So, it turns out spicy books aren’t all best-selling romantasy and cartoon covers! Story Of O is classic smut, the O.G. 50 Shades Of Grey, and I can guarantee it pushes the envelope farther than anything you’ve read lately.

Story Of O - Pauline Reage - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Story Of O (or Histoire d’O, in the original French) is an erotic novel first published back in 1954. Pauline Réage is a nom de plume, the pen name for French author Anne Desclos, who didn’t reveal her true identity until 40 years after it went to print. Having read it, I can kind of see why. You wouldn’t want your Mum knowing this is the kind of stuff you write about!

She wrote Story Of O, she said, as a “love letter” to Jean Paulhan, a man who deeply admired the work of the Marquis de Sade (which tells you just about everything you need to know about him, hmph). Apparently, Paulhan didn’t think that a woman could write smut as well as Sade. When Réage proved him wrong, he was so impressed, he sent it on to a publisher.

The translator isn’t named in my edition, which annoys me to no end. I looked into the publication history, and it would seem that the first English translation was completed by Baird Bryant and published in tandem with the French edition initially. Then, an improved English translation by Austryn Wainhouse appeared in 1957 (under the title ‘Wisdom Of The Lash’), and then a new translation by Sabine d’Estree for the American release in 1965. I’m pretty sure that last one is the version I’ve got, as it seems to be the most widely available today.

Alright, enough dancing around it: Story Of O is a tale of female submission, revolving around a woman’s indoctrination into a BDSM chateau called Roissy. Réage doesn’t give a lot of context for what draws O to that lifestyle, beyond her being in love with a man who’s into it. Roissy is kind of like a clubhouse for a secret society of men who… I’m really struggling to put this delicately. They have the “right” to use inducted women any way they like. Any way they like.

Clearly, Story Of O was written before explicit and enthusiastic consent became sexy. Réage gives us insight into O’s willingness to participate through the narration, but the characters don’t seem to know (or care) for sure whether she’s into everything that’s happening. There’s certainly some stuff going on that O isn’t thrilled about, but she always inevitably submits. She also takes a liking to a fashion model, Jacqueline, and does her darnedest to seduce her into The Lifestyle, too.

I must say, a lot of the spicy content was kind of off-set by the formal language. It’s definitely more funny than sexy to read a dildo described as “an ebonite rod fashioned in the shape of an uprisen male sex” (page 37).

Unsurprisingly, Story Of O attracted a lot of criticism, especially from feminist writers. Réage was accused of ‘glorifying the abuse of women’, a criticism commonly leveled at BDSM practitioners and those who write about them (there’s a lot to say on that subject, but this isn’t really the time or the place). They even overcame retorts that O undeniably consented to at least some of what happened to her by claiming that a ‘pornographic society turns a woman’s heart against herself’ (Susan Griffin).

French authorities brought obscenity charges against the publisher; the charges were ultimately rejected by the courts, but they upheld a publicity ban for several years. Given that Réage (i.e. Desclos) was hiding her identity, she probably wasn’t going to be doing book tours or press events anyway, so that worked out.

But, as so often happens, the storm of controversy simply got more people interested in Story Of O. It was widely read and discussed (over a million copies sold worldwide), but it never quite reached the cultural penetration (ahem) of other classic smut texts like Lady Chatterley’s Lover – I suspect because it’s so brutal that many readers simply can’t stomach it. I reckon it would be an interesting read for people with a specific interest in BDSM psychology, and/or the history of erotic texts… but as a spicy read, or as an instructional text, Story Of O falls short in many respects. It’s definitely not one for the mildly-curious recreational reader.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Story Of O:

  • “Various reviews suggest this is some how an erotic classic of high regard. I submit that is pure crap, and not worth the slightest effort.” – himself70
  • “I’ve read BDSM stories before but this one was truly disturbing. I mean 50 Shades of Grey was silly but at least that chick got shoes, clothes and jewelry out of that mess. In the quite sad story of o, the main protagonist doesn’t get squat and actually, doesn’t even give the impression that she’s enjoying the sex. She’s just in it because people beat the sense out of her every time she protests. And that’s just the first part of the book. In the second part, her sense of self has completely disappeared and she is an object with no will of her own, no feelings, no opinion. Blank. Compared to her Bella (the high school dropout who was into dead guys in those books) and Anastasia (the idiot from the shady trilogy) are Misses Personality. Anastasia would gush: “OMG! Christian Grey wants to whip me…. But I’m a 22 year old virgin who hasn’t gotten a spanking since… Well, ever, actually. And he did say he wanted to see me bleed… That can’t be good… But then again, it is Christian Grey… Look at those abs, look at that jazz, my my my… Okay, fine… I’ll do it.” And Bella would probably bawl “I didn’t know what love was until I gazed into your soul less eyes. From this moment on, Edward Cullen, thy wish is my command. Thou shall never walk on earth like a regular dude cause I will put you on a pedestal and kneel at your feet so you can walk allover me every single day of your never ending life.”
    O on the other hand… She is not in love with her “lovers”, they are not in love with her either. The guy just goes “It’s such a beautiful summer day today… The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, nature is in bloom. It just makes me want to beat you senseless. O, my love, go get bullwhip. I want to paint 50 shades of red on your back” and O hurries to get the instrument of torture, making sure she picks the biggest whip in his arsenal. That’s just how they roll.
    It is not about submission and dominance. Rather, it’s about a sadist who was lucky enough to find a girl with a high threshold for pain, a good health insurance policy, no shame, no self esteem and no feelings.” – Reika Nogami
  • “There is some very weird translation in the book. For “belly” please read genitalia/ vagina. For “womb” read… I’m not sure. There is a lot of womb-grabbing going on, which is simply not possible.” – Foxglove Summer