23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 58

Thou shalt not . . .

Petronella Wyatt

Afriend of mine was reading Anna Karenina recently and remarked that it was one of the great books on adultery as committed by a respectable female. We then began discussing other 19th-century novels with a similar theme. Madame Bovaty, of course, and •Stendhal's Le Rouge et Le Noir. We thought of other minor French works, and an Italian novel written in the 1870s about a Venetian matron who has a long liaison with an Austrian officer.

Then we turned to the British canon. We turned and we turned and we drew a blank, in every sense. There was not one single classic novel we could call to mind dealing with this subject. Surely Trollope must have had something to say about the matter? He certainly banged on about everything else. But the closest we could recall was the incident in Can You Forgive Her? when Lady Glencora Palliser, recently married but in love with somebody else, had almost done it with the guy, but at the last moment had gone limp at the idea.

Needless to say, there were countless examples of respectably married men committing adultery in British literature, but none of women. Why this omission?

Perhaps the 18th-century novel, penned in a more robust age, had something more to offer? 'Hey, what about Moll Flanders?' said my friend. But Moll Flanders fails to marry until the end of the book when she and her lover are penitents beginning a life in the New World. In any case Moll was hardly comme il faut in polite society.

Could it be that the philistine British philosophy of women had extended to its great intellectuals, too? That even Trollope and Thackeray, and certainly Dickens, disapproved of women, ah, expressing themselves? That for respectable women to commit adultery would indicate that she enjoyed sex, and that would never do. Only serving maids and sluts, in books like the memoirs of Frank Harris were permitted to experience pleasure, and only as a sign of their moral degeneration.

Strangely, enlightenment did not reach the Continent until the very end of the 18th century. A new biography of Casanova by Derek Parker points out that the male attitude towards sex at that time was 'man on top, woman on bottom, little foreplay and no thought for female pleasure'.

It would seem that it was when women acquired more worldly influence in areas such as politics — a transition that occurred in France before it did in Britain — that they were permitted to acquire a libido. The French Revolution, which brought certain women to the fore, appears to have been a significant factor. Women like Germaine de Stael wrote and talked about sex for the first time, while middle-class women began to appear half naked in society.

But it is a paradox that only with the arrival of feminism were British women allowed to become sexual beings. Yet feminism was supposed to desexualise women. Instead it has had the opposite effect. When a Sunday newspaper sent me to Los Angeles last year to report on the porn film industry, I asked a producer why he thought porn was now making more money than mainstream cinema. He answered, 'Germaine Greer and that lot.'

'You must be joking,' I replied.

'Nope. Feminism made women having sex all over the place one of the fastestgrowing industries. These female porn stars go on TV and give interviews to magazines saying how much they love their job because their attitude towards sex is the same as men's. They are liberated.'

The girls I talked to, off the record, seemed about as liberated as the Count of Monte Christo in his pre-prosperous days. 'It stinks,' said one, 'the directors treat you like dirt. Most girls get on to drugs and many finish up on the streets.'

I asked her, had she been able to choose differently, what career might she have pursued? 'I would have stayed at home and been a housewife like my mom.'

Lucky Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. At least they did it for love.