Reading ‘Story of O’: Make mine a Flat White…


Reading ‘Story of O’, “the reader is immersed in a confessional of desire”, writes blogger Heidi Coon. And how might that immersion be attained? In the bath? outside a coffee bar? In the busyness of Paris? By the pool? In your bed socks, or in bed with your pet cat?…

Instagram reveals all the aforementioned and more. With all due respect I feature the readers of ‘O’ in this pictorial celebration: ‘Reading STORY OF O’.

“50 Shades of Grey doesn’t even compare. I can’t believe I found it. I hit the book Thrifting gold mine!”


“Story of O has stuck with me. It’s terrifying yet beautiful, and I think it takes a fall down a dark dark rabbit hole to appreciate it and to see how fascinating it is.”

“Holy Heck!” (reader’s reaction)


 “Filthy Sunday reading- a zillion times better than 50 Shades” (O reader)

“Please no Fifty Shades of Grey but Histoire d’O ….. Or just read Justine by Sade.”


“I remember being grounded for owning this at
like 12 years old.
Love that it was written by a woman, too.”

“- hands down one of the best pieces of literature -”

– O O O –


© the above ‘O’ readers on Instagram







COLOURS OF S&M : O’s Regency Yellow – a Two Way Traffic of “Vice & Sin”


Yellow is the colour of Regency fashion and décor, ‘Regency’ being the period at the beginning of the 19th century when the British developed a swagger in their dress as a result of having at last beaten the French. Somehow, thereafter, we exported the colour to France. The French editions of Histoire d’O come in the brightest of yellows. Rare first editions from 1954, with their now slightly faded yellow paper covers, are still to be found among the book-stalls of Paris, and sometimes sell at considerable prices on the internet.

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Jonquil, or ‘daffodil’ yellow, was THE colour of the 1801 season as jonquil was everywhere. Both the primrose colours, ‘primrose’ and ‘evening primrose’, were popular during the whole Regency period, and the height of fashion 1807-1817.

The Regency era in Great Britain was a period when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son ruled as his proxy as Prince Regent. On the death of George III in 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV. The Regency era ended in 1837 when Queen Victoria succeeded William IV.

The Regency period saw society considerably stratified. In many ways there was a dark side to the beauty and fashion in England at this time. In the dingier, less affluent areas of London, thievery, womanizing, gambling, the existence of slum-house prostitution and constant drinking ran rampant.


Later in the 19th century yellow would colour the whole Decadent period when the swagger of the ‘dandy’ hinted at vice and sin,  and when the likes of Swinburne and Oscar Wilde exploited their enthusiasm for Baudelaire, Flaubert, de Sade and Gautier (the ‘dandy’ flourished on both sides of the English Channel).


The Decadent period, now often referred to as the “Yellow Nineties”, owed much, in fact, to France. Wicked and exotic French novels bound in yellow had become the vogue in London for a decade. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, Dorian Gray’s education in vice is helped along by a “poisonous book” in a yellow cover. One reviewer described Wilde’s novel as “a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Décadents.”Blogger JD Ellevsen states, “During the Victorian era, two kinds of books were commonly presented in yellow dust jackets: sensation novels (The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, etc.) and—horror of horrors—French fiction.”


When in 1894 writer Henry Harland, artist Aubrey Beardsley, and publisher John Lane, were casting around for a title for their new (and as it turned out, short-lived) monthly journal that has come down to us as the decade’s “most glamorous monument”, the title chosen was The Yellow Book. From this the decade took its name.

Rather tame by today’s standards The Yellow Book championed the cause of new talents as a quarterly review, self conscious of excellence in yellow board covers with thick paper and wide margins. The splendid cover illustrations for the first four volumes were the work of Aubrey Beardsley, who along with Wilde perhaps epitomizes the whole period. It was almost solely Beardsley’s contribution which gave The Yellow Book its ‘decadent’ reputation, the result of which was a storm of moral outrage.

Sadly Beardsley’s association with The Yellow Book was brief. When Oscar Wilde was arrested on a criminal charge of committing indecent acts, several newspapers seized the opportunity to concoct the headline; “arrest of Oscar Wilde, Yellow Book under arm”. Shortly afterwards John Lane bowed to public pressure and dismissed Beardsley from his post as art editor.

