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Most people who are into BDSM are familiar with Story of O, a novel about a woman who undergoes intensive training at a French chateau to become a sex slave. But the details of how this infamous book came about—and the woman who wrote it—are perhaps less widely known but just as intriguing.
Story of O was published in 1954 in France and was considered to be quite scandalous at the time. Even by today’s standards, the book is still racy. It tells the story of O, a fashion photographer in Paris who’s whisked away to a chateau outside the city by her lover, René. She undergoes days of beatings, anal training, and rough sexual encounters with numerous men, which she consents to out of love for René. But René’s plan doesn’t stop there. He soon delivers O to Sir Stephen, an even more dominant male figure, who proceeds to intensify the power dynamic by branding O and attaching a steel tag to a piercing on her labia. René also pushes O to seduce other women, including a model named Jacqueline.
In the final scene of the book, we see O at a sex party, where she is treated purely as an object. This is followed by two very brief endings: one in which Sir Stephen abandons O at the chateau and another in which, upon seeing that Sir Stephen is about to leave her, O says she would prefer to die. Sir Stephen gives his permission. When asked about the two endings, the author later said, “I didn’t know how to end it, so I left it open. Why not?”
This brings us to the identity of the author. The name on the book, Pauline Réage, was widely known to be a pseudonym even when the book was published. Speculation ran wild for years about who the author really was. Thanks to sexism, most of the suspects were men, as it was assumed no woman could invent such a titillating story. It wasn’t until the writer John de St. Jorre published an article in The New Yorker called “The Unmasking of O” in 1994 that the identity of the author was revealed: Dominique Aury. But even that name, de St. Jorre noted, was yet another pen name. She finally revealed her real name—Anne Desclos—right before she died in 1998.
So who was Dominique Aury (we’ll refer to her that way, as that’s the name she used for most of her life)? She was a prestigious journalist, editor, and translator. She was in her 40s when she wrote Story of O for her lover, Jean Paulhan, who was a literary critic and publisher. It was unlike anything she’d written previously. Paulhan and Aury had a not-so-secret 30-year affair that began during their time in the French Resistance during WWII and lasted through his second marriage to a woman who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. In “A Girl in Love,” a thinly veiled account of how Aury wrote Story of O, she poetically describes their clandestine trysts and mutual love of literature: “Books were their only complete freedom, their common country, their true travels.”
Despite their longevity, Paulhan was always a philanderer, and Aury eventually felt she needed to make a grand gesture of seduction to keep him engaged. Inspired by Paulhan’s interest in the Marquis de Sade and her own sexual fantasies, Aury decided to try her hand at writing erotica. Paulhan was doubtful she could do it, but she pressed on, starting to write what would become Story of O one night while lying in bed. “For the first time in her life she was writing without hesitation, without stopping, rewriting, or discarding, she was writing the way one breathes, the way one dreams.”
Aury didn’t know where her “oft-repeated reveries” came from, but they were “always the same ones, in which the purest and wildest love always sanctioned, or rather always demanded, the most frightful surrender . . .” She felt protected by her fantasies, stating that “I have never known how to tame my life. And yet it seemed indeed as though these strange dreams were a help in that direction, as though some ransom had been paid by the delirium and delights of the impossible: the days that followed were oddly lightened by them. . . .”
Aury nervously gave Paulhan the pages she had written shortly after finishing them, afraid he would find them offensive, boring, or absurd. But he encouraged her to keep writing, eager to learn the rest of the story. She spent the next three months completing the book, mailing pages to Paulhan as she went along and never keeping a copy for herself. He was fascinated by the possibility that the story reflected a part of herself, and she was, too. “I saw, between what I thought myself to be and what I was relating and thought I was making up, both a distance so radical and a kinship so profound that I was incapable of recognizing myself in it,” she notes in “A Girl in Love.” She credited Paulhan and writing the book with enabling her to access this other life or self and, ultimately, share it with everyone, much like a prostitute or the character of O.
