Passion from the Past: When The Stakes Are Highest
What is the difference between erotica and porn? The classic reply is “erotica is what I like and porn is what you like,” which underscores the inherently arbitrary nature of any judgment. Some might challenge the need for this question at all, and I understand the appeal of taking each piece of writing on its own merits, classifications and hierarchies be damned. Still I’ve always found it rewarding to contemplate what makes certain kinds of sexually explicit writing more personally satisfying to me than others—what makes it my erotica, so to speak.
My definition has changed over the years and is still changing. Today, my favorite definition of erotica is that you still have an interesting story left if you take away the sex. As in my own life, what intrigues me is not the physical consummation alone, but the people involved and what they bring to the encounter.
The latter sentiment is starting to sound more like “romance,” another genre that has negative connotations for many due to its association with foolish women. Truth be told, my current project was inspired by a gendered coupling: my reading about WWI on its hundredth anniversary—hmm, the politics are fascinating, but what was sex and romance really like at that time?–and an unexpected dip into Fifty Shades of Grey—hmm, I understand why some love this story and some hate it, but what kind of romance would I write to please myself?
I like a good romance as much as anyone who likes a good romance, so I’ve enjoyed exploring the path my lovers take in deciding they must be together, despite obstacles of social background and religion. The values and expectations of an earlier time naturally raise the stakes, because romance and sexual intimacy had more serious consequences for one’s reputation and fertility than they do today. I’m especially interested in how courtship has changed—and remained the same—in the last century.
One of the pleasures of this project is hearing voices from the past through books written at the time and primary sources such as letters. James Joyce and his wife Nora, Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins and his fiancé Kitty Kiernan, Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenska, playwright John Millington Synge and actress Molly O’Neill, all provide insights into the passionate epistolary expressions of more-or-less famous artists and political figures. It should perhaps be no surprise that these correspondences have a bit more artistic panache than the emails between Christian Grey and Ana Steele. But the romances of ordinary folk are also revealing of their times. This month, I’d like to share a more humble sample from my archives, two letters exchanged by a courting couple, the first from John to Annie, shown at the beginning of this post. The text is as follows (my apologies for the quality of the scan as this blog won’t let me upload the highest resolution files):
April 25, 1915
Dear Friend Annie,
Hoping I am not taking to [sic] much liberty in addressing a few lines to you to ask you if I could see you some time reel [sic] soon to exchange a few ideas. Hoping you are not offended and if you wish to see me let me know if not please destroy this letter for old time’s sake.
From your friend, I hope,
John A. Smith
This letter is from Annie to John:
October 7, 1915
I received your letter which was more than a surprise to me, I surely thought you did not want to speak to me, but Johnie the way your letter read you do not want very much about speaking to me. I would like very much to talk to you, so if you care to see me and it is convenient for you please meat [sic] me on Friday evening after Service down at St Joseph’s, if not destroy this letter, if you please + excuse this writing and all mistakes.
I remain a friend,
Annie C. Hufnagel
I hold the originals in my hand, the paper yellowed and spotted, torn at the creases and fixed with Scotch tape. The ink is faded, and someone has traced over the writing in ballpoint pen with some indifference to the original. Perhaps some of the misspellings are the fault of the second writer? As for the content, my first response was amusement at the reserve in “see you sometime soon to exchange a few ideas” and the concern of both writers that their invitations might not be welcome, hence the pleas to destroy them, which I assume means burning them in the stove. Was this simply convention? Did courting couples in 1915 worry that an unwelcome written overture would be circulated among friends or posted in the town square to be mocked? Modern technology, Snapchat aside, can hold similar dangers of regret and discovery, but most people don’t beg recipients to delete texts. (Or do they?) I have also read that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century if a courtship ended, it was polite to either return the other party’s letters or assure them that you had destroyed them to save embarrassment. Perhaps we should revive that custom today?
Yet a second more careful reading of the two extant letters raised a new question. John’s letter is dated April 25, 1915 and Annie’s, which I initially assumed was a direct reply to his, was written on October 7 of that same year. Did she wait over five months to reply? Or were other letters exchanged in between? If so, there’s little evidence of the development of confidence in the relationship or ease between the two.
We might wonder if there was much of a future between these two people. Beneath the reserve, I do sense some yearning on both sides in those expressions of friendship. Fortunately, in this case as well as in my novel, I know the ending. John and Annie went on to marry in 1919, when he was 35 and she 29.
They had seven children; the girl on the right of the photograph standing next to John is their second-to-youngest, my mother. I am one of their 23 grandchildren. Thus in retrospect, the personal stakes for this relationship’s success are high, but we can assume John did indeed meet Annie after church on Friday and exchange some appealing ideas. The long courtship led to a marriage of sixty years, until my grandfather’s death at 95. My grandmother confided that on the morning of the day he died, my grandfather made a sexual advance, which I like to think represented a long and fulfilling life of romantic “ideas” between them.
It’s a nice thought for the future and an appealing inspiration for my novel set in the past. Whether you call it erotica or porn is your choice!