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…Or would you prefer
To err with her
On another fur?”
So ran the ‘Ode To Elinor Glynn’ – a sassy, posh redhead who fired the imaginations of women with her novels, and the fantasies of men just by walking into a room.
She was the original ‘it’ girl: she coined the phrase to mean indefinable sex-appeal and she was one of the most read novelists of the early 20th century. There was only one Elinor Glynn, but she wasn’t the first or the last to make her career by shocking and tantalising. Blending steamy seduction with daring drama, authors like Elinor Glynn, George Sand, Barbara Cartland, and Jackie Collins have each, in their way, written of the feelings women were not supposed to have.
~ Mandy Baldwin
Unhappily married to an aristocrat older than herself, Elinor began a series of affairs, like many glamorous Edwardian socialites. But then she began to write about them… and made a killing doing it.
Her novels are tame by today’s standards – no hint of ’50 Shades’ – but they were positively scandalous at the time, detailing erotic and romantic encounters (complete with vivid descriptions of what was felt, if not what was done).
And, of course, as with her notorious novel ‘Three Weeks’, published in 1907 – the story of a Balkan Queen who seduces a young English Lord – it was all the more titillating for being thinly-veiled fictionalised accounts of her own affairs (in the case of ‘Three Weeks’ it was a Duke’s son, sixteen years her junior.)
The ‘three weeks’ of the title refers to the time the fictional couple spent alone in a Paris apartment, which is where the action (and there was a fair amount of action) took place.
It took the Edwardian era by storm: it was condemned by the clergy as immoral, sneered at by more literary authors for being shallow, and slated by critics for being needlessly provocative. But surprise, surprise – it just kept selling.
Which is proof that, at least in the world of the risqué novels, nothing has changed.
Image Source: Amazon
Jackie Collins’ novels are so full of bling, even though she was prolific from the 1960s until her death in 2015, they have come to epitomise the mood of the 1980s.
As with all erotic romance authors, she faced some snobbery. I remember a pretentious academic acquaintance putting a fake cover – Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ – on copies of Collins’ novels so that she didn’t have to explain why she found them so addictive. But, like Elinor Glynn in her day, Jackie’s books just keep on selling.
They both concentrated on the socialites of their era; their heroines are always gorgeous and available for a steamy encounter; unhappy, unfaithful marriages feature strongly, and the female characters get involved with bad boys who have enormous – er – charisma.
Their writing styles are surprisingly similar: both tend to dive straight into the action with vivid descriptions of houses, places, clothes, and a lot of attention to their heroines’ responses to the central male characters.
An essential style difference is that Elinor Glynn was restricted by the censorship of her time, so she had to concentrate on the emotions, rather that the physical details, in her stories.
Jackie Collins, however, was able to write graphically in a way that Elinor Glynn could only dream of.
And Jackie wasn’t afraid to throw in some dark twists (and the occasional psychopath): things that simply weren’t part of Elinor’s fictional world.Recommended Novel: ‘Hollywood Wives’ (1983)
The book that really made her name: tightly written and with multiple perspectives, it is a feast of sex, scandal, money, bitching, and fame, where occasionally a glimpse of real love and passion offers redemption.
I defy anyone to be able to put this down unfinished.
A group of pampered, demanding women enjoy the high-life and exist to be beautiful. Status is everything.
But status depends on money, and money is provided by men, and men can’t always be relied on.
They are all connected but they are contacts, not friends. And even where they are friends, if the right meal-ticket comes along, what does a friendship matter?
While they party and preen and stab each other in the back, they don’t know that there is someone on the prowl who might just take that phrase literally…
Image Source: Siena Libri
No, honestly, George Sand wasn’t a man (her real name was Aurore) although she frequently cross-dressed.
Sand was born in Paris, to a wealthy aristocratic family. She was a baroness, a dark beauty with a taste for younger men who was described as “a thinking bosom… who overpowered her young lovers.”
She is as famous for her affairs with artists, writers and musicians as she is for her novels, which – like Glynn’s – were considered as scandalous as her lifestyle. They too closely followed events in her own life.