Although Story of O is a work of fiction, Aury drew inspiration from real people for some of the characters. O was based on a friend of Aury’s named Odile, but she shortened the name to “O” after writing only a few pages because she felt bad about subjecting a character with her friend’s name to all that O endures. René, O’s lover, was inspired by an unrequited love from Aury’s youth. And the character of Jacqueline, the model O seduces, was based on Aury’s first love, a girl she had a romance with when they were both 15. It only lasted a few months because the girl’s parents found out and put an end to it. Later, the real Jacqueline loved the real René, and Aury “took my revenge by shipping her off to Roissy,” the chateau outside Paris where O becomes a sex slave. As for Sir Stephen, he was drawn from a man Aury once saw sitting at a bar.
Publication and Scandal
Once Aury finished the manuscript, Paulhan immediately began searching for a publisher. After a couple of rejections, it was finally accepted in 1953 by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, a young French publisher who had been embroiled in legal battles for publishing the complete works of the Marquis de Sade. He was quite familiar with Aury’s work as a translator and writer and said he recognized her style right away when he read the manuscript, noting that she was “a great writer and absolutely uncopyable.”
Pauvert released 2,000 copies of the first edition in 1954 with a preface by Paulhan called “Happiness in Slavery.” In it, Paulhan wrote that “Story of O is one of those books which marks the reader, which leaves him not quite, or not at all, the same as he was before he read it.” He also likened the book to a fairy tale, reminding the reader that “fairy tales are erotic novels for children.”
At first, the book didn’t garner much attention beyond intellectual circles. But after it won a literary prize in 1955, the French authorities became aware of it and interrogated Pauvert and Maurice Girodias, who had published an English edition in France at the Olympia Press. The police pressured them to reveal the identity of the author, which they refused to do. The police ended up making their way to Aury regardless, but she denied having any connection to the book.
The investigation abruptly came to an end when Aury had lunch with the Minister of Justice, after which he issued a decree halting all legal proceedings related to Story of O. The English edition wasn’t as lucky, though. The vice squad raided Olympia Press and took all the books they deemed pornographic, including O. This prompted Girodias to publish a new translation of the book retitled The Wisdom of the Lash.
Story of O wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1965, when Grove Press bought the rights from Pauvert and commissioned a new translation. The book was translated by Sabine d’Estrée, a pseudonym, though a less opaque one than Pauline Réage. It was widely believed at the time to be a cover for Richard Seaver, a one-time editor-in-chief at Grove and a well-known translator. He never admitted to translating Story of O, but his wife confirmed it after he died in 2009.
Less well known than Story of O is its sequel, Return to the Chateau, which was published in Paris in 1969 and focuses on O’s return to Roissy, where Sir Stephen sends her to serve as a prostitute. The book consists of two sections: “A Girl in Love,” (mentioned above) and Return to the Chateau, the actual sequel. Aury wrote the first part of the book, “A Girl in Love,” in 1968 as she kept vigil in Paulhan’s hospital room where he was dying.
But she had written Return to the Chateau when she wrote Story of O and intended it to be the concluding chapter; it was never published with it, however. She considered the chapter to be a huge mistake. Whereas Story of O “was pure dream, pure fantasy,” she said, Return “was reality, with all its banality, harshness, and sordidness. . . . It should be suppressed.” It probably would have remained suppressed had Pauvert not experienced financial troubles that he thought a sequel would alleviate.
Over the years, Story of O has spawned multiple adaptations, most famously a French movie of the same name that came out in 1975, which was largely panned (for good reason).
One of the more interesting homages to O was Samois, the lesbian feminist BDSM group formed in San Francisco in 1979. Samois is the name of the small town where Sir Stephen takes O in chapter three of the book to get further submissive training at the hands of Anne-Marie, a lesbian madame. Much like the book, Samois the group was subjected to sharp criticism from non-kinky lesbian feminists, many of whom were anti-BDSM.
Dominique Aury died in 1998, her lover Paulhan having died 30 years earlier. Aury lived her life with no regrets and viewed Story of O as “a love letter, nothing else.” It seems unlikely that Paulhan ever planned to leave Aury, despite his wandering eye, but if Aury was right, and was indeed growing bored, then it seems Story of O did what she wanted it to do. It captivated his interest—as it has done for millions of readers since.