What’s hot in publishing right now? A book called The Passion of Mademoiselle S. The rights to the book have been snapped up by major publishers in the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Holland and Brazil. Mademoiselle Simone, author and protagonist of the non-fiction work,must be delighted, you may think, at all this excitement and literary glory to come. Perhaps she is, someplace – but not on this earth.
The truth is, nobody knows who exactly Mademoiselle Simone was; past tense, because the letters she wrote that comprise the book spanned the period of 1928 to 1930. But the work is being heralded as ‘an epistolary erotic treasure: a chronicle of the extreme passion of a well to do young lady in 1920s Paris’.
The agent for the work describes it thus:
While helping a friend clean out an old apartment, French ambassador Jean-Yves Berthault discovers a hidden leather pouch filled with handwritten letters. Upon reading the first one, he realizes that an extraordinary adventure lies at his fingertips.
Penned by the mysterious Simone in the 1920s, the letters tell the story of her passion for a younger married man, Charles. The reader is immediately drawn into this riveting tale of sexual awakening as Simone finds herself immersed in a world of physical pleasure hitherto unknown to her. Gradually, Simone loses touch with reality and becomes obsessed with Charles. Yet the more desperately she wants him, the less he returns her affection.
As her hunger for Charles grows, Simone forces him beyond his sexual boundaries, ultimately reversing their roles. Simone wants Charles to taste unsuspecting pleasures and she turns him into her “mistress.” With each taboo they break, he gives himself further to her—until their last fateful sexual encounter.
The Passion of Mademoiselle S. forms an erotic tour de force in its unbridled lust, intimacy, and abandonment. In language that is by turns elegant, moving, and crude, Simone’s striking love letters reveal an all-encompassing appetite for a man who evades her. A journey of sexual and psychological exploration, The Passion of Mademoiselle S. shows the life of a woman in the 1920s who, though bound by her class and gender, is able to transcend that confinement and embrace her true self.
A powerful synopsis indeed that would sit well on any work of fiction, let alone a collection of actual letters. The UK editor who bought the book for William Heinemann told The Bookseller that it ‘is a time capsule of a book’ and ‘the fact that it was such a deeply buried secret for all these years makes it particularly special’. I understand the interest in something long-buried; the knowledge and feel of the past it creates. It’s an important work, from that angle.
But I can’t help wondering about the ‘deeply buried secret’ element. The love letters were discovered in a cellar, where ‘they appeared to be deliberately hidden under several crates of empty jars’ (source). Deeply buried. Deliberate. Did Simone, whoever she was, wish them to remain thus?
One could argue that if she never wanted those letters to be read by others, she’d have destroyed them – burnt them as have countless writers in history. But perhaps she could not bear to; they were her heart and soul laid out on paper. Perhaps she left the letters there and intended to come back for them someday, but was unable to. Perhaps the idea of seeing them in print would have been terrible for her. Or perhaps, after all, she’d have been honoured and thrilled. We cannot know.
The publication raises interesting questions. When you create something within the sphere of the arts, when does that creation shift from being personal to public property? Upon your death? When no immediate relatives remain to be affected by the publication? What about profit? Should this book be the next big thing in the erotic genre, who will make the fortune? Should the ‘characters’ in the book be identified, and their relatives awarded royalties?
One lesson from the story is clear: if you create something – a poem, a painting, a wonky vase – that you never want to see the light of day, you must either destroy it or bury it very, very deep indeed.