Sex in Literature Wasn’t Invented a Half Century Ago

Marjorie MorningstarMany novels of the past 50 years or so, including literary ones, have been fairly candid in their references to sexual matters. That’s the case with parts of John Irving’s In One Person, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and numerous other fiction books. (Fifty Shades of Grey? Haven’t read it.)

But while sexual references were often more coded and subtle in pre-1960s fiction, things could still get relatively frank at times. I was reminded of that last week while reading Marjorie Morningstar, which was published in 1955 and mostly set in the 1930s. (Poster of the movie version above.) There’s plenty of G-rated “necking” in Herman Wouk’s novel, but also adultery, sex with no plans to get married, flashes of naked skin, and more — even as much of the novel has non-romantic things on its mind (show biz, ambition, conformity vs. rebellion, class divisions, obsessive parenting, Jewish culture, the rise of Nazi Germany, etc.). An excellent novel, though the plot turn at the very end was disappointing.

Going further back in time, we have Henry Miller’s sex-heavy Tropic of Cancer (1934), which was banned in the U.S. for many years; Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre (1933), which contains scenes explicit enough for its time to get the author taken to court and the book banned in some cities; D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), which was graphic enough to have about 10% of its content edited out before publication — even as some remaining scenes were still pretty risqué for their day; Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), with its blunt depiction of the life of its prostitute protagonist; Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), which focuses on a possibly incestuous relationship; and Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin (1831), which includes an orgy scene.

Long before that, there’s plenty of amorousness in novels such as Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) — with characters like the revealingly named Lady Booby.

What are your favorite pre-1960s novels that were more sexually frank than you might have expected? And some of the more candid ’60s and post-’60s fiction you’ve liked?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about yet another oversized building coming to my town — is here.

121 thoughts on “Sex in Literature Wasn’t Invented a Half Century Ago

  1. ‘Right in the middle of a spicy movie starring Natalie Wood.’
    Wonder if it was Marjory Morningstar? Sorry couldn’t resist that line from a Tom Paxton song. Lol, always going to find my way to a post like this given I like to write quite a lot spice. When I worked in that library Lady Chatterly’s Lover was kept in the back office and had to be asked for. i kid you not. Naturally we all read it. I was never a big fan of Lawrence. We had to read Sons and Lovers in school. Obvi that would NOT have been allowed had it been the original. I just always found that despite being taught that he championed the working class, in that book, he did anything but and that the teacher must have read a diff book. I did read Women in Love but..what a confession for a writer who writes sex…I got bored and gave up on it. Also I have never read 50 Shades. I actually feel that ‘real’ writing about sex is short on the ground. Like there’s a lot of graphic stuff out there. 50 Shades was an interesting phenomenon here in the UK cos not many UK writers really wrote sex. Starting out in the romance/sex writing industry I found that the perception by US publishers was that UK writers couldn’t write it whereas their authors just wrote it as a matter of course. Pages of it. I sometimes wonder if that is why that book took off the way it did. Here certainly. To return to Pin to See the Peepshow–oh lord you will thinking, not again. One of the things I also liked was that that book was written in the 30s and obvi she kept it clean in terms of scenes BUT she dissected what it was like to be in this dreadful marriage where the husband had to ‘have his rights.’ And poor Julia with her ideas of romance and all, setting out on this great, what will this be like adventure, found that this really was in the hands of the partner. Then she’s down to engineering all sorts like a separate bedroom and whether not just staying with her mum and sleeping on the landing wouldn’t have been better after all. And it’s quite a thread of dark humor in that book . But it led me in the direction of thinking that that kind of dissection with any regard to sex in literature is actually more interesting than pure descriptions of body parts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shehanne, for the excellent comment! I can see how this post would be relevant to your own book writing.

      Ha! I hadn’t been aware of that Tom Paxton song. Could well have been a reference to “Marjorie Morningstar.” (What a great novelist Herman Wouk was.)

      I hadn’t read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” until after writing this post, and found it to be a pretty good (not great) novel — the sex and non-sex parts.

      And, yes, many older novels were very or somewhat coded in discussing sex. As you allude to, things were often the better because of it. Subtlety can be a good thing.

      Your mention of dissecting bad marriages reminds me that few novels did that better than George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave two of the current day novelists, one you mentioned is John Irving’s In One Person, and Wlater Mosley in Devil in a Blue Dress set in 1948, Charcoal Joe set in 1960 . The author was easy with sexual encounters but I loved his books set in those days.

    In One Person, author deals with the coming of age of a bisexual man and his coming to grips with his sexual identity..In One Person” begins in the mid-1950s, when Billy is 13, and shadows him until he is in his late 60s, in 2010.
    Billy became a well known author and have gone through, AIDS epidemic, losing firends .
    Irving was writing as Billy.

