There is one prize that I don’t want to win – awarded each year for the worst sex scene in any novel. Mills and Boon for sticky romance, El James series starting with Fifty Shades of Grey which verge on porn, are to be avoided at all costs. Yet we all know how hard it is to create a scene that satisfies readers as voyeurs, being both plausible and passionate with a hint of the erotic. To be remembered, as with so much else I believe, is that less is more.
Graham Swift in ‘Mothering Sunday’ overwhelms us with the desire that Paul and Jay enjoy. We are led down the path of their relationship in short bursts; a secret liaison in the woods to this one day when at last they are in his house, his bedroom, ‘They had never been, in all the years … as naked as this.’ They can look at each other, openly, ‘Feast your eyes, she’d dared to think .. ‘ And then after a long passages when we learn of how this situation was able to arise we join them after the event, his hand on her stomach, the cigarettes smoked, satisfied on ‘such a glorious morning’. We feel their pleasure without all the gory details. Perfect.
In the ‘Eye of God’ Jack seduces Jill unintentionally by telling her legends of the moon in order to soothe her rage. She stops his story ‘with a kiss on the edge of his mouth’ and ‘will never forget the look on his face as he turned,’ The brief description of their clumsiness ends with his apology and her retort; ‘So you should be … you need practice.’ And then her aside of ‘so we did’. All achieved in a paragraph.
Angela tries to seduce her father while he sleeps in ‘The Angel Child’. On waking to find her astride him, he flees to lock himself in the barn. A brutal episode. Though there are few cosy instances of union in this novel, Lula and Job come close; ‘… he knew her body as an instrument on which to play his best tunes … Lula found their love-making the most exhilarating.
In ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ Leonard’s sessions with the prostitute are hardly satisfying merely filling him with a desperation for something more; he thinks companionship, love. His pursuit of Ladybird is not successful, there brief love scene is standing under a moon – obligatory – ‘It was, as I always knew it would be, the consummation of my desire; the kiss I’ve dreamed of.’ Needless to say it will not be right or enough. Even though he says; ‘It was natural, wasn’t it.’
Greta’s lovers in ‘Incident on the Line’ are flawed in their egotism; absorption in their own pleasure or neediness. Gerald, the flagrant seducer, is pitiful in old age; Paul unable to cope with complex emotions; Max constantly in search of the lost father et. al., are all failures. Angus, the policeman, was for a time ‘the answer to a maiden’s prayer,’ but there was no need for the big love moment. Even with Roger a short paragraph is enough; ‘We might have been clumsy the first time … We had a whole night to explore, to trace the contours …’
Re-reading E.M. Foster’s ‘Howard’s End’ after the recent TV adaptation I am frustrated by the lack of any signs of sexual love. Of course the time of writing and Forster’s depiction of Henry Wilcox as a man who represses emotion, discussion of money and sex being abhorrent, explains this. However I have to wonder how on earth Margaret copes with him in the ‘bedroom’.
If you are building up characters who readers wish to invest time and belief in, those lovers have to do it their way. We must be involved in their emotions, we must be willing them on, but we don’t need the nitty-gritty. In my new novel, working title ‘The Greenhouse’, an illicit affair in England 1942 between a woman and her father-in-law, unrequited and repressed, required a tin of dried egg powder to interrupt any need for over-explanation. I hope that is enough.
So we continue into this new year; 2018.