Review. Connie stripped bare for today: Nikki Gemmell’s I Take You

— This piece originally appeared in The Weekend Australian

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In the long tradition of erotic novelists, Nikki Gemmell had intended to publish her 2003 work The Bride Stripped Bare anonymously. Yet in an ironic baring of her own, the Sydney writer was revealed as the author just before publication.

In an interview following the release of that internationally successful novel, Gemmell quoted Virginia Woolf’s description of anonymity as a refuge for female writers: “Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them.” Of herself, she added: “I could only write this book by being veiled. It is still difficult to talk about it publicly, 18 months after being unmasked.”

Gemmell’s new novel I Take You is the concluding work in an erotic trilogy, with The Bride Stripped Bare being followed in 2011 by With My Body. The new novel is billed as “a modern-day Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, and Gemmell faithfully reproduces DH Lawrence’s provocative text, the classic narrative unfolding in all its elegant familiarity.

Connie is married to Clifford, a coldly intellectual upper-class man recently paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. Trapped in her gilded cage, now physically as well as emotionally neglected, Connie seeks solace with Mellors, the lower-class gamekeeper who awakens in her a new sexual passion.

Gemmell’s updating of the original text figures Connie as a former model, now waifish wife to an American ex-Goldman Sachs banker, their marriage a “gilded unloving” in London’s fashionable Notting Hill. Their privileged position is transposed to an era where class means labels: Cliff’s wheelchair – his paralysis the result of a skiing accident rather than a war injury – is a custom-built Philippe Starck, while Connie is bedecked in heels by Louboutin and McQueen, Chanel miniskirts, handbags by Chloe and Mulberry.

Working in their private Notting Hill park is the gardener Mel, stripped of his broad Derbyshire accent, though still with a preference for the word c . . t. That word, which led to the unexpurgated novel’s prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act, is less shocking a half-century later.

These are the superficial alterations. What Gemmell has introduced, in a darkly climactic opening, is Connie enduring, under Cliff’s instruction, an extremely intimate piercing to hold a heart-shaped, ruby-and-diamond encrusted padlock – a sort of horrifically permanent chastity belt.

Every time Connie thinks of it, its weight, its grate, its drag and its coolness, she will be reminded, thrilled, addled, snaredly submissive to him. Unlocked only by him, for others of his choosing, whenever he deems it is time.

Where in Lawrence’s text Connie and Clifford’s physical relationship following the accident was cold, neglectful and utterly devoid of sex, in Gemmell’s novel their sexual life, still non-physical because of Cliff’s condition, blooms into a mental one of submission and domination, with Connie as his “perversion, plaything, pet”.

Yet this piercing has a debt to another classic erotic text, Pauline Reage’s Story of O. As in that 1954 novel, I Take You begins with a car trip to a manor house, where the female protagonist stripped and prepared.

The heart-shaped locket is the looming presence in the novel. Emphasising Connie’s entrapment in her marriage, each of the 65 short chapters is branded with the symbol of the padlock and beneath each symbol is an epigraph from another modernist, Woolf. On Mel’s bookshelf Connie finds a copy of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and later in the work Connie tells herself, “Yes, yes. Woolf will be her guide, her beacon. All her novels, her essays, her certainties and admonishments and eviscerating truths.”

But the guides and beacons in Gemmell’s work are all too prevalent. The book is itself pierced with literary allusions – to Lawrence, Woolf, Reage, as well as smaller references to Tracey Emin, EL James, Marguerite Duras. It is so aware of the tradition in which it is set that it struggles to be anything itself. Gemmell becomes as submissive to the original text as Connie is initially to Cliff, or O to Sir Stephen.

Gemmell is a skilful and talented writer of erotic literature, and the work unfolds sumptuously and compellingly. She has a way of writing sex that is pared back but still affecting. Connie’s moments with Mel convey the depth of wanting, passion, tenderness:

There is no complacency, no taking for granted, he wants his stroking, licking, caressing, cherishing to be remembered. It’s as if he wants to wipe all her husband’s ways like a whiteboard freshened; to stamp her skin with the permanence of his own stroke.

Yet the confounding problem with Gemmell’s project is the fundamentally difficult task of updating a text such as Chatterley. Though one can remove the dated vernacular and Lawrence’s questionable views on female sexuality, it’s impossible to modernise the central relationship of a man and woman having passionate, loving sex, stripped of all artifice, surrounded by nature. The garden may be in Notting Hill instead of the grounds of Wragby Hall, the discarded clothes Cloe or Gucci, but the physical connection between Connie and Mellors changes little from one era to the next.

Within Gemmell’s oeuvre, this, one feels, is the point. The early books in her erotic trilogy circle on a theme: women stuck in secure but sexually unfulfilling marriages who begin to wonder if there may be something else, more wanton, daring, dangerous. With Lawrence’s story in I Take You, Gemmell turns this theme on its head. What Connie has with Cliff is precisely this perverse, adventurous sex life, and what she finds thrills her – the transgressive act – is simply honest, loving sex. “She no longer wants padlocks and blindfolds, sophistication, theatre, clandestine texts, she just wants simplicity. The wonder of that.”

It is, then, a fitting end to Gemmell’s trilogy, one that she had hoped to begin anonymously. Though the days when an erotic novel can be considered an object so dangerous it can be brought to trial for obscenity appear to be past, with her concluding text Gemmell has indeed veiled herself, in the words and themes of Lawrence, Reage and Woolf.

I Take You 
By Nikki Gemmell
HarperCollins, 320pp, $27.99

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