A World of Books & Masks: Anne Desclos Writer of ‘O’


“O is… little more than… a shadow that
murmurs in the night.” – Pauline Reage

In Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf noted,
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman”.

The writer of Story of O has been described as “the most secretive women of the literary world of the twentieth century.” Anne Desclos, Dominique Aury, and Pauline Réage… behind these three names hides a singular figure, a woman who devoted all her life to a cult of secrecy.


It has been said of the writer that she was an idea, as smoke, a negation of a destiny. It is true that all her life Anne Desclos (to affix her birth name) cultivated a taste for secrecy and toyed with many masks to gain or conquer her freedom.

Curiously, her protagonist ‘O’ can be seen as her own unfreedom. “O is… little more… than a shadow that murmurs in the night.” she maintained. O indeed has a lot to think about in her own shadowy nights. “He told her that, to begin with, she must not think of herself as free. From now on, that is to say, she was not free; or rather she was free in one sense, only in one: to stop loving him and to leave him immediately. But if she did love him, if she was going to, then she was not free at all…”

Dominique- Aury-3

As Reage revealed in A Loving Girl, the ultimate love letter written at the bedside of dying lover Jean Paulhan, Histoire d’O was written at night, in secret, without respite or erasure, as in a dream. The result of her murmurs; a pioneering book, a mystical quest for crazy love transcending the codes of dark eroticism, an unprecedented combination of decency and violence, condensed with coldness and fervour, ‘Story of O’

In her introduction to a new edition of O m’a dit, (March 1995), Régine Deforges wrote, “She is now an old lady [in 1995 Pauline Reage was eighty-eight] but I cannot see her as such. I see her rather as a lost child, as I am, in the world of adults; always capable of saying things that surprise them or shock them.”

Was she so lost? I doubt it. Child perhaps. You only have to observe that glint in her eye. Her secrecy had become a habit, the masks handled with aplomb, but in interviews that glint in the eye was always there. She was winning by a long run, that arabesque of smoke. 


Desclos family tree


Born in Rochefort, Charente-Maritime, France, to a bilingual family, Anne Cécile Desclos, whilst still a baby, was entrusted by her rejecting mother, (an austere and misanthropic woman who felt disgust for the body – “She didn’t like men. She didn’t like women, either. She hated flesh.”) to her paternal grandmother, a Breton living since 1888 in the house once owned by the liberal Catholic writer (and academician) Charles de Montalembert in Basse-Normandie. 

cottageThe house is in a small village named La Butte, next door to Avranches. La Butte is an old hamlet of Val-Saint-Père, a stone’s throw from the Jardin des Plantes and Notre-Dame-des-Champs church, with a panorama of the Bay Mont Saint-Michel.

View of the Bay.jpg

As an only child, Anne Desclos grew up in a catechesis that seeks an abdication of self. As a little girl moved to tears by the choruses of the office, she discovered a voluptuousness in prayer and, although uncertain about the vow of chastity demanded she planned a life of seclusion, in obedience, prayer and poverty. At sixty eight she recollected, “I suspect that I would have made an excellent nun, at least for a short while.”

Le Val-Saint-Père

Her grandmother, as a refugee of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, had helped her husband keep a restaurant in London’s Soho for some twenty years, raising her English born child Auguste Victor Desclos in the English language. Grandfather Auguste had been a member of the “francs tireurs,” French partisans who fought against the invading Prussians and who were usually executed if captured. Indeed, once her grandfather had been arrested by the Prussians on suspicion of being a partisan and had been led away with his hands bound before him, but he had managed to escape execution and had thereafter fled with his wife to England. There they remained for about twenty years, operating a small restaurant in Soho. The English census of 1881 has the junior Auguste (age 4) living in Putney, at 4 Heathside Cottages, with his father (31) and mother Victorine (28). In this way, Anne’s father was raised in England until he was nearly a young man. Auguste Victor was bi-lingual and had dual citizenship. In her turn Anne Cécile was raised reading English children’s books, including Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days. 


An interest in English literature naturally followed from these early experiences with English books. It is thus that Anne began reading in French and English at an early age, and it was secretly in the library of her English father, that she brought about her own initiation into the delights of libertine literature. The young Anne Desclos discovered “a libertine literature denouncing the hypocrisy of a morality and the failure of a religion that castigates the body and necessitates the anxiety of the sinner”.

“I was a voracious reader; I’d devour everything…” Reage/Aury

John de St-Jorre explains, “She read The Decameron, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, Les Liasons Dangereuses (her favourite) and other books.” When her father found out, instead of punishing her, he explained the facts of life to her with elaborate diagrams. An older girl-friend then proposed a meeting with a male cousin who would give a more practical demonstration. Anne’s father apparently furnished him with un hôtel de passe, it “turned out to be a whorehouse” she later recalled. Her memory of the incident was one of mechanical crudity and mild amusement.Dominique- Aury-1

A voracious reader, Anne Desclos sought out the works of Shakespeare, Kipling, Virginia Woolf, Laclos and Racine. She read Proust in the French, Shakespeare in the English, the Bible, Baudelaire, Villon, her father’s hidden editions of Boccaccio and Crebillon, Malherbe, Bertaut, the English Gothic writers, Fenelon’s mystical writings. It is said she was seduced by the character of Valmont and was passionate about Kim, Cordelia and Virginia Woolf all of which she discovered through her father. As a child of eleven she read religious manuals given by her great- aunt, and devotional books illustrating the tortures of the martyred saints. She did not however, read de Sade until the age of thirty. In Confessions of O she maintains that it was not only books (“bawdy tales featuring monks and maids… not only illustrated but rather graphic.”) that provoked her fantasies; “my fantasies are much more autonomous… those ‘underground’ tales relate in a curious way to the fantasy world I created beneath the garden of the house I lived in as a little girl. The garden was in the form of a terrace that overlooked the road, and the walls of the terrace were covered with ivy, I realized that if one so desired, one could have fashioned windows in the terrace walls, windows that, thanks to the ivy, would have remained hidden, so that one could see out without being seen. I also realized that beneath that terrace one could have built rooms and passageways. And it was in those rooms that I installed my first heroines.”