Not surprisingly the tradition of the yellow paper book-cover continued in France. Also not surprisingly, writer Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury) furnishes Sir Stephen’s Paris apartment in her novel Story of O, (a home-from-home on the rue de Poiters) with a touch of Regency yellow thus;

[the room] furthest from the entry was the largest and the most restful, furnished in dark English mahogany and pale silks, striped yellow and grey.”


Yellow Book 2



The tradition of the yellow book-cover saw its last flowering in the UK during the 1960s and early 1970s. Who can forget, once discovered, the distinctive yellow and illustrated covers of the popular Luxor Press and similar UK publishers, boasting such tempting titles as Venus In Furs, Slaves to Sin, The Story of Corporal Punishment, Flagellation, Nell in Bridewell, and The Age of Perversion? Make mine a yellow book!

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© S. Prince (


AHOY THERE! : Three more “Artists of O”


Three would-be seafarers of differing artistic ability: Three art-takes on STORY OF O

Loic-DubigeonLoïc DUBIGEON (1934-2001) was born in Nantes to a family of shipowners. He became interested in painting from the age of fourteen. There followed frequent exhibitions, some in the company of André Lenormand, a painter from Nantes who enlightened him with his knowledge. From the Arts et Métiers in Paris, Dubigeon graduated as an architect. After training and an early career in architecture, he became an artist with a very varied repertoire. In 1963, he received the prize of the Biennale de Paris, award following which he exhibited in France but also abroad.

As a subject the sea was an inexhaustible source, but also still lifes, anonymous characters, derelict neighbourhoods, or beach cabins battered by time, were all of interest to Dubigeon. His work, including paintings, collages and drawings, is to be found in various museums around the world.

He also produced large murals, and designed Hermès scarves.



For his erotic work his style, mostly in pencil, is sophisticated realism, – hand drawn, in black on white. In his Cent dessins pour illustrer HISTOIRE D’O, Paris 1981, scenes of violence and physical acts seduce the viewer in numerous drawings inspired by Story of O. Further drawings were published in Paris in 1997 as Retour de Roissy. Dobigeon draws all the facets of such eroticism strongly tinged with sadomasochism: exhibitionism, flogging, masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, lesbianism, and sodomy…

“In the late 70s… a big Munich publisher… suggested I illustrate a luxury edition of the Story of O. I was very keen. I started work straight away, but the project was called off… When Alaine Robbe-Grillet saw my plates, he put me in touch with Roger Borderie. We made an agreement and Story of O was published with my drawings in September 1981. I was knocked out by the quality of the writing in Pauline Reage’s novel… I found making the drawings extremely captivating.” (Loic Dubigeon ‘La Scene’)
In tribute to the artist who had lived and painted in the two villages on the Normandy coast where he is remembered (Dubigeon lived in the area of Wargemont but rented a studio in Berneval), the library of Derchigny-Graincourt and a street of Berneval le Grand, were named after Loïc Dubigeon respectively in 2007 and 2006. 


David WILDE (Norman Shacklock 1918-74)

Manchester born David Wilde died 43 years ago, it is suggested, under mysterious circumstances. I cannot help but imagine that those who value his work today have embroidered upon the truth, as the artist may well have done himself.
Born Norman Shacklock but adopting the name Wilde as he felt it suited his temperament, David Wilde certainly wore two hats as a painter but did he really exhibit alongside Dali and Picasso in Paris as is continually repeated? I doubt it.


Wilde’s notoriety belongs to mainland Europe and not to his home country. It is for his erotic drawings he is remembered on the Continent. In the UK an attempt has been made to promote his idiosyncratic and semi-abstract attempts to configure the northern industrial landscape of LS Lowry as brightly coloured mishmashes of vorticism, futurism and surrealism.


His erotic work (which at best is extremely uneven in quality) managed to find a place in Erotic Masters of the 20th Century (pub. Germany 1984-5). When one considers the amount of poor quality drawing upon which Wilde eschewed self appraisal much of his erotica is sadly wanting in comparison to ‘masters’ working in a similar vein.

It is recorded he studied at the Manchester College of Art and was employed to draw the female anatomy for surgeons at the local hospitals and illustrated a medical textbook on birth. During the war he served as a draughtsman at the rank of Petty Officer and later became a freelance artist and designer “for large national companies”. He worked for 9 years as senior technical artist at Carlton Press. During this time, it is said, he became acquainted with Lowry and Peter Blake.


