As a relative newcomer to erotica, Emmanuelle de Maupassant brings a refreshing confidence to her writing, an assuredness born of experience and deep understanding of craft. Her work has already begun to enrich the genre, and readers need look no further than The Gentlemen’s Club to understand why.
The first volume in a projected series, The Gentlemen’s Club is a breezily diverting evocation of late-Victorian Britain, replete with its stifling hypocrisies and cruel sexist double standards. In the context of a fairly light erotic entertainment, Maupassant manages to elucidate the sexual schizophrenia of the period, when impossible ideals of feminine purity were rigidly—often sadistically—enforced, even as men were free to follow their “natural” proclivities within certain boundaries of discretion. I was happily reminded (and hurried back to re-read) sections of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, specifically Chapter 39, which narrates a night of Victorian debauchery in exquisitely researched detail. Fowles’ Ma Terpsichore’s with its classics-themed live sex shows is very much of a piece with Maupassant’s eponymous establishment (compare Chapter 13, Divine Couplings). Her evocative descriptions of the seedier side of late-nineteenth century London put me in mind of another truly great work about the period, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell (1989-1996) in which the very redolence of the times seems to rise off the printed page. Yet, this is as dark as Maupassant ever seems to get:
In this foul-smelling, intricate maze of filth and fleas, the alleys are turd-strewn and piddle-permeated. Girls barely budding open their legs to make a living alongside the toothless and rancid of breath; hair thick with lice, they all find customers if the price is right, against the wall, or on sheets well-soiled. Their holes cost but a shilling. Skins grow thick and claws sharp.
Considerably less suspension of disbelief may be required to enjoy The Gentlemen’s Club than one might suspect. While Maupassant seems careful to avoid the all-too-common anachronism of contemporary feminist attitudes in Victorian women (unlike, say, Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart quartet, or almost any historical novel one cares to pick up nowadays), she is able to draw on the rich, real-life examples of independent, freethinking women of the period who would not go gently into the pigeonholes society had set aside for them. The women in this tale are not diffident submissives, swooning damsels hiding behind their fans, or shrinking violets. Ultimately, it is the men who are revealed as the decidedly weaker sex here.
. . . “What is it that you desire, my Lord? A meek wife in your parlour to pour coffee and soothe your brow? What are you made of? Do your roots hold you fast, or is your spirit free? Perhaps you are no more than a feather, tossed on the breath of others, with no direction of our own?”
“Take heed . . . I am neither an angel nor a whore but when it pleases me to be so. The same, I am convinced, is true of most women. We are as little worthy of praise as of censure, and often deserving of both. Only those who carve epitaphs over moldering bones should attempt to appraise us with a trite phrase.
Impressive, too, is the seemingly endless variety of erotic situations Maupassant invents for her characters. To include so many marvelously steamy episodes in an extended, novel-length narrative, with little or no repetition is nothing shy of an authorial feat, especially as the quality of the writing is superb throughout. Those in search of highly-varied erotic entertainment will not be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t!