After the astounding success of 'mummy porn' sensation Fifty Shades of Grey, erotic fiction is suddenly all the rage. But should it be dominating classic literature too? Diana Pilkington probes the issue.
Not since Harry Potter and his chums hung up their broomsticks has a book franchise caused such a stir.
Love it or hate it, the Fifty Shades trilogy has spawned countless column inches, prompted a host of spoofs, and boosted the bank balance of author EL James by an estimated £6.5 million.
And as with any book phenomenon, publishers are cashing in.
Thanks to the success of the story about a naive college graduate who is introduced to bondage by handsome billionaire Christian Grey, industry experts are scrambling for the next erotic title to unleash on the quivering masses.
Although it was planned last year, erotic imprint Black Lace is to get a timely relaunch this autumn, and even good old Penguin has joined the party, with Sylvia Day’s Bared To You heralded as its fastest-selling paperback for a decade.
But the latest development, giving saucy makeovers to classic works of literature, could be considered a step too far.
“I don’t want to be pompous about it, but I think it’s awful,” declares bonkbuster queen Jilly Cooper.
“The classics are written as they are. There are enough sexy classics already, like Tom Jones, and a lot of Shakespeare is pretty sexy.
“But with something like Jane Austen, it’s an awful shame, because she wasn’t like that.”
The author is speaking after small publishing house Total-E-Bound announced it is launching sexy rewrites of works including Pride And Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Sherlock Holmes.
“It was enough to have Darcy coming out of the water in a nice clinging shirt. But certainly in the book he and Elizabeth didn’t sleep together,” Cooper says.
“PD James is a classic example. She’s a great writer and she did an extension of Pride And Prejudice, but she kept within the confines of Jane Austen. They can do interpretations but I don’t see why they have to change the whole moral compass. It’s ridiculous.”
But author Eve Sinclair reckons her own erotic version of a classic – Jane Eyre Laid Bare – stays true to the spirit of the original.
“Even though I had a good laugh writing it, it was very much about doing a very serious take on it.
“We’ve taken Charlotte Bronte’s text and changed it very little. We’ve just enhanced what’s already there. It was very obvious to me where to put in the sex scenes and I’ve added them in Bronte’s tone.”
In Sinclair’s book, published by Pan Macmillan, Jane’s childhood is cut out, save for references to a vaguely sapphic past in the boarding house. Instead, an innocent Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall, where her sexual desires are awakened by Mr Rochester.
Although her book is out at the same time as the Total-E-Bound effort, Sinclair says she landed her deal first, and has been toying with the idea for years.
“I studied the novel at school and then did a dissertation on the eroticism between Jane Eyre and Rochester for my English degree,” she says.
“There must have been hundreds of thousands of people who’ve written essays about the subject, so there’s something there. There was the mash-up of Pride And Prejudice with zombies, which I read with great interest.
"I thought that if they can get away with the undead ripping off the characters’ faces, sex isn’t going to do any harm, is it?
“Then Fifty Shades came about and I thought, ‘Right, let’s do it now’.”
While Fifty Shades has been accused of being misogynist in its portrayal of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, Sinclair thinks her own book manages to be feminist, even though that was not her intention when she wrote it.
After it emerges that Rochester is grooming Jane on behalf of his dominatrix in the attic, Bertha Mason, Jane decides to call it quits.
“My last line is, ‘Reader, I left him’, because I felt very strongly that she was being controlled,” Sinclair says. “But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with charting a woman falling in love, and that feeling of powerlessness.