Jul 212012

A woman I thought was my friend sent me a link to a HuffPost article yesterday. The title pretty much says it all: “The 50 Shades Of Grey Effect: Jane Eyre, Pride And Prejudice And Sherlock Holmes To Be Republished With ‘Explosive Sex Scenes.’”

Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re referring to (or hoping to inspire) erotic impact, don’t put the word “explosive” anywhere near the phrase “sex scenes.” It’s just a really unfortunate combination of ideas. And images. I’d explain, but I have to go be violently ill.

I’m back. The publisher in question is convinced that some classic writers — Charlotte Bronte, for instance — would have been porn writers if given half a chance. This project won’t rewrite the books in question, but will allegedly “enhance the novels by adding the ‘missing’ scenes for readers to enjoy.”

Here’s a point they’re missing.

Those of us who read the classics voluntarily aren’t doing penance. We’re there because we want to be there.

We know what naughtiness is. We agree it can be a great deal of fun.

But there are plenty of scenes in plenty of classic novels that are freakin’ hot exactly because they leave something to the imagination.

As my own title promised, here are ten scenes from classic literature that need no enhancement measures, thanks just the same.

1. The bloody obvious

Okay, so starting with a scene from Dracula is almost too easy. But the thing is, it’s amazing how hot this is considering that nothing actually happens. It’s all tension and no payoff. That’s what makes it awesome. (It also makes the remainder of the book a huge disappointment to some readers, but that’s another story.)

It’s chapter 3, and Jonathan Harker is trapped in Castle Dracula. He doesn’t exactly know what’s going on, but he knows whatever it is, is bad. Best-case scenario, he’s going to die.

So naturally he decides to go for a solitary stroll around the creepy, isolated, in-Transylvania-no-one-can-hear-you-scream castle. He falls asleep in some dusty old chamber, perhaps using his Mensa membership card as a pillow.

He wakes up (or does he?) to see three gorgeous young women standing over him. “There was something about them that made me uneasy [gee -- ya think?], some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.”

He sort of gets his wish. It takes a few extremely enjoyable paragraphs, but finally, “I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited — waited with beating heart.”

Sadly, the Count storms in and “rescues” Jonathan right then. Really, though, it’s just as well. Anyone who’s read any modern horror fiction or seen an episode of True Blood knows that when it comes to biting vampire love scenes, the last thing you want is a lot of detail.

2. No sex, please — we’re pretending to be British

American expat Henry James was so repressed, you could do a Vulcan mind meld on him for, like, an hour and still not know if he was gay or straight. So when he wrote about love — and he did, a lot — you generally didn’t get the sense that continuing the species was a major priority for any of his characters.

But he does get right to the point at the very end of “Book Eighth” in The Wings of the Dove. Merton Densher is getting pretty pissed at his super-secret fiancée Kate Croy. She’s playing some deep emotional games with her really really rich (and desperately ill) friend Milly Theale. Kate wants to get some of Milly’s money flowing in the right direction — specifically, the one that will help Kate and Densher get married and live wealthily ever after. Densher is starting to feel like nothing more than one of Kate’s pawns, and he’s sick of it. As she’s explaining his role in yet another of her schemes — you stay over here while I go over there and then she’ll come with me while you — he snaps. “I’ll stay, on my honor, if you’ll come to me. On your honor.”

Come and see him, that is. Alone. In his room. No games. No chaperones. No boundaries. He’s sick of worrying about how or when they can finally get married. He needs something real to keep him going. Something to think about the next time he has to publicly pretend that he and Kate are just friends.

When Kate pretends to have no idea what he could be talking about, he tells her she can jolly well find someone else to play chess with. “‘If you decline to understand me I wholly decline to understand you. I’ll do nothing.’

“‘And if I do understand?’

“‘I’ll do everything.’

[Boy-howdy, won't he just.]

“He had never, he then knew, tasted, in all his relation with her, of anything so sharp — too sharp for mere sweetness — as the vividness with which he saw himself master in the conflict. ‘Well, I understand,’ [Kate replied].

“‘On your honor?’

“‘On my honor.’

“‘You’ll come?’

“‘I’ll come.’”

End of chapter. Beginning of left-to-the-imagination hotness.