One of the ‘secret’ drawings of LS Lowry

On-line gallerist Jane Jones states: “David Wilde is quite an intriguing figure. He chose the pseudonym Wilde as it reflected his lifestyle. When he died, after a short illness, there was some mystery about the manner of his death, apparently because of his determination to expose various secret societies. For that reason, his work was hidden away for safe keeping. Now, with those days behind us, we can show his wonderful, colourful, expressive pieces once again.”

At its best Wilde’s art has a confidence and surety of line suited to the eroticized nude. His erotic drawings were often inspired by classic literary texts and for a private client he produced a portfolio of works inspired by Story of O.



Jack Purvis

Artist Jack Purvis worked from a studio in Kettering, Northamptonshire before retiring to Cromer on the north coast of the English county of Norfolk. He is self-taught moving from watercolours through to oils and occasionally graphite and charcoal. He writes, “Retired from gainful employment. Have been a dancer, salesman (failure), soldier, ship’s steward, personnel director, adviser and negotiator. My occupation now is painting subjects which are meaningful to me. The figure usually occupies a role in my works. I want people who view my work to see their own story. I don’t find painting easy or really relaxing. I work with a model, I read something, or I see something, which creates the urge to paint a story. The end product is ‘narrative’.”


I have certain books,” reports Jack, “novels, purchased over the years which I have read more than once. I also dip into them just to re-visit certain passages. These books include:‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber, ‘Once’ by James Herbert, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ by John O’Brien, ‘Tipping the Velvet’ by Sarah Waters, and my most recent ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson.”

Now blogging through WordPress, Jack adds, “I have been painting for over twenty years. Now having retired to the UK coast I am now more of hobby painter but still manage to churn out some reasonable stuff. I also love words so also do bit of poeting, – really they are rhymes…”


Of his rendition of O masked as an owl, Jack tells me, “My model was a young lady who was with me for four years, As she held the pose I told her the story. She smiled.”




O is for Ocean, Octopuses, (and Motorcycles): Mandiargues, the Champion of Story of O


André Pieyre de Mandiargues (1909–91) was a French writer of the fantastic whose prolific output included poems, plays, essays, novels, and short stories. Born in Paris he became an associate of the Surrealists and married the Italian painter Bona Tibertelli de Pisis.FiniOwlsmsmaller
He was a particularly close friend of the painter Leonor Fini whose feathered costumes, worn to post-war Surrealist balls, inspired the owl mask in Story of O. In a poem to Fini he writes,

“Because she covers herself with feathers sometimes like the king of the owls.”

The correspondence of Léonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues includes five hundred and sixty letters (three hundred and seventy of Leonor Fini, one hundred and ninety of Mandiargues) exchanged between 1932 and 1945. Fini’s letters to Mandiargues came to light many years after his death. They had been hidden in a secret compartment in his writing desk, away from the prying eyes of his potentially jealous wife Bona.

In his letters Mandiargues recounts his wanderings through the ghostly roads of Eastern Europe with his old Buick, intent on becoming a writer, and his visits to museums of ancient painting in Ghent, Brussels, Bruges or Antwerp when he marvels at a polyptych of Jan van Eyck, a temptation of Saint Anthony or a Calvary of Bosch. He never fails to finish his letters by way of adoration, to the “Chat Mammon”. In Monte Carlo Mandiargues studied the writings of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé. In Nice he found a rare nineteenth century book, Les Réves et les moyens de les diriger (Dreams and How to Control Them), by the marquis d’Hervey-Saint-Denys. From then on he diligently recorded his dreams, and this practice informed his writing.

Bona and André Pieyre de Mandiargues

Bona and André Pieyre de Mandiargues

Known for his flamboyant style and fascination with the erotic and macabre Mandiargues’ most popular book was The Motorcycle (1963), which was adapted for the 1968 film The Girl on a Motorcycle, starring a young Marianne Faithfull. His 1967 Goncourt-winning novel La marge was translated as The Margin (Calder & Boyars, 1969) by Richard Howard. The novel was adapted to film in 1976 directed by Walerian Borowczyk as La Marge, internationally as The Margin and in the UK as The Streetwalker. One of his short stories, The Tide, was also adapted in the erotic film Immoral Tales (1974) also directed by Borowczyk.


Another ‘Boro’ collaboration saw Mandiargues’ novel Tout disparaîtra adapted as Cérémonie d’amour (1988) also known as Queen of the Night or Love Rites. Manchester Metropolitan University Associate Lecturer Jonathan Owen claims “Both artists emphasise sexuality as a shocking and scandalous power”, and aligns this impulse with George Bataille’s understanding of eroticism, that eroticism is at once prohibited by but also realized by the codes of civilization. “Transgressive acts of eroticism gain potency from their own interdictions,” records Owen, “and ultimately reinforce the taboos without which transgression is impossible.”