Themes in her novels were also unhappy marriages of convenience, illicit passion, and the restrictions women suffered from society. Her stories were told from the perspective of the upper-classes. And they sold too, making her wealthy enough to be independent of her family estate. Like Glynn.
So far, so similar.
The difference in their writing actually stems from the necessity to use a male pen-name (without it, she would not have been published).
This freed her from being pigeon-holed as a romantic novelist: the “male” author George Sand was respected for “his” lively style, intricate storylines, and insight into the romantic and erotic nature of women. “George” was also able to comment on politics and society because “his” novels were not seen as the usual fluff reserved for women of the time.
Only when the true identity of George Sand was discovered were the novels suddenly slated as poorly written (and George/Aurore was ridiculed for not caring about her reputation).
It’s hardly surprising those bewhiskered Victorians were so shocked: Sand’s novels are as fresh and dynamic as anything being written today.Recommended Novel: ‘Valentine’ (1832)
The ‘Valentine’ of the title is a talented young woman from an aristocratic family who falls in love with Benedict, a farmer on her family’s country estate.
Valentine’s grandmother – an outrageous snob of her time and class – does everything in her power to destroy the love affair, and, failing that, the lovers themselves.
She fails because the couple are determined to be together, but there is an added complication: when the couple are helped by Valentine’s sister, Louise, Benedict also falls in love with her.
This is when the book stops being a ‘typical’ romance, and tilts toward the raunchy, as you can imagine.
A ménage a trois with two sisters wasn’t the usual reading fodder for the period, and even more shocking was that it didn’t seem to present anyone in the book with any moral dilemma (except the grandmother, who had been purple with rage from the outset).
The backdrop to the drama is 1830s rural France, with many of the characters traceable to people Sand had known in childhood on her own family’s estate.
There are vivid descriptions of the characters and their lifestyles, and Sand pulls no punches when it comes to the awakening of the two sheltered young women who threw away the chance of advantageous marriages to be with their shared peasant lover.
Image Source: Barbara Cartland
“Barbara Cartland? The writer who churned out 700 books of fluff and froth which stopped at the bedroom door? A racy novelist?” I hear you ask. Well, yes. That’s the one.
Barbara Cartland began her career writing risqué novels for racy flappers in the 1920s and ’30s.
In fact, one of her plays was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for being too shocking to be shown. Being daring was what made her name, along with hosting the naughtiest parties in London.
Just as important, she was actually inspired by the books of Elinor Glynn, who she adored and who became her friend.
Like Glynn, she focussed on upper-class romantic entanglements and the adventures of young women who were exploring new-found freedoms. She set out to shock. Her style was light, fast-paced and highly descriptive, showing the influence of Glynn on her writing.
Only when she noticed what she called the ‘ugliness’ of post-WW2 promiscuity did her style of writing change, in a one-novelist re-romance campaign. Or at least, that’s what she claimed.
Personally, I think it was more that. Like Glynn’s, her writing reflected her life.
Glynn may have written about passionate undying love, but she never really experienced it. Cartland, though – the pink chiffon lady – was swept off her feet by more than one man as aristocratic as any of her heroes, and found her ‘happily ever after’ as step-grandmother to Princess Diana.Recommended Novel: ‘Jig-Saw’ (1920)
This was Cartland’s first novel, written when she was just 19 years old – and I urge you to read it because it is astonishing that someone so young could have such insight.
It tells the story of a young girl who is, almost against her will, thrown into upper-class society without any experience of life or of mixing with rich and influential people.
She swings between wanting to enjoy every aspect of her new freedom, and fearing that she is out of her depth.
As she becomes wiser she grows a little cynical and realises that she can never return to her early innocence. It brings her great unhappiness, even though she has become a popular member of society and the excitement of parties and outings continues to surround her.
Eventually, through beginning to fall in love with someone who has emotional depth, she starts to accept that she can enjoy everything society has to offer without losing herself.
These authors don’t focus on the romances of the rich and famous.
Instead they share the secrets ordinary people would prefer to keep hidden.
