Writing about sex is notoriously difficult: it is irrefutable that anatomical details combined with straining prose will always produce absurdity. But with this year’s Bad sex in fiction award cancelled, let’s make 2020 the year we celebrate the sexiest moments in literature – with absolutely no sex in them. The best authors use meaningful glances and heavy implications to do the work for them; the wisest know that less is more, more, more. Here are some simmering examples.
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Patrick Lewis first meets the radio actress Clara Dickens in her dressing room. “When she spoke to him she had been bending to one side as she attached an earring, gazing into the hall mirror, dismissing him, their eyes catching in the reflection,” writes Ondaatje. Does Patrick fancy her, we wonder? “He was dazzled by her – her long white arms, the faint hair on the back of her neck – as if she without turning had fired a gun over her shoulder and mortally wounded him.” That would be a yes.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane first meets Rochester when he falls off his horse. As she approaches to help, she can’t help noticing his dark face, stern features and heavy brow. He just notices that she might be useful: “He laid a heavy hand on my shoulder, and leaning on me with some stress, limped to his horse.” After a small amount of grimacing Rochester commands: “Just hand me my whip.” The innuendo is inadvertent, but Brontë still gives the encounter more charge than the National Grid.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
When David, the narrator of Baldwin’s 1956 classic, sees Giovanni in a crowded bar, he wants him. He buys him a drink, they flirt, they plunge out into Paris at 5am and cross the river, holding hands. “I did not know what to do about my hand,” says David, “it seemed better to do nothing.” There’s so much heat it feels like the pages might ignite.
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
When George Osborne prevents Jos Sedley from marrying Becky Sharp, he thinks he has defeated the arch seductress. When George next meets Becky, he approaches to shake her hand – expecting that she will be “quite confounded at the honour”. Instead, we are told, Becky: “put out her right forefinger – and gave him a little nod so cool and killing that Rawdon Crawley, watching the operations from the other room, could hardly restrain himself as he saw the lieutenant’s entire discomfiture”. George has to clumsily “embrace” Rebecca’s finger, confounded by this unexpected intimacy. As for Crawley, he’s married her by the end of the next chapter.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
If ever a book lives up to its title, it’s this one. Villanelle can’t let her lover see her feet, because they are webbed (long story!), or raise her shirt, because her lover does not yet know that Villanelle is a woman. “Instead,” says Villanelle, “I leaned forward and began to kiss her neck. She buried my head in her hair and I became her creature. Her smell, my atmosphere, and later when I was alone I cursed my nostrils for breathing the everyday air and emptying my body of her.”
Persuasion by Jane Austen
The letter that Captain Wentworth sends to (spoiler alert!) Anne Elliott at the end of the book is as fervent as they come. “You pierce my soul,” he says. “I am half agony, half hope … I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something that overpowers me.” Never let anyone tell you that Austen didn’t know about desire.
A Month in the Country by JL Carr
All month long, Tom Birkin has been growing closer to Alice Keach, the local vicar’s wife. Eventually, she visits him in his loft and turns to him “so that both her breasts were pressing against me. And although we both looked outwards across the meadow, she didn’t draw away as quite easily as she could have done.” And that’s as close as they get. He doesn’t even kiss her. “My heart was racing. I was breathless. She leaned on me waiting. And I did nothing and said nothing.” But this is still, undoubtedly, the climax.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
From the opening chapters of Wharton’s masterpiece, it is soon clear that although Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland, he is dizzy with desire for Countess Olenska. Every word of the narrative is primed with meaning and tension until we reach a moment when Archer sits by Olenska at a party. May enters the room, so Olenska suggests that Archer will want to “hurry away to her”. He replies that she’s already been surrounded by other people and Wharton writes:
“Then stay with me a little longer,” Madame Olenska said in a low tone, just touching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him like a caress.
It is one of the horniest moments in all of 20th-century literature. At last, some physical contact! A tiny touch is all it takes.