3. Oh, just let him kiss you — he’ll be dead in a few pages, anyway

I just read a great new translation of The Sufferings of Young Werther. Yes, there’s a kissing scene in this book. And it works for me. But far more charged is the scene that comes several pages before.

Werther fell in love with Lotte before she was even officially engaged. He could have asked her out then. He didn’t. He could have made a move when she was engaged. He didn’t. Instead, he waits until she’s married — and this is in eighteenth-century Germany, so it’s not as if she can get a divorce (although her husband could probably get rid of her, if she cheats on him).

Lotte isn’t an idiot. She doesn’t exactly return Werther’s crush; but she’s noticed all the burning gazes and subtle comments about how she’s the only woman who could ever, ever make Werther happy, and oh by the way has he told her how freakin’ hot she is.

So: toward the end of the book, Werther decides he can’t stand it any more. Never mind that Lotte has asked him to keep his distance (preferably in a cold shower) for at least a couple of days — he has to see her.

Alone at home, Lotte has been fretting about Werther all day, wishing that she could marry him off to some deserving woman. Except that none of her buddies seems quite good enough for him. Not that she thinks he’s hot or anything. Especially compared to that boring dude she’s known all her life. The one she married about fifty pages ago.

“And so it was half past six when she heard Werther coming up the stairs and soon recognized his step and his voice asking for her. How her heart began to beat, and for the first time, we may almost say, at his approach. She would have preferred to have him told she was not at home, and when he entered the room, she cried out to him in a sort of impassioned confusion: You did not keep your word. –I promised nothing, was his answer.”

Several pages and a lot of bad prose poetry later, Werther throws himself at Lotte’s feet. And then, when she doesn’t kick him, at a few other body parts.

But seriously? Footsteps on the stairs, pounding heart, trembling hands, and then, “You promised you’d stay away.” “I never promised anything”? WAY hotter.

4. The sister everybody forgets

There were three writing Brontë sisters, not two. And Anne Brontë didn’t just write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which at least some people have heard of. She also wrote Agnes Grey, which nobody has.

Which is a shame. Because first of all, it’s terrific for being the story of what a real governess’ life was like. (Hint: Nothing like Jane Eyre’s.) And second, it has a deep and quiet love story that’s definitely worth catching.

I won’t give away all the struggles and misunderstandings of Agnes’ developing relationship with Mr. Weston. I will give away the happy ending by saying that there is one. And I’ll go on to quote one of my favorite passages.

Mr. Weston and Agnes Grey are walking near Agnes’ home. Alone. On the beach. Early in the morning. (If my repeated romantic sighs get too loud for you, let me know.) She hasn’t seen him in a long time — was surprised to see him at all. She’d just gone out for an innocent pre-breakfast stroll. And then — there he was. (Swoon. No, that wasn’t Agnes. That was me.) They walk. He asks how she’s been, what she’s been doing. And actually listens to her answers. (Not that I’m hinting or anything. GUYS.) And then he mentions that she hasn’t asked what brought her to her tiny seaside town. He’s not rich, so it’s not like he could just be hanging out on the beach for the heck of it. No, he got a job near there. On purpose. So now he has a decent salary. And a house. All his own. If only it weren’t so lonely.

At this point, he offers her his arm. (SWOON.) And mentions that he’s been trying to find out exactly where she lives, because he’s really, really been wanting to visit her. But he just couldn’t learn the address. Good thing he likes early walks on the beach, too.

They get to the top of a hill. And then — sigh:

“I was about to withdraw my arm from his, but by a slight tightening of the elbow was tacitly informed that such was not his will.”

Look, I have a thing about men’s forearms, okay? I think they’re even finer than biceps. And this is the way early nineteenth century, when a woman taking a man’s arm was one of the few acceptable ways unmarried couples could touch. So when this guy, who’s made it totally clear that he’s only here for her, and who has stayed emotionally faithful in spite of all the obstacles thrown in their way, gets all manly and insistent with his manly forearm –

I’m just saying, it works for me.

5. …And the sister everybody remembers.

