Sunday, October 11, 2009


By Lisabet Sarai

June 12, 1886

I scarcely know how to begin this account of my adventures and my sins. Indeed, I do not fully understand why I feel compelled to commit these things to writing. Clearly, my purpose is not to review and relive these experiences in the future, for in twenty minutes’ time these sentences will be invisible even to me. Perhaps in the years ahead, I will trail my fingers across the empty parchment, coloured like flesh, and the memories will come alive without the words, coaxed from the pages by my touch like flames bursting from cold embers.

I have a secret life, another self, and that secret has become a burden that I clutch to myself, and yet would be relieved of. So, like the Japanese who write their deepest desires on slips of rice paper and then burn them, I write of secret joys and yearnings, and send that writing into oblivion.

Let me begin again. My name is Beatrice. The world sees me as poised, prosperous, respectable, wife of one of Boston’s leading merchants and industrialists, mother of two sweet children, lady of a fine brick house on fashionable Mount Vernon Street, with Viennese crystal chandeliers, Chinese porcelain, French velvet draperies, and Italian marble fireplaces. I devote myself to the education of my dear Daniel and Louisa, the management of my household, works of charity, cultural afternoons. In sum, the many and sundry details of maintaining oneself in proper society.

Though I have borne two children, I am still considered beautiful. Indeed, with my golden locks, fair skin, turquoise eyes and rosy lips, I am often compared to an angel. How little they know, those who so describe me. For in truth, I am depraved, wanton, and lecherous, so lost that I do not even regret my fall.

My husband is a kind, intelligent, and honourable man, for whom I have the deepest regard and affection. He treats me with the utmost consideration and respect; he rarely comes to my bed and when he does, he is profuse with apologies for his unfortunate lust. Alas, he hardly knows or understands me. I understand him to a much greater extent, enough to know that I must lie still and silent under him, not move or cry out as his manhood dances inside me. Everyone knows that for proper women, the rites of the flesh are a trial that must be endured; men are subject to carnal weakness, and women’s lot is to be the passive receptacle of their spending. This is what my husband believes. Knowing he believes this takes the fire from the moment, and makes it easier for me to play my frigid, compliant role.

I know better, though.

Today, I walked in Louisburg Square with Daniel, Louisa, and their nurse. The weather was glorious, sky of limpid blue sown with fluffy clouds, new leaves dancing in the breeze. My parasol raised against the sun, I did not see him until he was almost upon us.

He was of medium height, sumptuously attired, as fair-haired and blue-eyed as I. His mouth had a fullness that I liked, the look of someone who savours the sweet things in life, and a readiness to smile. As he swept off his hat and bowed, I noticed his hands, with long delicate fingers clad in beige kid gloves.

“Good afternoon, Madame,” he said courteously. “I trust that you and your children are enjoying this fine weather.”

Meanwhile his eyes were sending me a different, more intimate message, which would have been lost on someone who was not sensitised to such things. There were no words in this message, only images, emotions, sensation, a quickening of breath, a heat, a tightening.

I am perpetually amazed at how we recognise each other, those of us who live beyond the pale of propriety. Is it some primal scent that we exude? Some subtle clue in posture or expression? Could it in fact be some spiritual connection, a mingling of thoughts in the ether? The mechanism is obscure to me, but I know the phenomenon only too well. I have sat in a concert hall with two hundred elegantly dressed, respectable members of proper society and found my eyes drawn to a single face in the balcony, a set of eyes that knew me, saw through my finery to the hungry flesh beneath.

“Good afternoon, Sir,” I said, my voice low and modest. “It is indeed fine, especially for so early in the season.”

“Of course, that may indicate that it will become hot sooner than usual.” The gentleman’s eyes sparkled with humour at his little private joke. Hot indeed, I thought to myself, adjusting my expression to signal some slight disapproval.

“I do not believe that I have the pleasure of your acquaintance, Sir,” I said.

“Forgive me for my lack of courtesy.” He reached into his waistcoat, withdrew a card, and wrote something upon it. “Here is my card.”

“Thank you.” I examined the card. It was not, in fact, a visiting card, but a blank upon which he had inscribed the following few words:

Ten O’clock this evening
No. __ Beacon Street
With respect and hope,
Charles Burnside

His name was unknown to me. Clearly he must be one of the many visitors to our prosperous city. I gave him my most luminous smile. “Perhaps we will meet again, Sir.”

