Scarlet Letters: Leigh Marsden and Censorship

01:32, Oct 18 2012

Last week I took a walk on the wild side and read Geraldine author Leigh Marsden's 2011 novel, Scarlet. As it's been labelled the most sexually explicit book ever published by Penguin in New Zealand, I wasn't sure what to expect, but ended up simply admiring Marsden's fearlessness.

Marsden gave a talk at the Granary on Sunday as part of the Page and Blackmore Readers and Writers section of the festival. I was a little taken aback at the prospect of reviewing the talk as romance has never been quite my cup of tea, but I'm always intrigued by Kiwi versions of genre fiction and wanted to see how she'd spin it.

Scarlet describes the journey of a redheaded thirty year-old waitress named George as she falls into and out of an exploitative relationship with her sometime lesbian lover, Cass. The two of them sleep their way around Auckland in a light-hearted fashion for much of the book, before Cass is revealed to be grooming George to participate in a non-consensual porno flick. 

In a climactic scene near the end of the book, George is drugged, kidnapped and sexually assaulted before being rescued by police. The book also contains graphic details of George's abusive childhood in Taupo, her father killing her beloved dog Uno and her underage sexual relationship with her uncle Steven. Mills and Boone, it's not.

Because of the serious nature of the plot, I actually didn't find Scarlet much of a titillating read- I was too busy worrying about whether George would be alright, and feeling bad for the dog. This is no slur on the quality of Marsden's romance writing, which was mostly fairly classy if heavy on the slang. I laughed when Cass and George's first conquest was described as a nameless "muscular sportsman".

I've certainly read more explicit publications (Chuck "transgressive fiction" Palahniuk, I'm looking at you), but Scarlet's instantly recognisable Kiwi scenery and mannerisms meant this book stood out. I don't know that it fulfilled its purpose as a girly romantic novel, but it was a much deeper, darker, more interesting novel than I expected.

Marsden went out of her way in the talk to explain that the book was not meant to be "erotica" or purely sex-driven, which was a relief. She told me she originally submitted a social-commentary-style book, Beauty to Penguin before they asked if she had anything else they could look at. With a sense of fatalism, Marsden sent them a sexed-up first draft of Scarlet, not expecting it to be to their taste.

"It caused quite a stir in the office," she said.

Marsden thinks Penguin might be preparing to head in a more commercially-driven direction, taking on more genre fiction like her own.

When I first heard of Scarlet's reputation, I wondered whether Marsden might have followed D.H. Lawrence into reclaiming the "c-word" for her sex scenes (she didn't). Lawrence's 11th novel Lady Chatterly's Lover created a scandal when it was first published in 1928, and was followed around the world for over thirty years afterwards by lawsuits, suppression orders and heavy edits. 

This came to a head in a huge scandal in 1960,when Penguin was prosecuted for printing the first uncensored version of Lady Chatterly's Lover in Britain. Their second full and unexpurgated edition, published in 1961, contained a thank-you note to the jurors who found them not guilty:

"For having published this book, Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959 at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of 'Not Guilty' and thus made D. H. Lawrence's last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom." 

The book was not cleared for publication in New Zealand until 1965. This collection of vintage covers is mostly safe for work but does contain a few artistically naked ladies. "Here, at last, is the story that was talked of in whispers!" is stamped on the front of a Canadian Travellers' Pocket Edition from 1949 which comes in two versions- subtle or saucy.

The idea of a well-established publisher like Penguin deliberately becoming more driven by genre fiction worries me, but I did enjoy Marsden and her smut. In the meantime, South Koreans are now allowed to read de Sade. It's a brave new world out there...