    It is an excellent Novel, I urge all fans of Irving to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe!

      “Devil in a Blue Dress” definitely also has its sexual moments. Terrific crime novel that I’m glad you recommended to me!

      I thought “In One Person” (which you also recommended) was excellent. Well-written, quirky, compassionate, and a real chronicle of the sexual prejudices and open-minded changes for the better of the past half-century or so. All the deaths in the novel did get ultra-depressing after a while, but that was the way it was during the earlier years of the AIDS epidemic.

      Wrestling and wrestlers are certainly a recurring theme in several Irving novels!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dave, I am so glad that you`ve read Irving book,. They say his Son was gay whatever.
        How about that grandpa ;), Ms. Foster., and so one. Plus so much heartbreaking.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting, bebe. Not surprised that there was a real-life family connection John Irving could emotionally draw on.

          And, yes, so many memorable characters who were bisexual or gay or cross-dressing or transgender, etc.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Bonjour Tristesse when Françoise Sagan was only 18, became an overnight sensation.
    One twisted novel. , 17-year-old Cécile spends her summer in a villa on the French Riviera with her father Raymond and his current mistress,Elsa and Cécile gets along well with Elsa.
    Raymond was very attractive anld a philanderer. .
    Their peaceful holiday is shattered by the arrival of Anne a A cultured, principled, intelligent, hard-working woman ., who soon became Raymon`s lover and got engaged and Anne forbade Cécile to stop seeing Elsa..
    Cécile in her cunning way plotted something to get rid of highly sensitive Anne , who left in tears and plunged the car to the river and died.

    I was so young and cried and cried reading these sensitive novels…

    Those were the days…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Come to think of it, the 11th century work “The Tale of Genji”, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, has plenty of sex in it, and is very often described as the world’s first novel! So, right from giddy-up, sex has had its place in fiction.

    Of course, the sex therein is more often problematic to modern eyes than not, as it’s often forced on women by Genji, who seems to take what he can get wherever he goes, though he’s a refined noble of poetic bent, with exquisite taste in incense.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When in High School read a series of books by French Novelist Françoise Sagan , all translated in English. my Brother had them in the bookcase.

    Bonjour Tristesse, A Certain Smile, Aimez-vous Brahms? and so on.
    That was a great escape from studies, were all sweet and sexy novels.

    ” Aimez-vous Brahms?”.1960,
    .Paula a divorced interior disigner had Roger as her lover, but she wanted more . Met Simon a very young and handsome man . Simon madly fell in love with Pauls and introduced her to Brahms, . Soon Pauld realised she needed Roger, and left Simon with a lot of sadness.
    Simon`s grief was heart wrenching.

    None of these novels had the ridiculous details of sexy scenes, but even more sexy to read Dave.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Odd story here, Dave. The racy novel “Peyton Place,” by Grace Metalious, was published in 1956, with the movie out the next year. For reasons I will never understand, my prudish mother loaded all four of us kids plus our father into the car and took us to a drive-in movie to see it, probably in 1958 or ’59. I remember almost nothing about the movie nor any family discussion afterward. But the novel should be on your list. And if Mom still were alive I’d ask you to interview her about this mystery trip to the movies.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That IS a mysterious story, Bill! (And well told.) “Prudish” and “Peyton Place” don’t seem to match, except for the opening letter “P.” Perhaps your mother was seeing into the NFL’s future and thought the movie would be about quarterback Peyton Manning? 🙂


  7. I’m not sure if you really are spying on me, Dave, but you’re starting to freak me out!

    Over the weekend, I had a random thought about a scene in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. There’s a pretty violent rape told from the POV of the rapist, and while it’s obviously not cheery, it was SO well written that as a reader, I was kind of desensitised from the victim and *almost* enjoying it from the rapists perspective. And it got me wondering if you ever had / would write a blog about the sometimes taboo topic of sex. And then…

    Of course, rape and sex have very little in common, and the above scene doesn’t remotely fit your topic this week (is obviously post 1960s as well as not being about sex) but it’s almost spooky that you’d pick this week to write this particular blog!

    As far as the actual topic goes, I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover about a thousand years ago expecting lots of naughtiness. I have no idea whether it was actually a good book, or whether it was racy for its time, but I remember feeling pretty ho hum about it all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sue! Ha! Another one of those coincidences, I guess. 🙂

      There are, unfortunately, plenty of rapes depicted in literature — whether graphically or off-scene, and you’re right that that despicable act has little to do with sex and much more to do with violence, criminality, power imbalance, etc.

      While I haven’t read it, it sounds like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was risqué for its era but relatively tame by today’s standards (or lack of standards). Times have really changed in that respect.