“I do hope so, Madame. Adieu for now.”

I swept past him, my silks rustling, my heart pounding deliciously.

My husband was away this evening, as he so often is, visiting his mills in Lowell or consulting with his agents in New York. I would never risk one of my encounters if he were at home. He is a pillar of Boston society, universally admired and respected. He has even been urged to stand for the Legislature in the next election. Never would I allow the slightest hint of scandal to tarnish his good name. I am scrupulously careful in my dark liaisons. Even these private words will vanish shortly, so that there should be no evidence of my shameful behaviour.

Tonight, however, I was free to pursue my desires. After the children had been put to bed and their nurse was on guard at their side, my maid Pauline assisted me in my preparations. Pauline is the only soul who knows my secrets; I trust that she will take them with her to her grave. She is French, and experienced in the ways of the world. She does not condemn me for listening to the siren call of the flesh, though she sometimes regards me with a strange light in her eyes.

I chose my costume with care, a rich but somber dress of midnight blue poult de soie, with a cashmere mantle to match. I wished to appear respectable, remote, and infinitely desirable. My hair shone like spun gold in contrast with the dark fabric, and my eyes had depths like the ocean. I donned my hat and veiled my face, then followed Pauline out the back door and into the alley where the hansom carriage she had summoned awaited me.

The address he provided proved to be a small townhouse facing the Common, with fine leaded glass windows. A sour-faced domestic answered the bell, took my wrap, and led me to the drawing room, which was furnished with indifferent taste.

My fair-haired Charles leapt up as I entered, his face glowing.

“You’ve come, Madame! I hardly dared hope.”

“I could scarcely refuse such an enigmatic invitation,” I said, holding out my gloved hand. He bent to touch it to his lips, then stopped himself. “If you will permit me,” he said with a shy smile. Then without waiting for my reply, he stripped the glove off my fingers and planted a delicate kiss on my bare palm.

(From Incognito by Lisabet Sarai.)

I sometimes believe that I had an earlier life in the Victorian period. Even before I had read My Secret Life and The Pearl, I was drawn to the time--the fashions, the fanciful buildings, the characters, real and imagined. Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Oscar Wilde, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sarah Bernhardt, and the Queen herself. There are photos of me from high school, wearing a frilly, high-necked white blouse ornamented with a cameo, and dark flowing skirts. I was dressing the part before I was even aware of what I was doing. I had a Victorian body, too, full-bosomed and hipped, completely unfashionable in the Twiggy era but perfect for the 1880's.

I've always longed to live in a house with turrets and gingerbread. My favorite BDSM fantasies take place in a tower room in a San Francisco Victorian, one of those marvelous places with curved wrap-around glass and a conical roof. When I visited Tampa and saw the incredible Tampa Bay Hotel with its verandas and minarets, I had the weirdest sense that I had been there before. Of course, by that time, my Victorian sexual associations were well-developed. Every mahogany-and-brocade chaise offered itself as the ideal spot for a spanking. I won't even mention about the four-poster canopy beds.

Why the fascination? I'm really not sure. I believe that it has something to do with the radical split between public and private lives during the period, the overt propriety contrasted with the by now well-documented secret lasciviousness. Most erotic authors appreciate the extra excitement associated with violating taboos. The broader the societal constraints, the more opportunity there would have been for breaking the rules.

When I began writing Incognito and realized that it was going to have a historical sub-plot, I immersed myself in Victoriana, both erotic and ordinary. Normally I'm not that assiduous about research. I do enough to get by. In this case, though, I was hooked, almost hypnotized. I felt as though I understood the life of the period, the excitement of new worlds and new technologies, the conflicts between public social norms and private behavior. And when I started writing the entries in Beatrice's diary, it was as though I was channeling the character. I knew her as well as I knew myself. She was a secret outlaw, a devotee of the flesh hiding behind a mask of respectability.

Her journal chronicles a range of sexual adventures. I felt that I had experienced every one of her trysts, from her forbidden seduction of the virile black handyman to her beating and buggering in the stables of a suburban mansion. I could feel my cheeks flush as I stole through the shadowy, cobbled streets of Beacon Hill, veiled against the gas lights. My breathing was fast and shallow against the whale-boned constraint of my corset. Excitement drenched my lace-trimmed silken pantalets, hidden beneath my voluminous skirts.

