Book Review

Story of O by Pauline Réage

a real dirty french novel

Now, this is a dirty French novel.

I love the edition, though I was startled to reach the end of the book and find, rather than a conclusion to the narrative, two short italicised paragraphs telling me that the final chapter had been “suppressed” and that an alternate ending exists with the DEATH of the protagonist.

As this isn’t an edition from the 1950s (when the book was first published in France), it seems surprising that any “suppression” would have lasted through until 1993 (the date given at the front of this book), so one presumes that the text in here dates from the very first English language translation, which was completed in 1965 by Sabine d’Estrée.

Story of O, for those who haven’t read it, is a French erotic classic. A winner of many awards, it was written as a bet by a journalist called Anne Desclos as a rebuke after her publisher boyfriend told her he firmly believed a woman could never write erotica.

This clear bullshit was proven wrong, and the pseudonym of Pauline Réage was appended to the manuscript which – accompanied by a forward that stoked the mystery of who Réage could be (of course the publisher knew) – was released in 1954 as Histoire d’O.

How erotic is it? one might ask, and thus I will answer.

At no point while reading Story of O did I become fully tumescent and so ravenously randy that I had to run to the nearest private space in order to touch my genitals, but certainly there were a few moments in the first half where I felt the blood moving south from my stomach and – had I already been in a private space – I could have engaged with the feeling and run with it. By “run with it”, I mean masturbate.

Alas, though, these moments only happened in the first half of the novel, because the narrative suddenly – to me – shifted towards the less pleasant halfway through: the big sadomasochism stuff seemed to go from being a mutually-enjoyed game to being a very clear case of coercive control.

O, the protagonist, opens the novel as she is driven by her boyfriend, René, to a big mansion outside Paris. This mansion is a sex playpen, where women are abused and abuse each other, where there is lots of whipping, lots of sex (vaginal, oral and especially anal) and lots of play. Though the violence and the sex is often rough, it’s very clear that it’s between consenting adults and everyone is getting off all the fucking time and they’re having a blast. It’s not necessarily my own sexual cup of coffee1, but everyone involved knows what they’re doing and they’re keen to get it done. When O does things that hurt her or make her feel less physically comfortable, she still finds the sensation crazily erotic, and when René watches her be fucked by other men and then has her “punished” – i.e. whipped – for it, she absolutely fucking loves it.

About a quarter of the way through the novel, René’s best friend is introduced, an anal-loving Englishman named Sir Stephen. René “gives” O to Stephen, and while O seems to initially presume this is just an extension of her and René’s kinky playfulness, it soon becomes apparent that his disregard and commodification of her is truly felt rather than performed. If this novel was heralded as a conservative critique of the danger of BDSM getting “out of hand” and wilfully-surrendered control being coopted unwillingly, this might make sense, but it isn’t. Story of O is spoken about as if a reader should be joyfully wanking right up until the [“suppressed”] final page, which – given 21st century mores about consent, doesn’t seem – to me – ethical.

Then again, I am writing this as someone who knows nothing about pornography and only a tiny amount about erotica. The only time I’ve ever been aroused to the point of needing to masturbate by any artistic medium was when I watched the film where Sharon Stone murders men with an ice pick while she’s fucking them, and that happened when I was a teenager and I was watching it on ITV, so maybe even my own limited experience indicates that sexual wank fantasies and societal norms are commonly detached. I don’t know, I’m no expert.

Anyway, I enjoyed Story Of O a lot: it’s fun and prurient and scandalous.

Worth a read. For you, maybe worth a wank.


1. I refuse to use the phrase “my own sexual cup of tea” because [as I have previously stated] tea is coffee for people who fuck with the lights off and I do not wish to cast any aspersions over my own sexual practices. In my opinion, there is a basic rule when it comes to sighted people choosing to not see who they’re having sex with, and it’s as follows: Lights off is unsexy, blindfolded is sexy. It’s basic stuff, right? Grow up.

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