Image Source: Book Fever
Unlike Glynn, Metalious was born into poverty and, instead of marrying rich, she lived in squalor with her child and husband for a while.
Only when her husband finally found work could she begin to write.
Her subject was the hypocrisy of comfortable middle-class 1950s New England society, which she thought had excluded her. Her debut novel, ‘Peyton Place’, both fascinated and repelled: it was a best-seller, but banned in many conservative states.
Like Glynn, she wrote deliberately to shock, but there was little romance in her writing because her writing reflected her own experiences, which were not pretty.
Promoted as “Pandora in blue jeans”, she deliberately lifted the lid on local scandals and seemed immune to criticism of her writing style, saying that her critics had no taste.
To this day, her writing has the power to shock: the contrast between the picture-postcard image and what lies beneath is timeless, although her style is raw and contains little research (there is no reference to current events, for example).
The saddest contrast between Grace and Elinor must be that for Grace, there would be no fairy-tale ending: having found success, with her first novel filmed and televised, the effects of past poverty and depression were inescapable.
She died of cirrhosis of the liver at the aged of thirty-nine, heavily in debt and betrayed by her latest lover.
Recommended Novel: ‘Peyton Place’ (1956)
A pretty-as-a-picture New England town, where the lawns are green and the picket-fences are freshly painted white.
On Sunday morning the churches are packed. The husbands are all devoted family men, the wives are contented and bake apple pies.
But if you just look behind the white lace curtains….
There you’ll find all (sordid) aspects of human life: infidelity, incest, abortion, violence, drunkenness and bankruptcy must be hidden to keep face amid the snobbery and condemnation.
It follows ten years in the lives of three women: a mother who is, quite literally, a desperate housewife; her daughter, who is slowly being driven mad by the small-minded community around her; and their friend, who never quite fits in because she must always hide her origins.
While they try to hide their secrets, the petty dramas of the small, smug town unfold around them, but there will be no resolution to their problems, because the book ends abruptly, and as you close it, you can imagine them going on forever, stifled by the snobbishness around them.
How did Grace ever get away with this, in the 1950s? I don’t know – but read it, and you’ll be glad she did.
Breaking down the barriers and revealing what is meant to be hidden, but this time in the stifling atmosphere of 1950s Ireland.
I am not the only person who thinks that O’Brien is probably the finest writer living. I wasn’t born in the 1950s (nor did I grow up in Ireland) but she brings to life a society clinging fiercely to religious conventions which aimed to suppress all freedom: romantic, sexual, intellectual.
I honestly don’t think she set out to shock, it just seemed to happen. Then again, the people she shocked were easily scandalised.
When she was published, instead of being celebrated for her naughtiness (as Glynn was) she found herself reviled in her own country, although they are proud of her now.
She was condemned from too many pulpits, banned and harassed by too many newspaper editors (her own parish priest even publicly burned copies of her novel).
So Edna left Ireland for the heady freedom of 1960s London, which provided more material.
She still lives in London: still writing, still brilliant.Recommended Novel: ‘The Country Girls’ (1960)
It’s hard to understand why the Irish Censorship Board banned this novel.
I suppose it’s as my Gran used to say “mucky minds find muck where there’s none”, because this is actually the most tender, lyrical exploration of innocence you could wish to read.
It does, however, deal with sexual awakening and questions the teachings of the Church.
Two convent girls, friends since childhood, go to the big city in search of adventure.
But in these new surroundings, the differences between them surface: Baba is excited about life as a single girl, while Cait yearns to find true love.
They are burdened by guilt as they have their first romantic and sexual encounters. They suffer heartbreak and disillusionment and they must find a way to reconcile what they have been taught with what they are now learning.
They intended to share their journey, but their new life hands them unexpected challenges. They found that it was, more than anything, the bonds of the past which held them together, and each must find the courage to go her own way.
Beautiful, revealing and honest.
Novelists like Elinor Glynn brought female sexuality out of the closet: marriage could be a ball-and-chain instead of a fairy-tale ending and passion and love were to be savoured, not feared.
Are you feeling inspired to read a wicked lady? Feel free to leave a comment.
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