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Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in the romantic drama Jane Eyre, an Alliance Films release directed by Cary Fukunaga. (Laurie Sparham)
Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in the romantic drama Jane Eyre, an Alliance Films release directed by Cary Fukunaga. (Laurie Sparham)

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Jane Eyre and Sherlock Holmes as mommy porn? Add to ...

Were the classic novels of the 19th century actually mommy porn in disguise? That’s the premise of e-publisher Total E-Bound, which has released a new series of e-books (“Clandestine Classics”) that include the titles Northanger Abbey (by Jane Austen and Desiree Holt), Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte and Sierra Cartwright) and Sherlock Holmes: A Study In Scarlet (by A.C. Doyle and Sarah Masters). What they have done is quite simple and easy: they have taken the texts of these famous books and added some graphic sex scenes. Jane has passionate sex with Mr. Rochester before leaving him; Elizabeth is dragged into a quiet wood by Mr. Darcy for a little prenuptial nookie; and Sherlock Holmes acts out his secret carnal desire for Mr. Watson.

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There’s a modern concept. Two hundred years ago Shakespeare’s plays had the bawdy bits excised for the tender ears of schoolchildren – a process known as Bowdlerization, after the moralist who took on the task (and made a fortune from it). Now we are engaged in the opposite: adding lubricity to the canon where there was none. It’s anti-bowdlerization – we’ll need a new word for it. (Sextrapolating?)

The added sex scenes are written in a sort of pseudo-19th century language to try to blend in. The books are cheap – under $5 – and the company boasts that you are only paying for what their “authors” have added, not for the original content.

That’s a relief. Here is a taste of what’s been added, from the Sherlock Holmes book: “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. It was a somewhat difficult time, being among so many men, with me being who and what I am. I suppose people may have guessed … How could I explain that the softness of a woman did not appeal? That the swells on their chests were not something I wished to explore? That I preferred the flat planes belonging to a man, the smaller nipples that I longed to flick my tongue over?” The sex scenes in the neo-Austen and neo-Bronte books are pleasingly frank and uninhibited, but still tend to climax in the clichés of the mommy-porn genre. The predictable “earth-shattering” release after every act owes a lot to the limited vocabulary and sexual experience of one E.L. James.

The company has plans for a whole range of explicitly updated classics, drawing of course solely from the domain of works whose copyright has expired. That’s fine for them – 19th century novels, particularly those with Gothic influences, are indeed ripe for the Fifty Shades of Grey treatment, as they already contain the building blocks of every Harlequin romance: the stern and controlling antagonist, the virginal and powerless protagonist, the subtle threat of coercion, the promise of everlasting love.

The publisher and its fans protest that they had had their idea long before E.L. James’s success, and that there has been erotically explicit romance fiction aimed at women for many years. Their detractors are of course enraged that these canonical works have been bastardized. They say quite rightly that the lack of sexual contact between the characters in say Charlotte Bronte – the repression, you might call it – is not a result of mere archaic prudery but crucial to the plot. The story is very much about them not having sex.

But the purists need to lighten up. Great novels are the raw material of every new writer’s work: we are always rewriting the books that influenced us. We modernize and upend them – we castrate them, some critics say – by rewriting them, we use them and conquer them and make them our own. Shakespeare took almost every story he ever wrote from some other source. The Disney corporation creates its hyper-modern comic cartoons from classic fairy tales and legends. Fan fiction has been adding illicit sex to the tightly controlled narratives of others, in a gleeful uncapping of the texts’ repressed fountains of desire, for decades now.

Fiction about romantic relationships is always erotic. I’m glad people are being more honest about that. And glad too if this lighthearted new series leads more people to discover the incomparably witty and caustic and wise Jane Austen. I’m confident they’ll be able to figure out which parts of the text are hers.

 

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