A while back, I tried to e-mail a document containing the phrase “gimcrack-cum-geegaw,” but a prudish software filter wouldn’t let me. The gauntlet down, I fired off additional objectionables, and the only one that made it through was “quim.” I’m not surprised that that word tripped no alarms. Quim—which sounds vaguely nautical but in fact means female genitalia—has fallen out of fashion. Meanwhile, its more phonetically aggressive synonym, cunt, survives and thrives in music, movies, and on HBO. In matters of slang, it appears, lexical Darwinism favors the plosive.
I hadn’t thought of “quim” since I was 14. That year several books loomed large in my imagination. The one that taught me quim—and some other words swatted down by blocking software—was My Secret Life, a Victorian memoir (or not) by the ever-prolific Anonymous. The others were the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, by Dorothy L. Sayers. Sexier in their way than any bodice ripper, the Wimsey books were for me a psychic antioxidant, counteracting the damage done my tender id by Anonymous’s tale.
I first encountered My Secret Life at my friend Laura’s house. Her parents owned a copy, and after school we took turns reading it while the other watched TV. We never read together or aloud, recognizing that the mental life this book engendered must remain secret also. So we internalized the foulness, thus making it a little less real and preserving our relationship from its taint.
Published in 1902, My Secret Life is narrated by Walter, an agreeable gentleman who describes inventive sex in uninventive language for nearly 600 pages. In his wry introduction to the Signet Classic edition, James Kinkaid explains that the original ran to eleven volumes, an epic achievement of interest only to “scholars and the mentally tangled.” For 58 chapters Walter has at and at and at and at: men, women, and children arrayed in every imaginable social and physical position. The level of detail—with particular attention to the color, shape and thatchery of those aforementioned quims—is so excruciating it’s funny, but only briefly, and then it’s back to being excruciating.
As a child’s first pornography, My Secret Life is rough trade. There is rape and pedophilia and all manner of “buggery,” an excellent word that I choose to define broadly as sodomy-plus. Not surprisingly, it left me with the most soiled and sordid idea of all things sexual. Still, I read the book fanatically long after Laura had grown bored and gone on to better things. To me this was not just Walter’s secret life; it was the secret life of all adults. In those pages lay a deeper truth than I would ever hear from my parents —hyper-educated New York Jews with a self-proclaimed healthy attitude toward sex, whose clinical marvels they would gladly, horribly have shared upon request. This was the worst. I knew the worst. I both thrilled at and hated knowing it.
And so I watched romantic movies and read romantic novels and listened to romantic songs. But I found none of it erotic because I knew that it would end squalidly. Even Jane Eyre—my favorite “hot” book of years past—became suffused with the smell of chamber pots. Encountering boys I once liked, I just wanted to pile more and more clothes on them and, ideally, shove them into a closet.
In the end it was Sayers who banished the (rutting) toad from my imaginary garden. Her Wimsey mysteries are traditional English cozies featuring an aristocrat detective who quotes handily from the western canon when not lapsing into Wodehouse-ian twaddle. In Strong Posion (1930) Wimsey meets Harriet Vane, an equally cerebral mystery novelist awaiting execution for the murder of her lover. Wimsey solves the case and saves Harriet’s life, creating an onerous debt that prevents her from accepting his endearingly sincere and self-deprecating marriage proposals through two more books. (They wed at last in Busman’s Honeymoon.)
So what made the Wimsey-Vane relationship so erotic? (I am not alone in finding it so, by the way. Two women I know confess to getting all heavy breath-y over the pairing during their formative years. I’m sure there are more of you out there.) The extended intellectual foreplay had a lot to do with it, of course. Sayers successfully sustained sexual tension over more than 1,000 pages, leaving readers who loved the pair no choice but to imagine them into bed. And while neither character is unusually attractive, they are both smart. No, not smart—Oxford smart. “Not faint Canaries, but ambrosial,” Peter murmurs when the two at last get down to it. And we know the sex is great because Harriet doesn’t get around to sourcing the quotation for ten whole days.
But what is sexiest about these books is the way complex people—he so chivalric, she so dark, both so wounded—think and talk about intimacy. They approach the subject with delicate, yet joyous, anticipation and a kind of cautious indirection, as though afraid to stare into the sun.
Peter, walking home after his first interview with Harriet in her cell, allows himself one small stroke tucked discreetly into a full imaging of their life together: “…she’s got a sense of humor too—brains—one wouldn’t be dull—one would wake up, and there’d be a whole day for jolly things to happen in—and then one would come home and go to bed—that would be jolly too—and while she was writing I could go out and mess around, so we shouldn’t either of us be dull….” Sayers keeps these two mostly on a plane of such high thought and feeling that when, on occasion, they do acknowledge their physicality it is more arousing for being a surprise.
Peter: “You don’t particularly care about children?”
Harriet: “Not children, in the lump. But I think it’s just possible that some day I might come to want….”
Peter: “Your own?”
Harriet: “No, yours.”
“ ‘Oh,’ he had said, unexpectedly disconcerted.”
So much yearning, so much humility, so many quotations from John Donne. And yes, it’s a great love story, but it wasn’t love that made me lightheaded. Sex, in Sayers, was simultaneously hot and elliptical: ideally provoking to the imaginations of smart, scared teenaged girls.
W H A T N E X T
Do Something: What are you favorite textual versions of Skinemax? Tell us below in the Comments section. Go Somewhere: Join the Dorothy L. Sayers Society. Read Something: Got $400 to toss around and keep your vapors going? Buy the Lord Peter Wimsey Companion.