A Refined Voice Expressing Horrible Things

Fini described Mandiargues as one of those “strange boys, extremely shy, cultured, childish and detached from everyday life“. Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the publisher of Story of O, recalled, “Mandiargues was also someone we liked a lot, tall, extremely polite, with a refined voice expressing horrible things.”

Prior to the publication in June 1954 of Story of O, Pauvert published Mandiargues’ L’Anglais décrit dans le chateau fermé under the pseudonym Pierre Morion. Impatient for the promised but long overdue engravings from Hans Bellmer, Pauvert had the novel printed without the engravings. The bookseller-publisher Visat published a separate edition of the novel some years later which included the engravings.


In his memoirs regarding Story of O, Pauvert bemoans the fact that after publication, “The press stayed mute with stupefaction.” One article appeared in 1954 (Claude Elsen in Dimanche-matin) and two notable articles in 1955; one in Critique by Mandiargues, the second by Georges Bataille in La Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue francaise.

Mandiargues enchanted by Story of O busily supported the book and its mystery author ‘Pauline Réage’, describing the novel as,

“certainly the most beautiful novel which has appeared in French since the war (and even before), the newest also. This careful, precise prose, which is so chaste even when describing the most horrible things is admirable, intelligent, perfidious…”

Such a descent into hell…”

“… the Story of O is not, strictly, an erotic book. For at the two levels it is constructed, that of the spirit (or better: of the soul) dominates pitilessly that of the flesh. The image that four long chapters (a fifth one may have been suppressed) give of the modern world, the action, the characters, are extraordinarily vivid; above all they do not depend on the sensual fire, as they would in an erotic book. Here is a genuine novel (and this is so rare in French literature, since Proust, that one must applaud and rank Pauline Réage among the two or three novelists known today), and one would say this is a mystic work.”

André Pieyre de Mandiargues “Histoire d’O”, Critique, June 1955

Mandiargues’ impassioned note on Story of O is to be found in the Grove Press edition of the translated novel. He is seen to concur with Jean Paulhan that the novel “which relates the progressive, wilful debasement of a young Parisian photographer – a via dolrosa sexualis – could only have been written by a woman.” Both men had been amongst those named as possible candidates for the honour of fathering Story of O (along with André Malraux, Henri de Monterlant, Raymond Queneau and Dominique Aury). Both men knew exactly who hid behind the mask of ‘Pauline Réage’. Paulhan was her lover. Mandiargues, it has been pointed out, “must know who the author is since he gives her exact references, religious and classical poetry of the 17th century.”

“what we are shown in Story of O” Mandiargues points out, “is a complete spiritual transformation, what others would call an ascesis. Madame Réage, who has a good knowledge of English and does not mind showing it, could have entitled her book: A Woman’s Progress.”


“Yes, Story of O, as I have said, is indeed a mystic book!” continues Mandiargues, “Proud Réage… In the midst of her glowing tale, she has a way of involving herself, of slipping, at the worst possible moments, into the skin of her heroine, which is enough to make one shudder and at the same time make one feel a certain tenderness for her. The way one would feel towards a brave bull who has fought well. The château at Roissy, like the bull ring, is the sacrificial site. When women become exasperated, they sometimes assume postures wherein they seem to be offering themselves to the arrows of misfortune…”

Arrows of Misfortune

The “arrows of misfortune” of course references de Sade. Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out that although French literature is generally known, outside France, for its humanism & rationalism, it has always produced “works that are secret & black, ” which may well be “its most beautiful creations”(Sontag The Pornographic Imagination). And by way of the dark impulse shared by other French writers such as Mario Mercier (Le Journal de Jeanne) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (in his controversial Un Roman sentimental) André Pieyre de Mandiargues explores the Sadien and sacrificial setting of the château in his A Portrait of an Englishman in His Chateau.