It’s ridiculous how many copies I have of Jane Eyre. I brought one with me on my honeymoon, fer Pete’s sake. And if you haven’t read it yet, I’m asking you to stop reading this right now. Skip this section, go read the rest of this fabulous article, and then GO READ JANE EYRE, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! What is wrong with you? If you’re a girl and you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you deserve some kind of special loser-ticket. It’s the BEST BOOK EVER. Plus it’s full of cultural literacy and stuff. Oh, just go read it. And don’t tell me you don’t have time. How long did you spend on the Internet today? How long do you spend on the Internet EVERY day? Rip a chunk of that out of your schedule and go read an actual for-real book.

Anyway. There are some seriously hot scenes in Jane Eyre. My favorite is in chapter 23, when they’re out in the garden and Jane tells Rochester what a jerk he is. (That’s not the hot part. Although some guys do enjoy that kind of thing. Rochester sure seems to.) It’s the famous “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” passage. Rochester, who loves it when women half his age and half his size tell him off, gets all manly and, quote, encloses Jane in his arms and presses his lips on her lips.

Which is good. But she still doesn’t trust him. (Good call, Jane.) She struggles in his arms “like a wild, frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.” He only convinces her that he’s for real by dropping the sweet-talk and begging her to call him by his first name. Which for an unmarried couple in the early nineteenth century, is practically necking in the street.

And still we’re not at the really hot part yet. Okay, now we are:

“‘Come to me — come to me entirely now,’ said he: and added, in his deepest tone, speaking in my ear as his cheek was laid on mine, ‘Make my happiness — I will make yours.’”

Are you telling me that anyone could make that hotter? I don’t want there to be a sex scene after that! And if I do, I want to imagine it for myself! I don’t want some idiot porn-writer telling me what they think happens next. Talk about anticlimactic.

6. Girl-on-girl action

Little Dorrit is not one of Dickens’ most-loved books. There aren’t any subtle, complicated reasons for this. It’s a really bad book. It’s long and dreary and shows Dickens at his sexist, classist worst. Yes, I said classist. Dickens was not the champion of the poor. Read about the lives of servants in nineteenth-century England. Then read some of Dickens’ portrayals of servants. Find me even one sympathetic one. (And no, that girl who opens the door to Scrooge on Christmas day doesn’t count.) Then tell me again about how much Dickens cared about the poor and downtrodden.

Also: the main character guy in Little Dorrit has the hots for the title girl, who has no figure and no sexuality and who turns him on by seeming to be “the least, the quietest, and weakest of Heaven’s creatures.” Ew.

But there is an absolutely unforgettable chapter, “The History of a Self-Tormentor.” It begins with a woman explaining, “I have the misfortune of not being a fool,” and going on to describe her miserable existence. One source of misery is the fact as a very young woman, she fell in love with a cruel little classmate:

“I loved her faithfully; and one time I went home with her for the holidays.

“She was worse at home than she had been at school. She had a crowd of cousins and acquaintances, and we had dances at her house, and went out to dances at other houses, and both at home and out, she tormented my love beyond endurance. Her plan was, to make them all fond of her — and so drive me wild with jealousy. To be familiar and endearing with them all — and so make me mad with envying them. When we were left alone in our bedroom at night, I would reproach her with my perfect knowledge of her baseness; and then she would cry and cry and say I was cruel, and then I would hold her in my arms till morning: loving her as much as ever, and often feeling as if, rather than suffer so, I could so hold her in my arms and plunge to the bottom of a river — where I would still hold her after we were both dead.”

(Miriam Margolyes gives a stunning reading of this passage in her “Dickens’ Women” one-woman show. Find a recording if you can.)

7. More girl-on-girl (special no-necrophilia edition!)

Unlike Little Dorrit, Mrs. Dalloway is a book worth reading. One of its most memorable sections (there aren’t any chapters, did you notice?) concerns Mrs. Dalloway thinking back on Sally Seton, a friend she hasn’t seen in years — not since they were young, unmarried, passionate young women:

“There they sat, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world. They meant to found a society to abolish private property, and actually had a letter written, though not sent out. The ideas were Sally’s of course — but very soon she was just as excited — read Plato in bed before breakfast; read Morris; read Shelley by the hour.

“Sally’s power was amazing, her gift, her personality. There was her way with flowers, for instance. At Bourton they always had stiff little vases all the way down the table. Sally went out, picked hollyhocks, dahlias — all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together — cut their heads off, and made them swim on top of water in bowls. …Then she forgot her sponge, and ran along the passage naked. …

“The charm was overpowering, to her at least, so that she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the hot-water can in her hands and saying aloud, ‘She is beneath this roof….She is beneath this roof!’

