|The Memoirs of Dolly Morton
Georges Grassal W.H.ALLEN 1984
ISBN 0 352 31482 6
“Alexis Lykiard, an authority on Victorian erotica” [Norman Lebrecht, Sunday Times, 1983]
Preface and Notes by Alexis Lykiard
The likely author of The Memoirs of Dolly Morton, Georges Joseph Grassal (1867-1905), scarcely better known as 'Hugues Rebell' (the most frequently used of his various pseudonyms) rates one tantalizing paragraph in the 1959 Oxford Companion to French Literature. His poetry is mentioned alongside 'novels, usually with elaborate historical settings and said to be reminiscent of those of Pierre Louys.' Coincidentally, Louys (1870-1925) was also one of the finest French writers of erotica - something else he had in common with Grassal.
Grassal, however, became virtually bi-lingual. He not only translated books into both English and French but wrote several, including Dolly Morton, in English first. He may have owed this linguistic facility to his education at the Jesuit College, Jersey. One cannot resist the guess that he there acquired both his taste for the English tongue and 'the English vice' - for he certainly wrote often about flagellation (see Bibliography). This particular interest, though, was reflected in only part of a considerable literary output.
Grassal proved amazingly prolific during his short life, producing books of poetry, novels, essays, stories, art criticism, philosophy and literary criticism, as well as translating into French both Oscar Wilde and various run-of-the-mill English erotic works.
Little is known of Grassal's life: he was born in Nantes, wrote from necessity as well as choice, and lived in Paris, where he pursued his profession of homme de lettres and where he died. He used to stay at the Chateau de la Pervenchere, Casson, near his birthplace, and some of his novels (including La Femme qui a connu L’Empereur) are set in the Nantais region. He is buried at La Chapelle-sur-Erdre, near Nantes.
The young Grassal was associated with the Symbolist poets (the 1933 Larousse praises his 'sensuous imagination' and 'warm and vivid style') but then joined the 'Ecole Romane' group founded by the Greek-born poet Jean Moreas (Iannis Papadiamantopoulos). The Ecole Romane admired the Troubadours, Ronsard, Racine and La Fontaine, repudiated Romanticism, and tried to emulate classical literature, reverting to regular verse forms and the elegiac tone.
At some point early in his promising literary career it seems Grassal lost all his money and/or accumulated considerable debts. He therefore began working as a hack (albeit a superior one) for the shady Paris-based publisher Charles Carrington. Carrington, a Portuguese whose real name was Paul Ferdinando, 'issued both in English and French, in excellent editions provided with prefaces, the most famous erotica of the world,' wrote Henry L. Marchand in The Erotic History of France (1933). 'True bibliophile that he was, no erotic product was outside his domain: anthropology, chronicles of scandal, flagellation, original gallant literature, scientific works on sex, etc.' The portrait of Carrington in Alec Craig's The Banned Books of England (1962) is an extraordinary one: 'Carrington started life as an errand boy, vanboy, and then lavatory attendant. At sixteen he was keeping a book barrow in Farringdon Market. By reading his wares he graduated into the company of men like Dowson, Beardsley and Wilde. In the Paris of the early Twenties he was a pathetic figure not without a little dignity of tragedy. Blind as the result of syphilis, he was no match for his predatory mistress and was helpless before the follies of his five children. They and their hangers-on swarmed over his house and stole his books. A shop was even opened specially to dispose of the thefts. He endured five years of this misery before perishing in a lunatic asylum at the age of sixty-five. His mistress provided a magnificent funeral and his tortured body was consigned to earth by the Catholic Church.'