The Englishman

Condemned on June 20, 1955, for contempt of good morals L’Anglais décrit dans le chateau fermé has few rivals in its sexual and sadistic echoing of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom. We follow a nameless narrator as he visits the isolated sea-bound château of a former English diplomat, the fetchingly titled Sir Horatio Mountarse who in order to fit in with his new French surroundings has translated his name, thus becoming M. de Montcul. He delights in torturing his fellow château dwellers in order to maintain his erection and the narrator joins in lustily. Along with the erotic clichés of bestiality, paedophilia and sexual torture, we are treated to intriguingly creative variations on the theme, including one extraordinary episode involving a young female victim and several flesh-hungry octopuses. The writing is purposely crude, the scenarios obscene. Mandiargues’ mock Gothic explores the “extremes of sadism and scandal, but with a certain irony”. Little wonder the author’s wife Bona recorded, “The only sublime thing that I recognize in man is his free imagination.”


André Pieyre de Mandiargues died in Paris on 13 December 1991. He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.

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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.”


The failed assassin Robert-François Damiens before the judges

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.

“La Philosophie Dans Le Boudoir” (Philosophy In The Bedroom), illustrated by “Le Loup”

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.


‘His was not the melancholy of a sensible and wounded heart, but apparently that of a gloomy and ferocious disposition.’ (Mrs Radcliffe’s Schedoni recalls the sinister on-screen Christopher Lee here seen in Jess Franco’s ‘Eugenie’)

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.”


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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…”

Story of O-SirStephen

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…”?

The Story of O 1975

Anthony Steel (1920 – 2001) was an English actor and singer best known for his appearances in British war films of the 1950s, and his marriage to Anita Ekberg. He was described as “a glorious throwback to the Golden Age of Empire… the perfect imperial actor, born out of his time, blue-eyed, square-jawed, clean-cut.”


“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…”

Fruits of Passion

Klaus Kinski as Sir Stephen in Fruits of Passion (1981)

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).

On the set of Histoire d'O

Corrine Clery as ‘O’ – Histoire d’O (1974)

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…”

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©Stefan Prince


STORY OF O: Searching for the book (UK)


The year was 1967, the place was Fort McClellan, Alabama; I was twenty years old, and the book was Story of O by Pauline Réage. I read it with intense interest… even the most casual reader must ultimately find himself implicated in the paradoxes and ambiguities of this unsettling novel. For here is a story with its well-springs in the deepest recesses of consciousness…”

Gregory Stephenson Name Upon Name: Encountering Pauline Réage (Rain Taxi USA)


I found Story of O on my father’s night stand where he kept his copies of Penthouse and Playboy. I guess it was around 1974 and he was away on business for several months. I read it over and over during that time.” (quoted from a social media group, USA)


I was working in an internal department part of the time and discovered a secret collection of pornography kept by the library. I read it in, er, snatches over the course of a week. It was thrilling to me. But I forgot all about it until sometime in my 30s when I remembered the book and went and bought a copy.” (quoted from a social media group, USA)


I read the excerpt in “Evergreen Review” (Sept, 1963) and immediately began searching for the book, which I had to order via mail.” (quoted from a social media group, USA)


I read the first part of the novel, “The Story of O” by Pauline Reage, in “The Evergreen Review” in late 1963. I was working overseas at the time. It hit me between the eyes and I knew I had to obtain the book. When I did, I almost wore it out, reading it over and over. Something about the book fit directly into my mind, making connections between memories and thoughts…” (quoted from a social media group, USA)


Like most readers who are quick to recall just when and where Story of O came into their lives and left such a profound impression, I can recall precisely where and when I first made for home with such a prize. When, however, I first heard of, or read of, this novel remains seemingly beyond the reach of mine recollection.

By the time I reached my teens I was definitely, so to speak, setting out my book-store. Things were falling into place in respect of what interested me most (both public and private). Already my bookshelves were weighted in favour of romance (H Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs), science fiction (H G Wells, John Wyndham, Fred Hoyle), horror (Poe, Lovecraft, Robert Bloch) and Art.

An Introductory Essay of numerous pages in the newly published (1968) Penguin paperback ‘Three Gothic Novels’, penned by Mario Praz, led the way forward (within eighteen months, whilst in the armed forces, I was reading de Sade).


What a wonderful compendium of the literature of beauty, romance, terror, pain and pleasure, is Praz’s The Romantic Agony. But sadly written too early (1933) to be able to mention Pauline Réage and the Story of O, in conjunction with de Sade or in respect of Burke’s famous Philosophical Enquiry (1757), where there occurs the startling statement: ‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible… is a source of the sublime’.

“Whilst yet a boy”, wrote Shelley in his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, “I sought ghosts, and sped through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin…” Such a journey taken through the dusty books of Praz must surely lead the modern reader inevitably to Story of O.

“Who am I, finally,” asked Dominique Aury (in the guise of Pauline Réage), “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 -?”