  8. On the blog last week, I credited my street-level suppliers with my eclectic reading tastes, and they are responsible in a way, given that most of what I read depends on what they put out for sale. But truth is, it’s Ezra Pound, more than any other influence over all the years. I read “The Metamorphoses” in Rolf Humphries translation because he praised Ovid, and now I’m reading the 16th century Arthur Golding translation of it, because Pound praised it without reserve in the “ABC of Reading”, and though I read that decades ago, I maintained an interest over all the years. I read Chinese Tang Dynasty poems because he translated a few, I read some of the Troubadours, again on his recommendation, and Dante’s “Inferno”. Today, I remembered I had read some love poetry from Ancient Egypt, and though what I leave a link to below is not his work, it was Pound, again who introduced me.

    I will not defend his politics or prejudices, period, beyond saying that he, like a great many others in the Depression Era, felt obligated to come up with something that would improve the status quo. He had taught himself several languages, and probably most of all he knew. He made the mistake of attempting to teach himself political economy without outside help, and had in that instance, more of a fool than he knew for an instructor.

    I remain grateful he took time to instruct fools like me in world literature appreciation. The lessons have lasted me many decades.

    So, to show sex goes way back, as written, here’s a bit of love poetry from Ancient Egypt:
    Your love has penetrated all within me/
    Like honey plunged into water, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Ezra Pounds indeed sounds like quite an influence on you — literature-wise specifically, of course.

      And that is quite a sensual poem from way, way back. Very well-written, too.


    • Thank you, Michele! That’s a good one! Not sure how much racier the “Tom Jones” movie was than Henry Fielding’s novel (I haven’t seen the film), but the book was certainly racy for its time!


  9. Ha ha.bebe here, 50 shades of grey is pure trash..I borrowed the book then read a few pages, burst out laughing and the end 🤣

    Anyways I’ll talk about some French Novels later…today First day of p therapy. Ouch 😱

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I was reading “War and Peace” with a grad student a couple of years ago, and he was stunned at the amount of implied sex in it! No English-language work from the same era could have been so frank. “Anna Karenina” is also quite frank. Although the sex between Anna and Vronsky is not described explicitly, there clearly is a sex scene, and Anna becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child.

    Similar, in Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” the Underground Man clearly has sex with the prostitute Liza, although the act itself is skipped over.

    The Russian poets of the previous generation were even more upfront about it than Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s generation. Some of their published works were pretty racy, and some of their unpublished works were downright pornographic.

    Here’s a link to an English translation of a racy little poem by Pushkin that was unpublished during his lifetime. In Russia Gentiles are not circumcised, hence the “thing” that distinguishes the two groups:

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Elena, for all those well-described examples from Russian works — and that poem is indeed racy! When one thinks of sexual frankness in 19th-century literature, one thinks of, say, France more than Russia — but the latter has its moments. There’s of course also some “debauchery” in “The Brothers Karamazov” (that sleazy dad, for instance), but it’s not explicitly depicted.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Turgenev’s “First Love” features a bit of offbeat sex by inference– of the s&m variety, involving a whip, in the hands of the lover shared by a father and son, though as I recall, each was previously unaware of their common interest.

        Liked by 2 people

          • There’s reference to that sort of going-on in Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” too,found in a room shut for decades:
            “On the low ceilings were some very unusual reliefs in colored stucco, fortunately made almost indecipherable by damp…In every room and even in the drawing room were wide, too wide sofas, showing nails with traces of silk that had been torn away…on the fireplaces were delicate little marble intaglios, naked figures in paroxysms but mutilated by some furious hammer… Inside (a cupboard) was a bundle of small whips, switches of bull’s muscle, some with silver handles, others wrapped halfway up in a charming old silk, white with little blue stripes, on which could be seen three rows of blackish marks; and metal instruments for inexplicable purposes.” (p.185)

            Published 1960– so it just got under the wire.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Wow — I had forgotten that passage from “The Leopard,” which I’m grateful you recommended to me a few years ago. One of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read (and of course most of it was rated “G” or “PG,” not “R”).


  11. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith, 1943) is quite sexually frank, with attempted rape, sex outside of marriage, adultery, and longing for physical connection, as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Recent reading with some excellent sex scenes includes the “Outlander” books by Diana Gabaldon.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Becky! Sorry for my delayed response; your comment ended up in my blog’s spam folder (not my doing), and I just moved it here when I noticed.

      “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a very good example of this topic! I haven’t read the “Outlander” books, but glad you mentioned them. Which reminds me of another series that recently inspired a TV production — George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books, which are fairly frank sexually.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. By the way, I read “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” years before I read “Marjorie Morningstar”. I found it almost unbelievable that Herman Wouk wrote all 3!!!

    Liked by 2 people

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