But between 1895 and 1917 Carrington was riding high and as Craig also confirms, Carrington's 'publications were well edited and printed and many of them of legitimate literary or scientific interest.' When Carrington published Grassal's Memoirs of Dolly Morton, which H. Montgomery Hyde in his History of Pornography (1964) calls 'an interesting and moving book, which certainly recaptures the plantation atmosphere, even more graphically than Uncle Tom's Cabin', it was with his customary dealer's hype. 'The Memoirs of Dolly Morton, the Story of a Woman's Part in the Struggle to free the Slaves,' ran the full original title, continuing: 'An Account of the Whippings, Rapes and Violences that preceded the Civil War in America, with curious Anthropological Observations on the radical diversities in the conformation of the Female Bottom and the way different Women endure Chastisement.'
Certainly Carrington knew his market, for as the Frenchman Taine commented in his History of English Literature (1878): 'All tender considerations of modern humanity have failed to abolish boxing-matches and the use of the rod among this people [ie the British]', and most of Carrington's customers were British and American. Yet as Peter Fryer has written, Dolly Morton is 'virtually the only flagellation fantasy of the period that sustains, for any length of time, the interest of readers who do not share the predilection.' This is because of 'the unusual feature that its characters are, for the most part, credible human beings in credible situations and not merely disembodied sex organs' - and also because Grassal was a good writer. For C.R. Dawes, another authority on Victorian erotica, Dolly Morton was 'by far the best of all the books whose main theme is Flagellation', since 'there is an intensity about it that is arresting and places it as being among the very few good erotic books of the period.'
It seems likely that Grassal was interested in and convinced by his subject and therefore wrote with conviction and passion. This is no tongue-in-cheek piece of hackery, although his contemporary, the very shrewd observer and more famous writer Jules Renard (1864-,1910), hints that he possessed a deadpan sense of humour. 'Rebell,' wrote Renard in his Journal for 1898, 'whose lips take pains to convey the Mona Lisa smile. They say da Vinci worked on it for four years. Rebell works on it all his life.' At a funeral in 1899 Renard notes Rebell, 'clean shaven as a priest's arse', in the company of Moreas and other Bohemian types with the 'hairless faces and slicked-down hair' unusual in that sober, luxuriantly bewhiskered age. Our last view of him, via Renard, is in the Journal entry for April Fool's Day 1905, when, perhaps appropriately enough, Renard hears that 'Rebell has died destitute, surrounded by 40,000 francs' worth of fine editions he did not want to part with. He was, remarks the ever-satirical family man Renard, 'the celebrant of a lustful faith.'
With recent reprints of some of Grassal's books in France (among them novels set in Renaissance Venice and in Haiti: (see Bibliography') and now in the UK (the offbeat and rather charming 'Frank and I, also published by Star, 1983) there is a good chance that the enigmatic Grassal/Rebell will not be forgotten. A minor writer he remains, but he had more than sheer industry to commend him: his books are often surprisingly lively and intelligent - worth more than a passing mention in the literary reference books.
G. Legman, that erudite and illuminating writer on social, sexual and literary topics, has called Dolly Morton 'a curious novel' and so it is, in almost every sense except the booksellers' tired euphemism. Indeed, as Patrick J. Kearney aptly notes (in A History of Erotic Literature, 1982) Dolly Morton is 'not a typical piece of hardcore pornography, and possesses points of interest that are unrelated to its sexual content.'
What seems initially a conventional genre novel soon reveals additional levels of meaning: unexpected perceptions abound and a passionate indignation rises to the surface. Dolly - by a nice authorial irony born in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love - is motherless at the age of two and absolutely dependent upon and subservient to her disciplinarian bank-clerk father. Her relationship with this tyrant is neither 'normal' nor loving. He is, in her own phrase, 'utterly unsympathetic', and beats her regularly throughout her childhood. He continues to inflict corporal punishment well past her adolescence (thereby perhaps expiating, it is hinted, his murkily incestuous desires), until Dolly is made to feel helpless, frightened and inferior. She is never allowed to grow up into the fond companion and friend to her father she yearns to become: in short she is less a daughter than a slave. And male domination outlives even death: her father finally bequeathes her not the convenient legacy of so many Victorian novels but crippling debts instead, thus dooming her to further dependence on that very patriarchy which has so far given her nothing but pain.