Where then did I first read of Story of O? No mention of Réage is to be found in the preface to Venus In Furs (Luxor Press, London, 1965), or in the exemplary introduction by Alan Hull Walton to Justine – or the Misfortunes of Virtue (Neville Spearman Ltd, 1964, and Corgi 1965). Nothing is mentioned in Peter Quennell’s introduction to John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1963).

Lo Duca’s A History of Eroticism (J J Pauvert, Paris, 1961) in its adaptation “from the French by Kenneth Anger” (Rodney Books, London, 1966) at least lists Histoire d’O in the index, though only Pauline Réage is mentioned in the text. I recall finding a used copy for sale outside a newsagent near Covent Garden, but that was later, in 1973.

Much later too, I discovered Wayland Young’s Eros Denied (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1965) and its two pages devoted to Histoire d’O. But by then Story of O had held a prominent place on my bookshelf for some while.


“But the frantic excitement of all Sade’s writing prevents him being able to give a cool map even of the sado-masochistic lock. This has been achieved in our day in a French novel called Histoire d’O, which made a succés de scandale when it was published because everyone thought they knew who was concealed behind the pseudonym of ‘Pauline Réage.’”

Wayland Young Studies in Exclusion 1: EROS DENIED

So, maybe the first definite indication, for me, that the novel with the mysterious title, was somewhere out there (Story of O was never officially banned in the UK) waiting to be discovered, was in Gillian Freeman’s The Undergrowth of Literature (Panther Books, London, 1969) first published by Thomas Nelson & Sons Limited in 1967), in which Freeman writes, “The absolute masochist occurs in Histoire d’O… This is a sad and horrifying book, ending with O’s death.” Mm, not quite the recommendation which might send you to London’s Soho in search of the novel. So maybe the temptation and the mystery was engendered elsewhere, and prior to Freeman’s “fascinating dip into the pornographic underworld”.


It is fascinating reading other readers’ recollections regarding Story of O. In my case this novel, with its strange title, remained a mystery for quite a few years, until the summer of 1975. I was working part-time in my college summer break, at a huge retail store on London’s Oxford Street. One day, out of the blue, a colleague produced an American paperback copy of Story of O and suggested I borrow it. Reading it was like a homecoming. Story of O was no longer a mystery. It was a defining moment. I’m forever grateful to that person and to that moment. I returned the paperback and ordered the newly published UK hardback edition from my local book store. Not long afterwards, the French film was released in Paris but banned from UK cinemas.


 © Stefan Prince 2017





SHARING ‘O’: Krafft-Ebing’s Candaulism



René shares ‘O’ with Sir Stephen in Doris Kloster’s ILLUSTRATED STORY OF O photo

In the Jewish ‘Book of Esther’ (also known in Hebrew as “the Scroll”) a tale unfolds that begins, as Wikipedia informs us, “with Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, holding a lavish banquet, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all inhabitants of the capital city, Shushan. On the seventh day, Ahasuerus orders the queen, Vashti, to come and display her beauty before the guests by wearing only her crown. She refuses. Furious, Ahasuerus has her removed from her position and makes arrangements to choose a new queen from a selection of beautiful young women from throughout the empire.”

Corinne Clery - The Story of O - 15_3

This marvellous image of the queen in all her regal beauty displayed before all and sundry secures for the tale the status of an early literary example of candaulism. We find candaulism aplenty in Story of O and one wonders if Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury) was familiar with the term first defined by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his book: Psychopathia sexualis. Eine klinisch-forensische Studie (Stuttgart: Enke 1886).



‘O stared at them with eyes that, beneath her plumage, were darkened with bister, eyes opened wide like the eyes of the nocturnal bird she was impersonating, and the illusion was so extraordinary that no one thought of questioning her, which would have been the most natural thing to do, as though she were a real owl, deaf to human language, and dumb.

From midnight to dawn, which began to lighten the eastern sky at about five, as the moon waned and descended toward the west, people came up to her several times and some even touched her, they formed a circle around her several times and several times they parted her knees and lifted the chain, bringing with them on of those two-branched candlesticks of Provencal earthenware – and she could feel the flames from the candles warming the inside of her thighs – to see how she was attached…

But even though they thus made use of O, and even though they used her in this way as a model, or the subject of a demonstration, not once did anyone ever speak to her directly. Was she then of stone or wax, or rather some creature from another world, and did they think it pointless to speak to her? Or didn’t they dare?’

