Let’s talk about sex, baby, let’s talk about you and… books! When Katharine Grant’s father first read The Marriage Recital, he was shocked. “How does she know these things?” he asked one of her sisters. There are two answers: life and books, with books particularly valuable in offering both knowledge and escape. At her convent school, Grant read anything she could find. Forbidden novels were smuggled in and wrapped in disguising jackets. Dozens of flashlight batteries were exhausted. Grant says that without these books she may not have written The Marriage Recital, a tale of the sexual education of five marriageable young girls living in 18th century London. Here, she shares some of the novels that were a part of her rounded education in the ways of love, sex, and everything in between.
The first Dodie Smith book I read was One Hundred and One Dalmatians, so I Capture the Castle was a surprise. Instead of dogs, we have Cassandra Mortmain, the dreamy but practical heroine. Through her and with her, I experienced both the delight and the confusion of first love. I found Cassandra’s confidential tone irresistible, from that famous first line—“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”—to her final “I love you.” As a girl, I wanted to be like her. As an author, I went back to Castle as to an old and encouraging friend. You can write, Cassandra urged. You just need to keep going. The only downside has been that my copy eventually fell to bits and my new one feels like a new pair of shoes: smart but a bit stiff.
A novelist can pursue more original paths to sexual knowledge than their own experience. In Orlando, a fantastical tale of a boy who becomes a girl, Virginia Woolf offers every kind of wild excitement—physical, literary, and imaginative. Through Orlando, I realised that nothing was fixed, not gender, not behavior, not even time: Orlando travels through over 300 years of English literature. Could I too wake up and find my world completely changed? Opportunity knocked when an ardent German made gratifyingly persistent passes in Ladakh, “the land of high passes.” Turning her down felt impolite: She’d travelled so far! But all my previous experience had been heterosexual. What would Orlando do?
Everybody at some stage becomes aware of sex, but everybody experiences it in a different way. I was brought up a Catholic and educated entirely by nuns until the end of secondary school. For years I believed sex was primarily a man thing. Men instigated and controlled it; women bore it and its consequences. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which, along with whispers about the Marquis de Sade and Casanova, comprised my entire teenage sex education, reinforced this view. “A woman had to yield,” Lawrence writes in this tale of illicit sex between a gamekeeper and his employer’s wife. “A man was like a child with his appetites.” But wait! “A woman could take a man without really giving herself away. Rather she could use this sex thing to have power over him.” Well, whadaya know, thought the teenage me. Was Lawrence on to something? Turned out he was.
Henry James died in 1916, truly awful timing since he never knew that World War One did eventually come to an end. I love all his books but Portrait is my favorite. Set in the 1860s, we find Isabel Archer, a young, well-born and independent-minded American girl, visiting Europe before deciding which direction her life should take. Isabel is superbly drawn but I fell deeply in love with her British cousin, Ralph Touchett, an “accidental cohesion of relaxed angles”. He is one of the few examples, in literature as in life, of a man who was truly and selflessly interested in a woman for what she might become and not what she could do for him. I wept when he died. Portrait of a Lady couldn’t be more different in style, tone and content from my next choice…
I’d still feel faintly embarrassed to read this on the bus. Silly, I know. It’s not the content; it’s remembering that Portnoy taught me about things I didn’t even know I didn’t know but thought I should have known, at least up to a point. Philip Roth’s frenzied monologue about sex, guilt, and high anxiety revealed that sex has a technical angle and that love can be mighty peculiar. Listed by Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), as one of the 99 best novels in English since 1939, Portnoy is startling, not so much for being sexually explicit as for making sex, and, incidentally, constipation, so explosively funny. If you’re going to write about sex and you don’t want to win the Bad Sex Award, read Portnoy before you start.
Love as power and the power of love are key themes for novelists, the former revealing love’s darker underbelly. Employing the books of the Old Testament as chapter headings, Jeanette Winterson captures love’s complexities in this story of Jeanette, who both is and is not Winterson herself. We meet Jeanette aged seven, in thrall of her adoptive mother and being trained for missionary work. That’s not how things unfold. Winterson calls Oranges in her introduction a “threatening novel” because it “exposes the sanctity of family life as something of a sham.” Yet it’s also a “comforting novel” because “it tackles difficult questions.” In The Marriage Recital’s more difficult moments, I thought of Jeanette Winterson. We were raised barely eight miles apart. I wish I’d known that before we grew up and migrated.
Katharine Grant is (as K.M. Grant) a children’s book author, best known in the UK for her prizewinning DeGranville Trilogy. Sedition is her debut novel for adults. She was brought up in Lancashire, England, amid the ghosts of her ancestors, one of whom was the last person in the UK to be hung, drawn, and quartered. She lives in Scotland with her husband and three children.