“…She stood by the fireplace talking, in that beautiful voice which made everything she said sound like a caress…when suddenly she said, “What a shame to sit indoors!” and they all went out on to the terrace and walked up and down. Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf went on about Wagner. She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it — a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!”

8. Okay, I know she didn’t mean it this way, but…

If you haven’t read Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” — well, you haven’t read a poem that the porn writers wouldn’t take on because they wouldn’t be able to add anything to it. Yes, yes, it’s a poem about sweet sisterly devotion. Whatever. Rossetti wrote some of the most shocking lines of any century.

Good Lizzie and sly Laura are sisters who live together. When the tiny, naughty goblin men come trying to sell them forbidden fruit, Lizzie warns Laura away from their wares — but does Laura listen? Of course not. Sadly, once you’ve listened to the goblin men and partaken of their wares, you can never see or hear them again. Laura starts to pine away for more forbidden fruit. Desperate to save her sister, Lizzie decides to buy some fruit herself. The goblins — who, delighted to see a new customer, kiss and caress Lizzie — refuse to let her take the fruit home. When she won’t eat with them, they turn nasty and try to force her.

“Lizzie uttered not a word,
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laughed in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupped all her face.”

Finally, the goblins throw her money back at her, take their fruit, and go home. Triumphantly, Lizzie runs home to her sister.

“She cried, ‘Laura,’ up the garden,
‘Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.’”

Laura doesn’t wait to be asked twice.

“She clung about her sister,
Kissed and kissed and kissed her:
Tears once again
Refreshed her shrunken eyes,
Dropping like rain
After long sultry drouth;
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.”

I’m not saying. I’m just saying.

9. And I know she meant it that way, but…

The Awakening is a book about a woman’s awakening to all life has to offer. Not just her sexual awakening. But definitely that, too.

The scene in which Edna Pontellier loses her emotional virginity is so vaguely sketched that it took me two readings to realize that yes, she had in fact just cheated on her husband. Okay, I didn’t figure it out for myself even then. I read it in a lit crit book. That’s how subtle the sex is in The Awakening. At least if you’re an idiot like me.

But it’s definitely a sensual book, and there are a couple of very pleasing scenes. One is in chapter 30, when the brother of the man Edna loves kisses Edna on the palm. On the palm. Am I the only one who thinks that palm-kisses are the best thing ever?

The next chapter is also quite fine. The man somebody had to tell me Edna was having an affair with stays to help her clear up after a dinner party. She’s so tired that she sits down and rests her head against her arm on the table.

“‘You want to rest,’ he said, ‘and to be quiet. I’ll go; I’ll leave you and let you rest.’”

Instead, he stays and softly caresses her hair. Which is something pretty much no woman with long hair has ever said no to, ever.

And then:

“His hand had strayed to her beautiful shoulders, and he could feel the response of her flesh to his touch. He seated himself beside her and kissed her lightly upon the shoulder.

“‘I thought you were going away,’ she said, in an uneven voice.

“‘I am, after I have said good night.’

“‘Good night,’ she murmured.

“He did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties.”

Still think that people who read the classics must be bored out of our minds every minute? Still think we need more chapters?

10. Or we could just hold hands

Call me weird (oh, like you haven’t already if you’re still reading this), but I think one of the most erotically charged scenes in classic literature comes in The Return of the Native. Yes, THAT Return of the Native.

It’s in book two, chapter 4: “Eustacia is led on to an Adventure.” I won’t give a whole lot of context details, because it doesn’t matter. Suffice it to say that a young man named Charley has the hots for Eustacia Vye, possessor of the best name in literature ever.

“He was three years younger than herself, but apparently not backward for his age,” Eustacia decides after hearing his price for doing her a service: “Holding your hand in mine.” No gloves, either. “Half an hour of that, and I’ll agree, miss.”

“Make it a quarter of an hour,” she says after a minute.

He agrees, she agrees. “She leant against the door-post, and gave him her hand. Charley took it in both his own with a tenderness beyond description, unless it was like that of a child holding a captured sparrow.”

Keep your so-called missing chapters, Total-E-Bound Publishing. I’ll stick with what’s already written. And if I need more, I’ll think of it myself.

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