Candaulism, Wikipedia tell us, is a sexual practice or fantasy in which a 280px-Krafft-Ebing_Psychopathia_sexualis_1886man exposes his female partner, or images of her, to other people for their voyeuristic pleasure. The term may also be applied to the practice of undressing or otherwise exposing a female partner to others, or urging or forcing her to engage in sexual relations with a third person, such as during a swinging activity. Similarly, the term may also be applied to the posting of personal images of a female partner on the internet or urging or forcing her to wear clothing which reveals her physical attractiveness to others. 

The term is derived from ancient King Candaules who conceived a plot to show his unaware naked wife to his servant Gyges of Lydia. After discovering Gyges while he was watching her naked, Candaules’ wife ordered him to choose between killing himself or killing her husband in order to repair the vicious mischief.


The famous painting by William Etty shows the moment at which Nyssia, at this point unaware that she is being watched by anyone other than her husband, removes the last of her clothes.

Etty hoped that his audience would take from the painting the moral lesson that women are not chattels and that men infringing on their rights will justly be punished, but made little effort to explain this to audiences. The painting was immediately controversial, and perceived as a cynical combination of a pornographic image and a violent and unpleasant narrative, and it was condemned as an immoral piece of the type one would expect from a foreign, not a British, artist. It was bought by Robert Vernon on its exhibition, and in 1847 was one of a number of paintings given by Vernon to the nation – although in the case of Candaules a painting so controversial becoming government property was a source of some embarrassment.

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René shares ‘O’ with Sir Stephen in The Story of O (1974)


Interestingly the art collector and connoisseur Charlesdd7d6bb81631f7b0d27442515ab91a07Saatchi has considered the influence of candaulism upon the work of Salvador Dali, citing episodes recorded by the artist’s biographers in which his wife Gala was displayed to other men.

Krafft-Ebing’s principal work was Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study), which was first published in 1886 and expanded in subsequent editions. The last edition from the hand of the author (the twelfth) contained a total of 238 case histories of human sexual behaviour. The book popularized the terms sadism (derived from the brutal sexual practices depicted in the novels of Marquis de Sade) and masochism (derived from the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch).


‘At coffee, when liqueurs had been brought, Sir Stephen pushed the table towards the other wall, and after having raised her skirt to show his friends how O had been marked and ironed, left her to them.’

Pauline Réage Story of O

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Sir Stephen shares ‘O’ with his dining guests in the 1974 Just Jaeckin directed film Histoire d’O

©Stefan Prince with thanks to Shali Peach

The Image: Catherine Robbe-Grillet: “Cloaked in Mystery”

The Image15

In the pantheon of erotic literature The Image (published in 1956 as L’Image by Jean de Berg) is perhaps the only novel which comes close to kinship with Story of O.
For some, it is found to be the superior novel.


Published in a small three-thousand-copy edition by Les Editions de Minuit, The Image sold out in a matter of days prior to a ban. Like Histoire d’O, the publication of The Image had its fair share of subterfuge and smoke screen – an aspect of the two novels which for many years added a sense of tantalising mystery to the very nature of both books.

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The ‘story’ of ‘O’ – how mysterious, how seductive a title. What is it? What can it be about? What is ‘O’? – Likewise “the image” speaks of something tangible but also begs the same questions; What image? What image will be shown?


Taking a cue from the pseudonymous ‘Pauline Réage’, the author of The Image also chooses anonymity. She even invents a preface by ‘P.R.’ (assumed to be Pauline Réage) and a dedication “To Pauline Réage”, and like Réage (Dominique Aury), de Berg hides behind masks and gloves. As with Story of O rumours abounded about the true identity of the author. It was not known if the author was male or female. It was even suggested by many that L’Image was written by Mme Réage herself.


By the close of the 1990s Jean de Berg was found out to be none other than Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the writer, photographer, screen and theatre actress, and wife of French writer and film-maker Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Was The Image a collaboration between husband and wife, between master and submissive?

Alain was a self proclaimed kinkster and purveyor of Sadian imagery both in his novels and films. The focus upon image is all pervading. In many of his stories an image, say of a stain on a wall or an artefact on a table, can take on great importance and busy the reader for several pages. Is not too much a leap of the imagination then, to imagine Alain having a hand in the writing of The Image? So far there has been no admission the novel was a joint enterprise. However, Catherine and Alain were pretty inseparable and without doubt, assisted one another on any number of joint projects. Catherine appears in several of Alain’s feature films including Trans Europe Express where she plays his script-girl.

on Trans Europe Express

Of Armenian descent and born in Paris 24 September 1930, Catherine married Alain Robbe-Grillet in Paris on 23 October 1957 (he died in February 2008). Within a year, it has recently been revealed, Alain drew up a contract under which Catherine would be subject to his sadomasochistic whims and fancies. According to the contract, Catherine would have to present herself at a set time and at a set place, dressed however Alain demanded, and willing to do whatever he asked of her.