It was very strange. In many ways, Miranda, the contemporary heroine of the novel was far more similar to me than Beatrice. We were both bookish and serious, hot-blooded but shy. Some of Miranda's history was borrowed from my own life. My own experiences in academia served as general background for the tale.

I liked Miranda quite a bit. However, it was with Beatrice that I identified, despite the differences in class and culture. I don't have children. My marriage is an unconventional partnership vastly different from Beatrice's traditional union. Yet I felt that I knew Beatrice intimately, that I understood her wantonness at a visceral level.

Maybe Beatrice really existed, or someone like her. Perhaps that is the key to my fascination with the period. Could it be that Beatrice's diary took shaped itself out of the flickering memories of my own carnal explorations, in another time, another place?

Perhaps that's the germ of another novel.

I've always loved reading historical fiction, from practically any period. I admire and envy authors who can bring the past to life, not only awaken the sights, sounds, and smells of a period but also convey the world view of its denizens. In general, that is not particularly a talent of mine. The Victorian world is an exception.

The master summoned me to the library just after tea. “Come in, Mary” he called in response to my shy knock. I could not help but wonder what he wanted with me, merely a downstairs maid, the least of his great household.

“You asked to see me, sir?” I curtseyed as gracefully as I could.

“Yes, Mary.” He did not rise from his armchair by the hearth. “Come here, Mary, and stand before me.”

I did as he bid me, trembling a little, for his voice was cold and severe. He looked me up and down, as I stood there with my eyes on the figured carpet.

“Mary,” he said at last, “are you happy here?”

“Oh, yes, sir”, I exclaimed. “Very happy.”

“Then why do you steal from me?” he asked sternly.

“Steal from you, Sir? Nay, I would never do such a thing!” I dared to look at him, and saw a strange light burning in his eyes.

“Cook tells me that you have been rifling the pantry while the house is asleep, stealing the choicest delicacies and hiding them in your room.”

“What, Sir? Why would I steal food? The provisions here are far better than I’ve had in any other house, wholesome and plentiful.” Indignant in my innocence, I held his gaze. “To be honest Sir, I believe that Cook is envious of me, though why she should be so I cannot tell. Always she gives me the most unpleasant tasks, and never does she have a kind word for me.”

“Hmm,” he said, stroking his beard. “I almost believe you. You are quite sure, Mary, that you are not telling me falsehoods to save your skin?”

“Of course not, Sir! You and the Mistress have been very good to me since I entered your service two months hence. I would never lie to you.”

“Still, Mary, I must punish you. If I do not, Cook will be so grouchy that she will poison us all with lumpy soups and undercooked roasts. I believe you, Mary, but nevertheless you must be punished.”

He reached behind the chair and retrieved a wicked-looking bundle of birch switches. “Turn around, lift your skirts, and take down your drawers,” he said in an odd, strained voice.

“Please, Sir, no! T’is not fair!” Tears streamed down my face, but even at my young age, I knew there was no fairness for one such as I. There were the highborn and the low, that was the nature of things, and if one of the high had a fancy to beat one of my standing, it did not matter whether the supposed culprit was guilty or not. Silent and reluctant, I obeyed his instructions. I blushed as I let my linens drop to the floor, baring my hind parts to his scrutiny. Surely this was improper, I thought, hoping wildly that my Mistress would knock on the library door and interrupt this scene. Then I remembered that she was taking tea with her mother in Knightsbridge, and my heart sank.

“Kneel on the edge of the chair,” he commanded. I knew he meant the matching armchair on the other side of the hearth. “Bend over and hold tightly to the back of the chair.”

I disposed myself as he dictated. Looking over my shoulder, I attempted one last appeal. “Please, Sir, I beg you, do not birch me. I will do whatever you wish, but do not punish me unjustly.”

“I have no choice, Mary,” he said, almost sadly. “However, if you take your whipping well, I will do something nice for you afterwards.”

I crossed my arms on the back of the chair, and buried my face in them. I waited for the first sharp cut. Something seemed to delay him, though. For several minutes, there was no sound but the crackling from the hearth. A draft swept between my naked thighs, and I shivered a little, from suspense as much as cold.

Finally he spoke, almost in a whisper. “You have a lovely bum, Mary,” he said, and then the switches slashed across my bare bottom.