Drawing by Hans Bellmer

In fact, the first sixty pages of Story of O are literally copies of these fantasies.” Aury would declare, “Why did I write it? Let’s say that it was a way of expressing a certain number of childhood and adolescent fantasies that persisted into my later life, that not only refused to go away but came back time and again… Because things that are so basic, so profound, within you have to come out, I suppose, and are just waiting for the right moment to find expression.”

It was during her adolescence that the young Anne had to come to terms with her sexual ambivalence. As a brunette teenager she was fascinated by young girls, less in themselves than by the features supposed to make them attractive to men. At fifteen, in September 1923, she was banned from ever seeing her first love, Jacqueline. Her parents had intercepted their erotic correspondence. Twenty years later this relationship finds its echo in Histoire d’O.

For the young Anne Desclos there were three initial stepping stones which augured well for her future career in literature and criticism. Firstly she attended the Lycée Fénelon, the first high school for girls in Paris, founded in 1892 to prepare girls to École normale supérieure.


Secondly she became one of the first three girls to enter the hypokhâgne Lycée Condorcet (1925), one of the four oldest high schools in Paris and one of the most prestigious.


Thirdly, following in the footsteps of her father she pursued an English course at the Sorbonne (1926-1929).


“She has deified her lover and, as we know, the gods are cruel…”

To acquaint myself with ‘Dominique Aury’s’ later writings (like Gregory Stephenson before me), I read a collection of her literary essays, Lectures pour Tous, or as the book is titled in English, Literary Landfalls. There are clear thematic correspondences between the essays collected in Literary Landfalls and Story of O. Both books, as Stephenson points out, celebrate passionate, obsessional, self-annihilating love.

Stephenson writes, “Aury’s essay on the writer and theologian, Francois Fénelon, treats with sympathy his concept of Pure Love, “the soul abandoned to God” in perfect obedience and in complete surrender to suffering even unto “death to self.” Aury expresses her admiration for the courage necessary to undertake such an uncompromising commitment; “to go with one’s fate, to reject nothing, surrender oneself to the last.” (Pursuant to Aury’s essay on Fénelon is the not altogether insignificant biographical side-note that as a young student she attended the Lycée Fénelon.).

The very title of Aury’s essay on the writings of Alfred de Vigny— “Obedience and Death”—resonates with Story of O. The ethos that informs Vigny’s writings may be seen to represent for Aury a military counterpart to Fénelon’s mysticism. “Man loves obedience,” she observes, “which delivers him from himself, because secretly he loves not to belong to himself, he loves to lose himself.” And in a spirit clearly akin to that of Story of O, Aury writes approvingly, indeed longingly, of the “fascinating existence of a universe apart from the everyday universe… where the result of formal servitude is inner freedom.”


Writing of Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1669), Aury is moved by the book’s eloquent expression of the ardent love of a young nun for a French cavalry officer. Such passionate, overmastering love, characterized by Aury as “the total possession of one person by another, without any sense, reason or justice” can be seen to correspond to the unreserved, unrestrained love of O for René and later for Sir Stephen.

Finally, among the essays, there is a comment on the nature of writing, which might well be taken as an expression of the author’s own experiences with regard to her pseudonymous clandestine masterpiece of erotic fiction: “Whoever ventures to write betrays himself. You think you are saying one thing and you are admitting another. You disguise things and speak more truly than you know. The very disguise betrays you.”

Dominique- Aury-2

Dominique Aury (Anne Desclos) & her son Philippe (1937)

In old French,” Stephenson concludes, “the word “desclos” was the past participle of the verb desclore, meaning to open, unlock or reveal, and thus “desclos” meant open, exposed, plain, explicit. (The English word “disclose” derives from “desclos.”) In one sense, the life of Anne Desclos, hidden as it was behind her pseudonyms, Dominique Aury and Pauline Réage, might seem anything but open, plain and exposed. In another sense, however, perhaps it was the pseudonyms themselves that served to quicken to life and give utterance to voices latent and hitherto silent in Anne Desclos. Perhaps, paradoxically, it was the masks, the disguises, the concealing names that permitted her to assert her true identity, to disclose secret selves.”

Dominique Aury AutoLi

Dominique Aury, driving license (1939).


(Oooh! – lovely illustration by Amalia Russiello, with thanks)

astro_dominique_aury (2)

Capricorn Ascendant – Personality, Characteristics & Meanings
People with Capricorn Ascendant must first become aware of their two opposing sides. One is obedience and performing their duties properly. They need to manage energy well and this requires discipline and self-control. They must achieve some social prestige and recognition. The other side is the ability to organize practical matters and achieve their goals, and also the ability to enjoy sensual pleasures.



Text © Stefan Prince


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