Don’t you just love all the racy romance novels out there today? And in so many forms: ebook, paperback, audiobook. You can read them anywhere and no one cares. And most women now start reading them in their teens. I remember overhearing a conversation between a mother and teenage daughter during the height of the Fifty Shades of Grey craze that went something like this:
Mom: “What do you mean you didn’t pick it up?”
Teen Daughter: “I’m sorry, I got talking to Jessica and just forgot.”
Mom: “Now what are we going to read on vacation? It’s the third in the series, we were supposed to read it together! I don’t know if we can get an English copy of Shades in Paris?!”
But it wasn’t always this way. Did you ever look at your dear, sweet, gray-haired grandmother while she was fixing your cocoa and wonder what she read at sixteen? Twenty-one? Thirty? Well, wonder no more. Yours truly interviewed one hundred of these remarkable women and found out what they were reading way back then, before internet, earbuds, and mobile phones. And how they managed to read it without getting caught. Oh, yes, without getting caught. If anyone had written a Misadventures book back then, it would probably have been “Misadventures with a Racy Romance.”
Romance novels, especially extremely racy ones that included any description of sex, profanity, or a combination of both were not only verboten, they were considered to cause forms of mental illness, poor sexual health, and other diseases that could land one in an institution or even cause brain fevers that could result in death.
So, with that bit of background, here are the Top 10 Novels being read by Nice Young Ladies (hereafter referred to as NYLs) age sixteen to thirty from 1935 to 1949. The books are listed by year published, not popularity. These are the ages the ladies I interviewed would have been in those years. And yes, some of these books are quite old. Keep in mind three things:
1) There was not a huge market at that time, so racy novels were hard to come by.
2) You had to steal them, sneak them, or otherwise purloin said novel.
3) You had to keep them hidden while reading them. It really could result in a horrible scandal if you were caught with one—a story for another day.
10. 1947 | The Amboy Dukes by Irving Schulman
NYLs glued on false covers, made book covers, and did anything else they could to hide this one while passing it on to the next girl at school. They also hid it at home, if they dared take it home. If his name sounds familiar it’s because Schulman wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause based on an idea for a movie he had formed with director Nicholas Ray.
The Amboy Dukes was a novel that uncovered the lives of New York City gang members and the young girls who loved them. Schulman laid bare what teenage girls only fantasized about when they saw those same gang members and hard nuts walking up and down their own school hallways. The boys those NYLs wouldn’t have dared brought home to their parents.
9. 1944 | Under A Glass Bell by Anaïs Nin
NYLs kept this one in purses, those nice large skirt pockets, school bags, the backs of drawers, and anywhere mama or anyone one else in authority or of the tattle-tale type couldn’t see. To this day, anything by Nin is an absolute treat if one can find it. Lush, sensual, literary, and groundbreaking. It’s Anaïs Nin, ’nuff said.
8. 1944 | Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
Rachel Cooke of London said in 2002 in The Observer, “Miss Winsor, if she felt so inclined, could justifiably claim to be the woman who invented the modern bestseller.” So, all of you members of LuvBooks who love your racy novels and cannot get enough, take a moment of silence for Miss Winsor, and I am about to tell you why.
In a day and age with no internet, cellphones, Amazon, or 24-hour-a-day cable—and definitely before anyone would have dared mention the subject matter on radio—Forever Amber sold 100,000 copies the first week it was released. Winsor’s Forever Amber was 972 pages of her darling Amber having sex with lovers who were Highwaymen all the way to Kings. And Amber wasn’t shy about it. At one point in the book, she purrs, “Adultery is not a crime, it’s an amusement.” Our NYLs said they were quite crafty about this one. Amber was stolen from older cousins, friend’s mothers, passed around at slumber parties, and hidden in some of the cleverest places, including underneath the potatoes in the potato bin.
7. 1936 | Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
NYLs under the age of eighteen could expect to hide this popular book. Though there was no explicit sex or profanity, there was certainly a heavy amount of innuendo, and no one came away from chapter fifty-four thinking Rhett had just arm-wrestled Scarlett. It is very clear that he takes her by force, and she doesn’t put up much of a fight over it.
6. 1934 | Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Earlier we saw Anaïs Nin, so how on earth could this list be complete if we did not look at this sexy novel by her lover? NYLs were keeping this one between the mattress and the springs (if they had them), inside of hat boxes, and in the backs of their unmentionable drawer. Every page was filled with either explicit profanity, explicit sex, or both, all set in Paris in the 1930s. Miller actually wanted to title this “Crazy Cock.” I’m not sure there would have been a hiding place good enough.
5. 1930s | Mills & Boon Publishers Australia (New Zealand) and later Harlequin (Canada)
NYLs stated these books were off limits due to explicit sex scenes often portrayed as crimes, such as rape. Though only tuppence, parents were very aware of them because they would only be out for thirty days, then whatever did not sell was gathered up, shredded, pulped, and printed with new stories and out again. It was very easy to get your hands on them and pass them around.
4. 1928 | Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Lawrence had this published privately in Italy in 1928 and in France the following year. It was banned in Australia, England, Canada, and other countries, but our NYLs seemed to be able to get their delicate hands upon copies even though it remained banned for several decades. It is the explicitly described affair between an upper-class woman and her handyman. It also included several then-unprintable four-letter words. Remember, our grandmothers were made of tougher stuff and still managed not only to hide it but to read it!
3. 1925 | The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Beautiful young people, sex, alcohol, and jazz. I don’t understand why a parent would not want their impressionable young daughter reading this? Do you? One former NYL said her mother found her copy and burned it. Apparently, her mother’s sister had become a flapper in the Roaring Twenties and was never heard from again. Guess who got hold of another copy?
2. 1856 | Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary lives beyond her means and has affairs to escape the inanity of her marriage and daily life. Known for his wit and intelligence, he named his character for her “character.” In French, bovarysme means to daydream and make oneself the hero, to fantasize so much, one ignores reality almost completely. Flaubert had to stand trial due to the book’s obscene scenes. Ah, gran-mere, what big eyes you had and how much you needed them to hide this book!
1. 1748 | Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland
NYLs told me this one was often stolen or BWOP (borrowed without permission) from their brothers or male cousins. Fanny Hill was a bit of a groundbreaker. It was the first pornographic English novel. The first written while the author sat in debtors’ prison. The first not to use “dirty words” or Latin medical terms.
What Cleland did use was a lot of slang and innuendo. This included the title. “Fanny hill” is slang for Mons Venus. He becomes a genius at making it up as he goes, too. Vagina becomes “nethermouth.” This book definitely was not going to be found on a NYL’s bedside table.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back and will consider revisiting what your grandmother was reading when she was a girl. It might shock you! Next time we will take a look at the 1950s.
About the Contributor
Susan Campton is a retired Psychiatric Social Worker, who is now a full time Secretary for Book Review Blogger Drakon T. Longwitten, The Book Dragon and part-time Freelance Writer under the name J.V. Montgomery. She is also working on a book based on her experiences during her time in Social Work in Appalachia. Tales from the Book Dragon can see be seen here: www.talesfromthebookdragon.wordpress.com