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Image by Martin van Maële from the novel Camille et Moi, 1904.

I wonder, will we ever see a BDSM Shakespeare, a kinky Austen or paraphiliac Dickens?
Or will erotica always be a secret pleasure, lurking in the shadows, to be enjoyed in secret? Ghettoised in its own sub-genre, to be discussed only in sniggers and whispers.

Will we even see a playwright or author who is acknowledged as a literary giant,
and who writes works where BDSM features prominently? Imagine if there’d been a Victorian writer of the calibre of Dickens, whose stories featured
sexual discovery and powerplay relationships rather than lost wills and
orphans.

Although Dickens did describe canings, corporal punishment being commonplace in Victorian times, there was very little chance of him writing an erotic spanking scene. Although Victorian themed roleplaying remains a highly popular theme, a fantasy world of maids and stately homes, strict schoolmasters and fearsome governesses, the age itself was prudish and sexually conservative. Consequently the great literature of the age shied away from erotic themes, and lust became an abstract, almost economic motivation,  an urge to possess and marry…

Yet as far back as 1748, Fanny Hill was amongst the first works of pornography to adopt the emerging format of the novel. But alas, it was far too lewd for its time, and would become one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history, despite the fact the sex described is more bawdy than perverse. This was to set the precedent for future repression, and drive erotic writing underground.

By the latter half of the 19th century erotic works were still being written, of course, even by prominent writers and poets. But now they tended to be published anonymously and enjoyed discreetly. Who has ever heard of the fabulously titled comic opera Lady Bumtickler’s Revels? Or the paean to chastisement in The Whippingham Papers?

As culture liberalised in the early 20th century, a subgenre of flagellation fiction emerged, inspired by the works of de Sade and Sacher-Masoch,. These novels tended to be written in French, achieving peak popularity by the 1930s, but few of these fantasies are recognised as works of serious literature. Though you may have read the words of one such writer, Pierre Louys, on this very site.

After the war, post-modern literature became darker, and stories more morally ambiguous. What once was unsayable began to be written down, resulting in controversial novels like Lolita, a suggestive rather than explicit tale of obsessive love that ventures into the taboo. Or the occasional orgies described in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Perhaps there’s hope in contemporary novels that dare to explore the complex landscape of sexual desire. Books like Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and The White, a tale described by one critic as “the novel that Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely”. But still, novels that feature kinky themes tend not to be considered literary novels – members of that esteemed group of cherished stories regarded as having the highest artistic merit. However unfair that categorisation might be.

Do you have a favourite work of erotic literature? Do share your suggestions, I’d love to hear them…