- The Faber Book of Seductions edited by Jenny Newman
Faber, 366 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 571 15110 8
- Journeys to the Underworld by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Chatto, 226 pp, £10.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3223 X
Almost every woman I know has at one time or another been to bed with a man she shouldn’t have been to bed with – a married man, a friend’s man or, quite simply, a man who wasn’t her man. It may be that some of them allowed themselves to be talked into it and afterwards wished they hadn’t and it may be that someone (usually someone else) suffered for it, but to call these events ‘seductions’ would be to try to give them a status which they no longer enjoy. Seducers had victims, not partners in crime, and to seduce someone was to lead them astray, not merely to lead them to bed. ‘I like to think I’m a sort of gay bachelor, Don Juan or Casanova,’ Fiona Pitt-Kethley says at the beginning of her startling account of the sights she saw and the men she laid in the course of two journeys to Italy in search of the lairs of the sibyls and other poets and prophets of the Ancient world. She doesn’t, she adds, ‘give the men anything to complain of’, doesn’t ‘promise permanence’ or ‘leave them holding the baby’; and in that sense, however inviting or provocative her behaviour, whatever her state of dress or undress, what she describes isn’t seduction but casual sex.
Vol. 11 No. 1 · 5 January 1989
Mary-Kay Wilmers’s memory is as long as it is false. Reviewing the Faber Book of Seductions (LRB, 10 November 1988), she ‘was reminded of Christopher Ricks saying twenty years ago, in an article about the sexual revolution of the Sixties, that he was against the whole thing on the ground that the new free-for-all was unfair to plain women. (What about plain men? Are women pleased to get any old bugger? …).’ My review of Richard Neville’s Play Power in 1970 was not worth resurrecting, but since I don’t like distortion and the smear of sexism, I want to quote the paragraph which she had in mind or somewhere:
The emancipated young are right to think that prurience and envy play some part in middle-aged reproof; but the middle-aged are right to think that the emancipation has often been seen to promise less than it performs, and that bourgeois respectability does not entail one particular cruelty which lurks in emancipation’s promiscuity: promiscuity’s cruelty to those whom even promiscuity would reject. It is all very well for a Yippy pamphlet to proclaim that people should have ‘all the time, anytime, whomever they wish’. But what about those whom nobody wishes? The world of Play Power is a fantasy world in which all men and women (but especially women, since it is a man’s world) are beautiful people – or, to put it bleakly, where nobody is sexually unattractive. It will take more than freedom from inhibition plus weird clothes to turn this fantasy world into the world. Meanwhile the non-promiscuous respectable society does manage to convert some of its properties into a protective customariness: nobody is forced to face the iciest of tests, whether he or she would be wanted even if given away.
‘He or she’ does not say ‘unfair to plain women’; nor do my words ‘those whom even promiscuity would reject’, ‘people’, ‘those whom nobody wishes’, ‘men and women’, and ‘where nobody is sexually attractive’. Granted, I wrote the words ‘but especially all women’, but I did so explicitly to deplore the male chauvinism of the deplorable book: ‘The world of Play Power is a fantasy world in which all men and women (but especially women, since it is a man’s world) are beautiful people.’
I hope that Ms Wilmers the Editor of LRB is more scrupulous than Ms Wilmers the insufficiently edited contributor to her pages.
Mary-Kay Wilmers writes: Christopher Ricks is right to chastise me for not looking up what he said, though I’m sorry he has taken the lapse so darkly to heart. I remembered the remark because I don’t quite see the connection that Professor Ricks seems to see between good looks and good times; I misremembered it because I think of good looks as something that men have required of women but which women have required only of themselves. On the other hand, to go back to Professor Ricks’s text, I’m not sure even now whether we are to understand ‘it is a man’s world’ as a reference to the ‘fantasy world’ which Richard Neville describes or more generally. Either way, Professor Ricks’s letter does nothing to disabuse me of the belief that it is a man’s world that we live in, just as it is a man’s world that most of the items in the Faber anthology address.