travel with me from SAHM to working mum….
Fifty Shades of Grey. I bet that’s grabbed your attention. In fact, if you’re a woman of a certain age living in Surrey, then all bets are off. I’ve definitely got your attention.
The poorly-written, ‘erotic’, literary sensation of 2012 is still making headlines in a county best known for staid stockbrokers and cupcake-baking housewives. Recent figures show Surrey’s libraries accounted for 20% of all nationwide loans of the 50 shades trilogy.
Why does a book glamorising butt plugs and nipple clamps have Surrey housewives turning the pages? And what is it about Surrey housewives that cause them to be gagging for more of hero Christian Grey? As a Surrey housewife it’s my duty to find out.
Maria Collins, Head Librarian at Godalming library, cites the massive publicity and word of mouth for its success. “It flew off the shelves from the moment we stocked it. We have six copies of each and long waiting lists. People are enjoying them because they’re borrowing the rest of the trilogy.”
This fits with my experience. Back in April there hadn’t been much publicity besides Woman’s Hour branding it “mummy porn”. My book group consider ourselves early adopters so we chose Fifty Shades of Grey out of curiosity.
Over the next few weeks if I bumped into fellow book group members in the gym or Waitrose we would show faux concern as to how the primmer group members would react to the list of “hard limits”, or reassure ourselves that it was normal to whispernet the next instalment on Kindle the moment we’d finished the last.
When we met to discuss the book, we sniggered and euphemised over our wine, astonished that we, all professional, graduate, forty-something women could be so absorbed by such an appallingly-written book.
One theory for the novels popularity is the anonymity accorded to Kindle readers. 50 shades started life as an ebook. Women could read it in public places inconspicuously. Three of us read it on Kindle, two ordered it online, only one person was brave enough to buy it in-store. The embarrassment factor was relevant, although we were reading it in the early days. By the summer even supermarkets were selling the book. It became a fashion accessory.
Maria Collins believes curiosity has sustained the demand for Christian Grey. As it is a self-service library she is unsure of who is borrowing the book but sees members of all ages picking it up. “We’re not necessarily involved, so it’s all totally anonymous. We now stock similar erotic books which are ‘issuing’ so it’s spawned an interest in the whole genre.”
So it can’t only be curiosity and anonymity. Time to ask Surrey housewives some hard questions.
Washing her hands from a morning in the garden, Lucy sighs. ” My husband wanted me to read it, so I could tell him what all the fuss was about. In my book group we found it funny but it didn’t provoke much discussion.”
Sarah, chatting on the phone, thought that pushing the boundaries accounted for the novels’ success. “It’s a romance for our generation. Other decades have had Jilly Cooper or Flowers in the Attic. They all deal with taboos; for our time it’s the next barrier. Just like teenagers are fascinated by the vampires [Twilight was the starting point for EL James] and the novelty of sex in those books.”
Both women thought that the books brought some escapism from the tedium of the school run, house prices and their children’s exams. They also thought that Surrey was an intellectual county where women were well-informed and liked to be first with a trend.
Lucy says: “It was a reading luxury to do something trashy, I feel I should be reading more high brow books. If everyone’s reading it you feel it’s all right. You’ve been given the ticket to read it. We all look up things we’re not supposed to, this book made it ok.”
The other big news of 2012 was austerity and the Olympics, it seems that the women of Surrey were setting another agenda for their coffee mornings. The romantic themes were important and wanting to ‘mother’ the broken Christian. Neither woman read it for the sex.
“After the first ten sexual encounters I found the sex parts a bit boring. I was intrigued as to how far they would go which is why I read on,” explains Lucy.
Sarah concurs: “By the time I got to the third book I slipped through the sex bits. I just wanted to know how the plot unravelled, the emotional issues and Christian’s childhood.”
So, has it changed their sex or reading lives?
Lucy says: “Reading 50 Shades hasn’t made me rush out to Ann Summers. I already shop at Myla: it’s more upmarket. There may have been a peak in our sex life but it’s gone back to normal now.”
While Sarah adds: “I won’t bother reading the other erotic spin offs. The writing’s probably even worse.”
None of this explains the huge popularity of the book in Surrey and while there may be some couples turning their spare room into a “red room of pain” or starting an account with Ann Summers, I think for most readers the escapism between the pages is satisfaction enough.