Forget Mummy Porn, read the 18th-century Fifty Shades of Grey

The debate about the erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on its newness – but it’s better understood as a throwback to the 18th century.

Clarissa Harlowe from the novel 'Clarissa, Or The History Of A Young Lady'
Clarissa Harlowe from the novel 'Clarissa, Or The History Of A Young Lady' by Samuel Richardson. Image: Getty Images

An unknown author, outside the male-dominated literary establishment, self-publishes a book about a young girl trying to negotiate her relationship with an older, richer, more experienced man. The newspapers are shocked by the book’s erotic content and wonder whether it is awakening untapped sexual desire in a generation of female readers. Its success spawns imitators, a sequel and tacky, cash-in merchandise.

The book I’m describing is not E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey but Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Its publication in 1740 created what William Warner calls “the Pamela media event”. Many books can claim to be the “first novel” but Pamela was something different: the first bestseller. People read it because everyone they knew had read it; they went to an exhibition of waxworks of the characters and they bought fans whose leaves depicted the various scenes.

Everyone wanted a share of the attention (and money) being lavished on the book. Pamela came out on 6 November 1740: Henry Fielding wrote and published his parody, Shamela, by 4 April the next year, and Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela followed on 16 June. Similarly, by the time Fifty Shades of Grey passed sales of 20 million, there was already at least one full-length parody available: Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by “Fanny Merkin”, chronicling the adventures of the ultra-rich “Earl Grey” and his interest in BDSM (Bards, Dragons, Sorcery and Magick, in this case). While the Pamela parodies shamelessly ramped up the carefully implied eroticism of the original, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey does the opposite: replaying the explicitly described sex in Fifty Shades for laughs.

The comparison between Pamela and Fifty Shades goes far beyond the reaction to them, however. There are similarities in the method of their production and the stories themselves. These suggest that the way we should look at the Fifty Shades phenomenon is not as something very new – “they’re reading it on Kindles, you know!”  – but as something quite old.

Samuel Richardson, a middle-class printer by trade, produced work in the upstart novel genre at a time when the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope were regarded as literature’s finest form. The novel was for women and was used to write stories of tittle-tattle and minor lives, exemplified by the “amatory fiction” of Delarivier Manley and Haywood.

E L James’s work began life as a more modern genre but still one considered inferior and feminine: “slash fiction”. That is a subset of “fan ­fiction”, which has been around since well before admirers wrote their own Sherlock Holmes stories. In the internet age, slash fiction has allowed droves of women to take their favourite literary and pop-culture heroes and put them in explicit sexual situations, or in pairings unimagined by their creators. Harry Potter, Legolas and Kirk/Spock erotica are all thriving sub-genres.

Fifty Shades was originally a story called “Master of the Universe”, a fan-fiction version of the vampire series Twilight, which was written by the Mormon author Stephenie Meyer to convey a true-love-waits message to teenagers with a steamy twist. E L James, a middle-aged TV executive writing under the pseudonym “Snowqueens Icedragon”, used the Twilight character names of Bella Swan (nubile teen) and Edward Cullen (aged vampire) in her story. 

The book’s slash fic origins explain its minimalist attitude to plotting (girl meets boy, boy wants a sex slave, girl wants a relationship, they come to a compromise) and the odd fixation on describing settings in painful detail. When Fifty Shades’ heroine, Anastasia Steele, first visits Christian Grey, she sounds like she’s reading aloud the Ikea catalogue:

To the right is an imposing U-shaped sofa that could seat ten adults comfortably. It faces a state-of-the-art stainless-steel – or maybe platinum, for all I know – modern fireplace. The fire is lit and flaming gently. On the left beside us, by the entryway, is the kitchen area. All white with dark wood worktops and a breakfast bar that seats six.

There’s another paragraph of this but you’re excused. Hardly better is the dialogue, which veers from the banal – “My taste is eclectic, Anastasia, everything from Thomas Tallis to the Kings of Leon” – to the excruciating: “I want you to become well acquainted, on first name terms if you will, with my favorite and most cherished part of my body.”

The book’s origins show again in the characterisation, or rather the lack of it. Anastasia and Christian started off as other people, after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise they are so sketchily rendered. Instead of personalities, they have facial tics: Christian “cocks his head” to the side five times in the first 50 pages alone, leaving me with a mental image of an over-amorous parakeet. His lips, meanwhile, “quirk up” into a smile at least a dozen times, while his “eyes darken” with alarming frequency. He is driven into sexual overload by the sight of Anastasia either rolling her eyes or biting her lip.

The biggest surprise in all this, however, is how tame the sex is. In a Britain with an Ann Summers on many high streets, is anyone really that shocked by the idea of a woman being bound with a silk tie? Anyone who bought this book on the strength of the marketing machine’s hints about BDSM (bondage, domination and sado-masochism) will be severely disappointed that the time devoted to that is outweighed by “vanilla” sex and both take a firm back seat to endless talking about feelings.

This is why the “mummy porn” label applied by the media might not be as dismissive as it initially sounds: because this isn’t really a book about a young girl being seduced into a debauched, deviant world, but one about a young girl having a peek at that world and deciding that she’s happy to have the presents and helicopter rides and nice dinners involved with dating an older, richer man but would rather give the caning and slave collars a miss.

It’s a deeply conventional story: Christian Grey might have had many women in his “red room of pain” but Anastasia is the only one he allows into his heart. (In its essentials this is, incidentally, Samuel Richardson’s plot, too: Mr B has seduced plenty of serving maids but only Pamela is special enough to be elevated to wifedom.)

What distinguishes Fifty Shades from “porn for men” (or “porn”, as it’s more generally known) is the relentless focus on female subjectivity. Anastasia’s endless inner monologue is informed not only by input from a vaguely anthropomorphised “subconscious” but also by her “inner goddess”, which is always chipping in, unhelpfully. It “sways in a victorious samba” when Christian looks at her, and “glares at me, tapping her small foot impatiently” when Anastasia is reluctant to lose her virginity. A few pages later it “is doing the merengue with some salsa moves” because Christian has told her: “Anastasia, I’m going to come in your mouth.” Occasionally, goddess and subconscious combine to gang up on Anastasia, which renders the whole thing intensely bathetic. “My mind drifts to last night and this morning and the incredible, sensual sexuality I’d experienced. Do I want to say goodbye to that? No! screams my subconscious . . . my inner goddess nods in silent Zen-like agreement with her.”

There is in this, however, a crumb of consolation. Pamela also offers an exhaustive and exhausting catalogue of its heroine’s feelings, through her letters to her parents. But Samuel Richardson developed that naive self-absorption into the rich interiority of his great work Clarissa. In the process, he redefined what a novel could be.

Over to you, E L James.