The beast with two covers: rethinking sexuality in the lit canon

Sex has always been controversial. The word itself is harsh on the ear – it carries heavy connotations of the snake-like, particularly through the hissing quality of its sound, bringing to mind the Serpent who led Adam and Eve away from Paradise.

Consider the obscenity trials which ran throughout the 20th Century: a damning attempt to censor any explicit reference to sexual transgression in literature and film – and, of course, theatre. Sex has always been accompanied by disgust; there is something in the sexual act which is abhorred by those in a position of authority, for its ability to challenge and confront the established laws of our society.

It is important, therefore, that we understand the position of the arts (and particularly here, the literary text) in allowing for a reimagining of our sexual ‘selves’, and how the history of the development of sex within the arts has contributed to a significant shift in our understanding of ourselves as social, political and, ultimately, sexual beings.

Below, Brett Mottram gives us an insight into some of the most important pieces of literature to uncover the sexual ‘beast’ within.


The Pregnant Widow Martin Amis

An Italian castle in the summer of 1970. Keith Nearing is on holiday during the summer break from university with his on-and-off girlfriend Lily. The problem is that her formidably gorgeous friend, Scheherazade (who likes to sunbathe topless by the pool) has come along too. Will Keith, between reading his way through the English Novel, find a way to sleep with her? With a cast of other vibrant characters and comic set-pieces, this will make you laugh and cry (sometimes at the same time) as Amis explores the Sexual Revolution and its effect on the boys and girls who were its first beneficiaries – and victims. Warning: contains mature and contemplative touches. For something lighter overall, try Amis’ first novel, The Rachel Papers.


Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed John Dunne

This poem gets a lot of stick, with critics questioning how consensual the relationship presented actually is. But read it yourself, and notice the items of clothing she actually does take off – it’s by no means only the speaker’s fantasy! Very racy, but memorable and sometimes beautiful as well: ‘O my America’ onwards is especially fine.


To His Coy Mistress Andrew Marvell

Try this as a chat-up line! “Had we but world enough and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime”. Brilliant in some ways, and great poetry, but very direct about mortality and sex at the end: be ‘like amorous birds of prey’ and ‘at once [your] time devour’.


Ulysses James Joyce

Now don’t get me wrong: you couldn’t get off on Joyce, but the final section, ‘Penelope’ or Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, presents one of the most libidinous characters in all literature. It is also a remarkably convincing ventriloquising of female consciousness, given that it was written by a man. And there is beauty, too: the final page or so, when she remembers how Poldy proposed to her and she was “a flower of the mountain” and she draws him down “so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes…” Quotes do no justice to it. Just read it yourself – it’s stunning!


The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories Angela Carter

Not exactly erotic, but sex pervades every page of this collection of short stories, often in brutal and macabre forms, as Carter plays with the fairy tale form. From the luxurious sadism of The Bloody Chamber itself, to the picaresque cheek of Puss in Boots, to the hauntingly affecting The Lady of the House of Love, this is shocking, beautiful and in places appallingly witty. Also recommended for sex content are Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Wise Children.



The limerick packs laughs anatomical

Into space that is quite economical,

But the good ones I’ve seen

So seldom are clean,

And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

These are unjustly omitted from discussions of literature, but for something erudite, check out “There was a young lady from Bruges” or “Girls who frequent picture palaces”; for clerical (and gay), see “The Anglican Dean of Hong Kong”, or “The Bishop of Central Japan”; and, well… surely everyone knows “There once was a hooker from Crewe” and “There was a young man from Nantucket”?


About Author


katiekemp As a final year Literature and Philosophy student, Katie can be found either with her head buried in a pile of books, or planning the next trip abroad. She enjoys discovering new places, and has been known to jump on a train at a moment’s notice. Sometimes she might be a little over-ambitious, but she’s always willing to step up to a new challenge.

April 2021
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