Their companionship was beyond doubt. For 50 years of marriage, – the press in 2014 revealed with relish, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, “submitted herself to the sexual slavery of her husband, Alain, who drew up a contract for her setting out rules for kinky torture sessions.” Though she never signed the so-called Contract of Conjugal Prostitution, Catherine “willingly participated in Alain’s every fantasy”, including being whipped, chained and blindfolded.

Alain was one of the figures most associated with the Nouveau Roman (new novel). His writing style has been described as “realist” or “phenomenological”. Methodical, and often repetitive descriptions of objects replace (though often reveal) the psychology and interiority of the character. His film career began when Alain Resnais chose to collaborate with him on his 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. In the credits it was presented as a film equally co-authored by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais.



The whip is of braided leather like those that are used on dogs. From the thin, supple tip it becomes progressively thicker and harder up to the part that one holds in one’s hand, which is almost rigid, forming a sort of very short handle. The lash, motionless on the floor, delineates an S whose narrowest tip curves back on itself.”

At a time in the 1980s, when it could still be suggested Jean Paulhan was the voice behind ‘Pauline Réage’, Sarane Alexandrian in his Histoire de la littérature érotique seemed committed to denying female authorship to any of the hundred erotic classics he identifies (Emmanuelle, it is whispered, was written by the husband of Emmanuelle d’Arsan). I, in no way, wish to apply the same conclusion to Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s L’Image but a re-reading of the text reveals repeatedly, the Alain R G style. I’ll leave readers to their own conclusions.

Both Histoire d’O and L’Image figure in the concise list (just twelve books) drawn up by Pieyre de Mandiargues in 1975, identifying modern erotic literature. Susan Sontag also placed the two French novels among the very few (5) erotic novels she considered to have serious artistic worth. “Intoxicating as is their subject (if the reader doesn’t cut off and find it just funny or sinister)” writes Sontag in her essay The Pornographic Imagination, “both narratives are more concerned with the use of erotic material than with the expression of it. And this use is pre-eminently – there is no other word for it – literary.”

the Image 16

L’Image was made into a 1973 film, The Image, also known as The Punishment of Anne and The Mistress and the Slave, and was directed by Radley Metzger, sticking surprisingly close to the original text. Describing the film as an “intense little gem” Boris Lugosi wrote, “Metzger lavishes much care on the film in just about every aspect, pushing it towards the level of pure art.”

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As in the book the film’s structure is divided in 10 chapters:

    1. An Evening at the X…’s
    2. The Roses in Bagatelle Gardens
    3. Too Much Water and Its Consequences
    4. False Starts
    5. The Photographs
    6. An Expiatory Sacrifice
    7. The Fitting Room
    8. In the Bathroom
    9. The Gothic Chamber
    10. Everything Resolves Itself

The Image 12

Under the pseudonym “Henry Paris,” Metzger directed several explicit adult erotic features during the mid to late 1970s. His signature film style of “elegant erotica”, developed into “a Euro-centric combination of stylish decadence, wealth and the aristocratic”.

Radley Metzger

Radley Metzger the filmmaker whose “nom de fuck” was ‘Henry Paris’

John Phillips writing on Alain Robbe-Grillet states, “It is rare for an important writer to become an equally important film-maker.” Alain Robbe-Grillet maintained, “What is absolutely gripping about the cinema is that it exercises a direct influence on the public… It has an erotic impact that is far superior to that of the written sentence.”

As for Catherine Robbe-Grillet, she has, in her late years, taken on the role of grande dominatrice de la femme. Vanity Fair reports, “The life of Catherine Robbe-Grillet makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a Disney movie. In 1951, she became the mistress of the writer—and accomplished sadist—Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom she later married. Today, an 83-year-old widow, she is France’s most famous dominatrix.”

Is there a conflict of reporting? This nouveau rôle for our author of The Image just might beg the question; If Mrs R-G was so submissive then, how are we to account for la Maitresse Incroyable of her later years?



text © Stefan Prince