I swear, I can feel the birch scorching my skin. I can smell the smoke from the hearth, hear the tick of the mantel clock and my master's labored breathing. I'm there in that chilly room, bent over the stiff mahogany chair, tears welling in my eyes and a different moisture gathering between my thighs, fear and shame battling with excitement.

I feel as though I am where I belong.


  1. A beautifully written excerpt, Lisabet, [both of them] and I envy your master of the hidden inner thought, the secret life we all have to some extent. It also fitted in really well with Philipa's article below [once I started reading I couldn't stop]about writing sex scenes being a sort of self-exposure. Both articles really made me think - thank you.

  2. Lisabet, thanks for an excellent post.
    The Victorian age, rich pickings for those of our ilk.
    I remember the time I discovered the Pearl on a secondhand book stall in Portabello Market* in the early '50's, your post brought bittersweet memories.
    *Portabello Market, Kensington London UK.
    Warm hugs,

  3. Hi Lisabet!

    Wow, so much stuff here to talk about. I think I've corrupted you. I think you've started writing long. The part I was especially struck by was the paragraph where she speculates about how people of her nature instinctively recognize each other. I think that's true. I also like the way it describes Victorian eroticism without drifting into Victorian style ("Alas for you, wanton minx!" he ejaculated.). I know that sounds dumb, but that's me.

    I love exotic movies like "Sin Nombre", "The Story of Qui Ju" or "Slumdog Millionaires" because they open doors into a world and a life people actually experience that we never get to see. I think your Victorian stories do that as well, in that there was this whole richly erotic, clandestine side of life going on in the underground. Sex was more dangerous then.


  4. Reincarnation is such a fascinating subject.I have always believed in it. I don't know if you wrote so convincingly because of all the research you did on the Victorian era or because you actually "live" it at one time. I like to believe you lived it.

  5. I'm glad you feel so positively about the Victorian era, Lisabet. It's not particularly an interest of mine, but as you'll read in my post tomorrow, I firmly believe in different strokes for different folks!

    ~ Jenna

  6. Do not be surprised if I send you an e-mail demanding your list of historical resources for the Victorian era. I've recently become enamoured of that period myself, and need some good reference material so I can write out a few ideas I have bouncing around in my head. **You** obviously have the best resources, and have used them most creatively ;)

  7. Hello, Anita,

    Thanks for your comments. Actually, last week's topic of closed doors fits right in with the Victorian view of the world. Of course, they would have preferred to keep them closed.


  8. Hi, Paul,

    To be honest, I find some of the Victorian porn I've read to be just plain silly. (On the other hand, it's no sillier than some modern porn, I guess!) However, I love the fact that in most cases, the women are as randy as the men. The official view at that time was that "good" women were non-sexual beings who submitted to their husbands' lust for the greater benefit of society.

    Thanks for commenting.


  9. Hello, Garce,

    Actually, when I posted this I thought, "Gee, this is awfully long. I wonder if anyone will bother to read it!"

    I had to laugh at the notion that you're "corrupting" me! Maybe it's mutual.


  10. Hello, Patsy,

    I don't know how serious I am about this reincarnation notion. But the connection is very real, and rather hard to explain.

    Thanks for your comments.


  11. Hi, Jenna,

    As always, I am looking forward to your take on this topic. I have to admit that my affection for the Victorian era doesn't really make much sense. Women were terribly oppressed; poverty and injustice were widespread; the furniture was ugly and uncomfortable and I don't doubt that the clothing was, too. I just can't help myself!


  12. Hello, Helen,

    I can see you doing some great steampunk. I don't have a long list of sources but I'll share what I can. It seems that I've been soaking this stuff up all my life.


  13. Victorian period has longed seemed much more fascintating to me than the ever-popular (or so we are told) Regency. Perhaps it is the dichotomy between the public and private behaviors that attracts me. Us.
    But I also absolutely adore your excellent use of first person! When done as you have it, first person pov is the only way to experience the true perspective of an individual's life. Third is such a poor second, yet practice makes it more used.
    I now must read INCOGNITO!

  14. Hi Lisabet,

    A beautifully written piece and it's fascinating to discover you have such an affinity with the past.

    I'm really looking forward to this week.



  15. Great post, Lisabet
    Good Queen Victoria reigned for such a long time, that it's interesting to note the changes that occured over the course of fifty some odd years.
    Love the reincarnation angle. I used a similiar one and also journal entries for a story inspired by Lucrezia Borgia.
    Love those strong women!


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