Rowan Pelling shows how the classics can kiss us into rapture
Like most little girls, my erotic awakening was closely linked to my prepubescent passion for horses. The first distracted tingling to the written page happened as I thrilled to the equine adventures of Silver Brumby Kingdom. Baringa, a wild Australian horse, fights another stallion and wins his gorgeous creamy mares from him. Make of this what you will, but I found it strangely arousing. Shortly afterwards I switched my allegiances from Baringa to Mr Rochester - a surprisingly easy step to make when you think that Jane Eyre first encounters Rochester on a "tall steed" and mistakes him for a Gytrash, a north-of-England spirit that takes bestial form. From Rochester, it was another small leap to Mr Darcy, and Mr Darcy looks good in breeches and is often on a horse. In other words, this erotic odyssey is: horse; centaur; Darcy. Boys, by contrast, read Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and The Last of the Mohicans. Enough harpoons, spears and subaqueous phalluses to shrivel anyone's manhood. It takes them years to recover and is the reason most men have never read the classics.
It has been hard to escape my formative influences; nothing, erotically speaking, seems to match up to the febrile imaginings of the 19th century's repressed women authors. Well, not if you leave poetry out of it - which you have to, because poetry, especially John Donne's, is the very language of passion. Fielding and Defoe lay on sex-romps aplenty, but their mode is less erotic than bawdy. Samuel Richardson's monumental Clarissa is the languorous exception to the hectic couplings of the 18th century; in fact, the pace is so slow that the reader urges Lovelace to begin assaulting the captive heroine.
No, for me, sex begins with Jane Austen. There may be precious little on the written page, unless you count the line in Emma which states, "he ejaculated into her ear", but there is plenty of sex between the lines. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy are clearly in the thrall of a great sexual attraction. Their fierce verbal sparring, as with Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedict, is the engine of erotic tension that drives the entire work. When Lizzie declares, "I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry", the depth of her denial is in direct proportion to her capacity to love Darcy. Sexiness may not have existed as a concept in 1813, but it is clear to the reader that Lizzie and Darcy are as sexy as people can be.
Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park are alluring in a different way. Their sexiness is resolutely laced with guile. Austen sends them as agents of mayhem into the smug tranquillity of a bourgeois utopia. When the central characters visit Mr Rushworth's estate, Sotherton, Mary leads the group into the rural "wilderness". "Here is a nice little wood, if one can but get into it. What happiness if the door should not be locked!" Once through, people pair off and Henry and Maria Bertram encounter another gate. Crawford suggests that if Maria follows his lead then, "you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance". There is no need to spell out the full extent of the trespass suggested. What makes Henry Crawford dangerous is his desire to make emotional as well as physical conquests. To amuse himself on his days not hunting, he plans "to make Fanny Price in love with me".
The latent eroticism in the Brontes' novels is less rarefied: three sisters living and menstruating together, in a remote parsonage, with only a drunken brother to lavish affection on. It's hardly surprising if they call up swarthy djinn like Heathcliff and Rochester.
In Jane Eyre the sexual charge again comes from the intensity of the central relationship. Rochester says to Jane: "I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you - it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string in the corresponding quarter of your little frame." His speech is followed by a flash of lightning from the calm of a midsummer's night. These characters, like Cathy and Heathcliff, do not inhabit the realistic and rational universe of, say, George Eliot. This is a world shadowed by phantasmagoria, where there is opportunity for the reader to unearth dark secrets in the attics and on the moors. What is eroticism if not the desire to embrace the hidden and forbidden?
The dwindling of taboos and the advent of cinema made the 20th century less fertile territory for erotic literature. AnaIs Nin and Henry Miller wrote torrents of torrid prose that has as much erotic charge as a smelly bedsock. It's not strange, in hindsight, to learn that Nin did not have an orgasm until she was in her forties. And once D H Lawrence brought fucking into fashion, romantic love took a plunge out of the window. If it had been a fair exchange I wouldn't have minded, but we walloped the censor in return for pulsating bulrushes, sweaty Arab mares clamped between strong thighs, and men wrestling nude in front of the fire.
Lawrence's prose is so fantastically overwrought that every clinch has electricity flooding through entwined limbs. He will not let a man be a man when he can be a wolf, or better still, "one of the strange inhuman sons of God". Arnold Bennett, whom Lawrence despised as a timid Edwardian writer, squeezes more genuine emotion into the closing paragraph of Clayhanger than Lawrence does into his entire oeuvre. "Drowning amid the waves of her terrible devotion, he was recompensated in the hundredth part of a second for all that through her he had suffered or might hereafter suffer . . . He thought of the younger Edwin whom she had kissed into rapture, as a boy too inexperienced in sorrow to appreciate this Hilde. He braced himself to the exquisite burden of life."
This is what erotic writing should be all about.