Deforges, Régine. Confessions of O: Conversations with Pauline Réage. Trans. From the Frech by Sabine d’Estrée. Viking Press, 1979.
Algernon Swinburne once wrote a letter to the late Marquis de Sade, expressing his disappointment that Sade’s works weren’t half as disturbing or shocking as he thought they would be after hearing about the suppressed books for so many years. Swinburne claimed that any young girl could create darker and viler tales than the notorious Marquis.
Such as young girl would have been something like the reclusive and notorious Pauline Réage, author of the masterpiece of female masochism, The Story of O. Réage didn’t come on record about her true identity or past until the early 1990s, but before that she did give an interview with a French novelist and publisher, Régine Deforges.
Reage is frustratingly circumspect about her life, or at least her external life. She speaks about various affairs, but only refers to “the man I was with,” never naming names. Even her relationship with Jean Paulhan, which I suspect was an open secret among French intellectuals of the time, goes unmentioned. It seems an oddly French manner; do what you like as long as you maintain the pretense of respectability.
Instead, she talks more about her internal life, and her views on women’s sexuality in general and her own in particular. She’s quite frank about her ideas about women being attracted to dangerous men, and that in her best known work, her protagonist seeks a sort of death/transcendence. However, she also says that this is violence and death on a symbolic, not literal, level. She compares O’s torments to the good clean fun of violence and suffering in detective novels, which are all about proving the hero’s toughness and bravery.
Finally, she drops a few hints about her inspirations and models, proving that she didn’t make the whole thing out of whole cloth.
Wasn’t there anything that provoked them? Things that you read? The discovery of the Marquis de Sade, maybe?
No, I first read Sade when I was thirty, not twenty. I, like everyone else my age, I suppose, had read the Songs of Bilitis and Aphrodite, both of which knocked me out. It’s amazing, when you think of it, how bad books – I mean “bad in the sense of having no literary merit – can have such a profound effect on you.
I can’t remember just whom I read any longer, but there were all sorts of so-called bawdy tales featuring monks and maids, statues and asses, all of which were not only illustrated but rather graphic. But they were not what provoked my fantasies; my fantasies are much more autonomous. My fantasies of keeps and underground rooms and girls kept more or less prisoner have a whiff of the Middle Ages about them, and more than a pinch of the English gothic novel, of Ann Radcliffe and Sir Walter Scott as well. I read them ingenuously, without ever realizing what impact they were having on me, or even knowing that they were “black novels,” as it were.
In Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, it’s true, there are heroines kept prisoner, as there are ghostly characters who pass in the night, and then you realize there is really nothing supernatural about them. Udolpho is a model of the genre, still today.
These “underground” tales relate in a curious way to the fantasy world I created beneath the garden of the house I lived in as a little girl. The garden was in the form of a terrace that overlooked the road, and the walls of the terrace were covered with ivy. I realized that if one so desired, one could have fashioned windows in the terrace walls, winds that, thanks to the ivy, would have remained hidden, so that one could see out without being seen. And I also realized that beneath that terrace one could have built rooms and passageways. And it was in those rooms that I installed my first heroines.
To what end?
I don’t remember.
The violation of their bodies?…
Not necessarily. Simply to hide them in, I suspect. Actually, I find it impossible any longer to reconstitute these fantasies; try as I may, I can’t dredge them up, or even recall what form they took. By having used them, I destroyed them completely. All I remember is a recurring theme: someone you love takes you to a place such as the one described in O. In fact, the first sixty pages of O are literally copies of these fantasies.
As a little girl, during that period [of World War I], I had a strange dream that kept recurring until 1942 or thereabouts, at which point I suddenly realized I wasn’t dreaming it anymore. I was in my grandmother’s room, where I slept, and the drapes by the door began to stir. We could hear footsteps coming up the stairs. I knew it was the German soldiers coming to arrest us. I grabbed a rifle and ran out onto the landing and began to fire at them, until I was killed by their gunfire. At which point I woke up.
And you say you kept on having this same dream until 1940?
A little later, 1942, which was the date I joined the French underground – that is the date at which my dream might have become reality, though it didn’t. At that point the dream stopped.
What a terrible dream for a little girl to have to endure. Did it come from stories you heard?
Rather from the ridiculous little books they made us read in those days, called “pink books,” frightfully chauvinistic books filled with evil Germans in their awful helmets…
…who cut off the hands of children.
Stories did circulate in those days depicting the Germans maiming Belgian children. But I must say I never really believed in them.
Pg. 118-119, ellipsis in original
This ties in remarkably well with Laura Frost’s ideas in Sex Drives. Here we have an imaginative woman, a child during WWI and a young woman during WWII, who conflated classic fairy tales with French anti-German propaganda of the period, which as we have seen incorporates sex and gender themes. Add some Gothic/”virtue in distress” pulp trappings and you’ve got The Story of O.
Is O a “virtue in distress” heroine? Unlike Richardson’s Clarissa, she doesn’t put up any physical or even psychological resistance. Even Sade deploys the idea of virtue only to test it to destruction. O, however, willingly undergoes her descent. She’s the heroine who goes straight into the belly of beast portion of the journey, and doesn’t bother much with the other phases. That may be what’s so disturbing to some people about the novel. It is the ultimate exploration of female masochism, without a redemptive ending.
Next to The Story of O, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty comes across as relatively weak tea. The princes and princesses are repeatedly told that they won’t ever really be harmed, and Rice tacks on an ending of Laurent and Beauty safely in heterosexual pair-bonding.
Kink.com’s website, The Training of O, sets up the four day female submissive program as being good for the subject.
Even Sacher-Masoch ends Venus in Furs with the possibility of recovery, of being cured of such desires. Réage and Sacher-Masoch both spent their developmental years in the aftermath of widespread social violence that might recur. Both also had progressive social views, which could be seen as at odds with their best known works.
Given the importance of women, as writers, readers and protagonists, to the history of the Gothic novel and its descendants, Réage could be seen as continuing the tradition and extending it as far as it will go.