Dolly is eighteen, penniless and homeless, but she remains idealistic. It is just before the US Civil War. Taking a chance, she joins Miss Dean, a Quaker philanthropist, and they journey South to Virginia, their mission to strengthen the network helping runaway Negro slaves escape to the Northern states. Their activities within this organization, the Abolitionist 'underground railway', will, ironically, plunge Dolly herself into abject servitude. 'There had never been,' she remarks, 'an instance known of an "underground station" run by women.' True or false, this is a deft invention of Grassal's, enabling him to link and emphasize his main themes: slavery (in the widest sense) and its effects of coarse brutalization and the painful, inevitable struggle for liberation. In the North Dolly, through circumstances beyond her control, was a slave to convention - symbolized by the authoritarian paterfamilias. Now, indirectly yet by her own unconventional choice, she falls into still worse slavery, inflicted by the racist (hence also sexist) White Southern male.
She and Miss Dean - peaceable, fair-minded, loving women - endure virtual martyrdom for their pains. Only when Dolly meets the gallant yet tender Northern soldier Captain Franklin can she know mutual love. He is killed, fighting the good fight to free the slaves and she survives humiliation, rape and torture, changing inevitably in the process. After this one 'normal' relationship (shared love with Franklin), when she finally returns North it is back to slavery once again - this time the financial and physical servitude of prostitution.
Despite her appalling past experiences she does not hate all men, and when she has sex with the narrator (to whom, according to a convention more literary than realistic, she in turn tells her story) she herself at first appears to be that plump, reassuring Victorian stereotype, the tart with a heart. Still only 22, she maintains: 'I did not like having to adopt the life, for notwithstanding all I had gone through, I was still a modest woman to a certain extent... I hated the life at first, and I dislike it still, but I have got accustomed to it - like other women in the same position. Nearly four years have passed since that time, and I have done well in the "profession" ... although I am what I am, I will never marry a man unless I love him.'
The narrator wishes her well, he hears later that this is indeed what has happened, and there is thus a happy ending -itself undercut by the narrator's rather patronizing concluding comments. But then he is, after all, a Briton -Dolly a mere colonial and a reformed prostitute at that! His somewhat bland, smugly benevolent tone, Grassal may be implying, perpetuates yet another variety of masculine domination...
For Dolly, like so many other young women in the last century, scarcely any alternative existed: marriage was the aim of life; even an unhappy union was not necessarily regarded as either compromise or disaster. Opportunities for escaping the twin yoke of economic serfdom and male despotism were rare. When Dolly first meets the novel's villain Randolph, the wealthy Southern plantation owner who will soon be her tormentor, father-substitute and keeper, he reminds her: 'I am your landlord, as the house you are living in belongs to me.' She finds out that 'Randolph was a clever man, and well read, but he was a thorough libertine who considered women merely toys to be used for the gratification of his sensual desires.'
Infatuated, Randolph soon abandons his gentleman's manners. The charming mask drops: he stops reading poetry to her and instead attempts a more direct approach - rape. When Dolly resists, he resorts to bribery (psychologically appropriate, in his case) and finally leaves, mouthing ominous angry threats. As G. Legman wrote in his pioneering Love and Death (1949): '[men] ... are afraid to acknowledge that even after ten thousand years of enslavement, woman - through the naked physical fact of man's need of her - is still strong enough to get her master down'. The thwarted Randolph duly takes his vicious revenge.
The 'underground station' is exposed and for their subversive activities Miss Dean and Dolly are cruelly punished. Their ironically-named punishment is 'riding the rail', and Randolph arrives to gloat and mock: 'I must say Dolly, that you squealed just like a pig being killed.' The book grows progressively grimmer. By the time Dolly - an eighteen-year-old female, alone, friendless and disgraced in unfamiliar, hostile territory - is compelled to go along with the appalling Randolph, becoming his mistress and also mistress of his plantation 'Woodlands', she has realized the true enormity of the system in which she is trapped.
