Much of contemporary literary erotica defies easy categorization. Beyond the headaches of harried bookstore managers, this vast perplexity of unsorted subgenres, crossover hybrids, boutique flavors, designer titillations and kink-specific niches; all loosely—often lazily—clustered under a single all-encompassing rubric, seems to be perpetually expanding like the Universe itself. For potential readers, trying to find something new in the erotica section can easily become an exercise in futility leading to the very edge of mania; less rewarding—but no less tedious—than the search for a new planet; more often akin to shopping for toothpaste or shampoo with their myriad variations, targeting every conceivable point along the spectrum of taste and turn-on. How does one go about making sense of it all?
And who, for that matter, will comprise the “market segment” for this unusual little book? James Wood’s The Doctrine of Venus won’t be for everybody; but once found by its own small band of “proper observers,” may well assume the cachet of a cult classic, inspire costume parties and role-playing games, dedicated on-line chat rooms and secret societies. Simply enough, the author pretends to have unearthed a scandalous handbook from the Edwardian era (roughly 1901-1914); a manual or ‘vade mecum’ detailing the practice, style and manner of “civilized” bondage and submission, copiously illustrated with “racy” vintage glass-plate photographs. What readers will find here is a ‘facsimile’ of this mysterious tome, said to have languished for years in the restricted section of a large public library somewhere in North America. Brief narrative sections set in the present day serve as bookends for the manual, and provide context.
A neat idea to be sure, even if not, strictly speaking, a wholly original one. Erotic historical fiction is hardly a new phenomenon; there have already been quite a few works of period-homage, contemporary fiction posing as long-lost literature; intimate pseudo-biographies revealing the supposed hidden sex lives of great and famous figures of the past, from the imaginary memoirs of body slaves in ancient Rome to diaries of royal courtesans who never were; Victorian-era confessions of guilty pleasure, or ersatz first-hand accounts of life on the down-low in Gilded-Age Boston.
Still, suppose someone was to toss a copy of John Norman’s Imaginative Sex into a time machine and send it back to 1907. What would the most daring souls of the post-Victorian period make of Norman’s infamous 1974 BDSM manual? How would they re-interpret it, taking pains to maintain that all-important veneer of public respectability while employing the language of their own reticent times; flowery, prettified—occasionally stilted—unfailingly polite, freighted with euphemism?
The Doctrine of Venus makes for an easily digestible primer to Wood’s contemporary stories of bondage and submission; Taking Jennifer, Sharing Lucy, and Amy’s Choice. Those already familiar with this fine body of work will recognize the author’s style of nostalgic reverence; the longing for an imagined more elegant past, where elaborate language masks society’s rigid, often cruel moral dichotomies. Wasn’t being “naughty” more exciting—more fun—in a world that painted its mores in the starkest blacks and whites? When taboo really was taboo, and quite literally unspeakable? When the possibility of getting caught came with real-life consequences, scandal and ruin?
On the downside, taken all at once, the manual section can make for some rather dry reading. The book as a whole might have been more interesting had the author expanded the contemporary narrative portions, interspersing them with excerpts from the vade mecum, the better to delve into his characters’ backstories and relationships, showing how each of them found out about the old book, and how reading it affected and changed them in different ways.
And yet, Wood’s concept works because it connects with the part of our imaginations that can’t resist the urge to wonder “what if?” While, alas, according to Snopes, the oft-repeated story about the Vatican Library’s massive porn collection is really just another urban legend—less embarrassment of riches than simple embarrassment—one can’t help but speculate about some of the possible undiscovered erotic gems languishing deep in the stacks of many a restricted section throughout the world. Perhaps there is a book very much like The Doctrine of Venus reposing silently beneath the dust moats, waiting to be rediscovered and brought into the light of a more liberated, albeit less gracious age.