protracted torture and death of the failed assassin Robert-François Damiens (by drawing and quartering). His manner in the crowd was such that an aristocrat at the scene asked him if he were an executioner and he replied “No, Monsieur, I have not that honour; I am only an amateur”. He was accused of attending all executions, stated Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, “and sometimes, in order to elude notice, disguised in a female dress.”
It is little wonder that ‘Pauline Réage’ chose an Englishman, ‘Sir Stephen’, into whose hands her protagonist ‘O’ should be placed. Hands tempered with ‘le vice anglais’. Such a figure has become a literary and cinematic trope (see Portrait of an Englishman in his Chateau by André Pieyre de Mandirgues or Story of the Eye by George Bataille).
But there is more to it than that. Réage (Dominique Aury) had read Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis and Anne Radcliffe, and being familiar with the English Gothic writers she would have known the tradition of the mysterious or ‘fatal’ nobleman, or villain, stretching back to Milton and beyond. Indeed the perverse charm of the Byronic hero was quick to infiltrate the offerings of French writers and was seen to merge with that of France’s own Marquis de Sade in the writing of Baudelaire and the literature of the Decadence.
Lo! the spell now works around thee,
And the clankless chain hath bound thee;
What Byron’s Manfred said of Astarte (‘I loved her, and destroy’d her’] Mario Praz points out, became “the motto of the ‘fatal’ heroes of Romantic Literature”. Such heroes were in the habit of destroying the unlucky women who came within their orbit.
The same could be said of Sir Stephen who, on the final page of Story of O, in one of two alternative endings to the novel, consents to O choosing death.
Akin to the fiercely solitary Manfred and his, “lone thoughts and wanderings, the quest for hidden knowledge” Sir Stephen claims he has “a fondness for habits and ritual.” He could easily be drawn as the fatal hero or villain with “certain qualities”. Praz lists; “mysterious (but conjectured to be exalted) origin, traces of burnt-out passions, suspicion of a ghastly guilt, melancholy habits, pale face, unforgettable eyes.”
Upon first meeting Sir Stephen is described as “a sort of grey haired athlete” (with “hard grey eyes”). His gaze has an “attention so precise and so sure of itself” that O feels held and weighed. He is expressionless and speaks not a word, his bow is imperceptible. Later Sir Stephen seems continually on the point of revealing something like love to O, but can only allude to it, or whisper it in fragments. On one such occasion:
“O suspected that this brutality [Sir Stephen’s] was directed at himself as much as at her…”
She soon divines in Sir Stephen, “a glacial unswerving will which desire was powerless to deflect from its purpose…”
Is not the screen Sir Stephen reminiscent of Byron’s heroes … “That brow in furrow’d lines had fix’d at last, And spoke of passions, but of passions past…”?
“I didn’t really find it that erotic. I think this was mainly because the characters are not developed at all…”
Thus have numerous new readers of Story of O been disappointed by the cardboard characters that furnish the novel. But as in Sade the fantasy of Histoire d’O is built upon exclusion. The characters are stripped of their flesh and blood, their everyday complexity. Male protagonists, though deific forces, never assume their full identity as human beings. They are little more than the human chess pieces occupying the tableaux vivants observed in Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad.
In Story of O the whole relation between the sexes is bathed in religious as well as sadomasochistic imagery and as O journeys through her ordeals towards some higher, transcendent reality, the men are seen to be shallow and promiscuous. True metaphysical and spiritual devotion is reserved for O.
“What does Sir Stephen do for a living?” asks Maurice Charney (Sexual Fiction pub 1981). It is only in the sequel to the novel, Return To The Cháteau, that we learn some tantalizing details: “he is Scottish, a member of the Campbell clan (although he is everywhere described as an English lord), he is involved in international finance, perhaps in diamond mines in the Congo…”
“These are all meaningless details of Gothic fiction and have no bearing on the novel,” continues Charney, a novel which is, “deliberately static, non referential and ahistorical. Everything occurs as if in a dream.” The chateau of Roissy “marshals the old forms of bondage…” writes Jessica Benjamin (The Bonds of Love).
Charney reminds us, “There is a great deal of deliberate archaizing in Story of O. The narrative is simplified, and the style is highly reminiscent of an eighteenth-century conte in the style of Voltaire. Everything is stripped down and displaced. The author cultivates an effect of distance and distancing. If we are still in the twentieth century, the narrative has been slowed down and abstracted, There is an air of elaborate manners and ritualistic formality from another era. The characters move in and out of their roles with an obsessive, dance like symmetry.”
Sade formed the starting point for Histoire d’O. The author’s lover Jean Paulhan was a great enthusiast of the ‘Divine Marquis’ and it was he who challenged Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury) to write something akin to his taste. “But what stands behind Story of O is not only Sade,” points out Susan Sontag (The Pornographic Imagination),
“The book is also rooted in the conventions of libertine potboilers written in nineteenth-century France, typically situated in a fantasy England populated by brutal aristocrats with enormous sexual equipment and violent tastes…”