Although privileged compared to the plantation blacks, she remains a chattel herself, 'at the beck and call of a master; for such Randolph was to all intents and purposes ... I was always more or less afraid of him.' And with good reason! After flogging a female slave, Randolph explains to the distraught Dolly: 'You are a Northern girl, so you don't understand how we Southerners look upon our slave women ... Their bodies belong to us, so we can use them in any way we please.' They are, he continues, on a par with his dogs and horses. Finance, possessions, sex, all are inextricably linked: a young female slave is worth 2000 dollars (then a considerable sum) and towards the end of the book when the runaway Sophy is recaptured, Randolph is furious at having to pay 400 dollars reward money and 'paddles' the luckless girl mercilessly. By then Dolly is 'well aware that whipping a woman excited him' and soon afterwards, significantly, she notes that he 'gave me a strong poke from behind'. This is a man who 'used to say that a woman should never be "had" twice in succession the same way,' and who maintains to Dolly 'that if a man always poked a woman in the same position, he would get tired of her sooner than if he varied the embraces'; he is a man corrupted by his absolute power.
The description of his 'lovemaking' is acute and sardonic: '"Now my dear little girl, I've got you at last!'" 'It was,' (continues Dolly) 'the first time he had made use of a tender word to me that night. While stripping me, he had not spoken a word but he had treated me as if I had been merely a lay figure.' Later, he sharply orders: 'Keep still, whatever I do.' She must remain his slave, passive and obedient. The poison of slavery has completely tainted him. To him sex has become a sort of uncontrollable illness, a demanding fever: 'My tool is aching from its prolonged erection' he informs Dolly, 'so I must take the stiffness out of it at once.' Dolly, the eternal optimist, fleetingly thinks 'that if he would only treat me more as a woman and less as a subject for the gratification of his passions, I might get to like him a little,' but it is too late - the corruption is total.
Dolly experiences the whole debased hierarchy of slavery. The slave Dinah talks to her 'freely, but always with perfect respect. The fact of my having been indecently whipped by a band of men had not lowered me the least in her estimation. To her I was still a white lady from the North, while she was only a slave.' And yet Dolly is surprised by 'the contemptuous way Dinah spoke about nigger wenches. Although she was a slave herself, and liable at any moment to be whipped if she committed an offence, she had a great idea of her own importance as housekeeper of Woodlands.' Later, Dinah 'evidently did not think it strange that a woman of her age should have been whipped in such an ignominious way, and did not appear to bear her master the least malice. She was his slave; her body belonged to him, therefore he could do what he liked with it. Such,' (Dolly concludes) 'was the degrading effect of slavery on the minds of the human chattels.' But when Dolly is insulted by the younger, more rebellious octoroon Rosa: 'The tears came into my eyes, my heart swelled, and I felt a deep sense of degradation. It was hard that owing to a series of misfortunes, I should have come to be spoken to in such a coarse way by a slave girl. But, alas! What she had said was the truth. I really was no better than her.' Dolly knows all too well that Randolph 'certainly had given me plenty of fine clothes, and a quantity of jewellery, but then - as he would probably have said himself- he had taken the value out of my body.'
The relentless cruelty and exploitation inexorably leads to general callousness among black and white, male and female, young and old. Dolly herself spanks two black children for torturing and killing a kitten. She notices she has 'grown somewhat callous', and 'accustomed to seeing women whipped. . . Moreover, since my own shameful whipping. . . my nature had become hardened.' However, she never adopts the questionable nineteenth century opinions expressed by, for instance, John Davenport: 'As an erotic stimulant. . . considering the many intimate and sympathetic relations existing between the nervous branches of the extremity of the spinal marrow, it is impossible to doubt that flagellation exercised upon the buttocks and the adjacent parts has a powerful effect upon the organs of generation.' (Davenport: Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs, London 1869). Women can of course be quite as cruel as men: a woman, Theresa Berkley, was the notorious inventor of the 'chevalet' or 'Berkley horse', a nastily ingenious whipping contrivance. But Dolly is neither impassive observer nor passive victim: she is invariably intelligent and in search of love, not cruelty.
She finds this love with the Northerner, Captain Franklin. Although brief, it is genuine, ecstatic and uncorrupted. Her view is clearly stated: 'I think that a man always enjoys poking a woman whether he loves her or not: but I am sure that a woman never really enjoys a man's embrace unless she loves him.' The key and moral to the whole book - the only sentence printed in bold type - is supplied by Dolly herself: 'I think a man copulates with the woman he loves differently to the way he pokes the woman he merely lusts for.' This is proper discrimination, significant not only because it is an unusual sentiment in a supposedly 'pornographic' novel, but also because it is true.
It is, too, a clue to the author's foreign-ness: an American would have written differently than, an Englishman differently from. Yet throughout the book no one could doubt the author's power and ability. Dolly Morton is full of telling perceptions, its use of language often extraordinarily forceful and flexible. Specific, too. There are scarcely any four letter words, though: Dolly uses thing, spot and poke, and often in inverted commas as if to emphasize her own and the Victorians' genteel ambivalence towards sexual matters. The word fuck is used only when she is raped, and 'a dirty pack of cards. . . produced, and cut by the men in turn.' Converted ignominiously into an object to be played for, she can then be target for her aggressors' scorn. If there is no equality, language can be reduced to the coarse blunt instrument such men make of it. Their 'We are going to fuck you' carries here the full brutal menace the author wants to convey. The rape of the young slave Peachie is described with even more horrific disgust: surely no one could find this grim extension of a collective, persistent macho fantasy in the least stimulating. For Peachie is literally 'fucked to death': the author intended readers to be aroused - but to anger and protest. Grassal is always provocative in one way or another: for instance, unexpectedly perhaps, the book contains no oral sex. This is intentional and logical, since trust and tenderness are crucial in oragenital relations: when power and cruelty distort relationships there can be no room for tenderness, nor for mutual respect and pleasure.
Clearly Dolly Morton is an unusual and multi-layered psychological fiction. By a
mixture of design and accident, writing in an adopted language, probably at
speed to a deadline, in a genre that can so easily remain stale and
unconvincing, Grassal achieved a curious book indeed - and a moral one. Dolly
endures, survives, and triumphs. She lingers in the mind, as do some prophetic
remarks from G. Legman's Love and Death: 'Men will always be afraid of
women, so long as patriarchy lasts, for the same reason that millionaires will
always tremble at the thought of revolution. The master fears the slave. The
slave might revolt. There does not seem to be any reason why women should not
enslave men. Men have enslaved women for ten thousand years. If it is woman's
turn now, who can have the gall to object?'
G.J. GRASSAL: SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
NOVELS IN FRENCH:
Baisers d'Ennemis (Paris 1892)
NOVELS IN ENGLISH:
The Memoirs of Dolly Morton (Carrington, Paris 1899)
(The later French edition purported to be by 'Donovan
Kipps' translated by 'Augustin Sarcel', i.e. Grassal in both
Le Magazin d'aureoles (Paris 1896)
ESSAYS AND NON-FICTION:
Les jeudis Saints (1886)
Etudes sur la Flagellation (as 'Jean de Villiot' - Paris 1899) Femmes Chatiees (no date given)
TRANSLATIONS FROM ENGLISH TO FRENCH:
The Merry Order ofSt Bridget by James G. Bertram (Hotten, London 1868) [as Une
Societe de Flagellants by 'Jean de Villiot' (Carrington, Paris 1902)]
Chants de la pluie et du soleil (Paris 1894)
BOOKS ON GRASSAL
J. Brueckmann: Hugues Rebell ein Vorkdmpferderfranzosischen Nationalisms (1937)