Lovely, isn’t it? Released later this year.
Lovely, isn’t it? Released later this year.
When I was growing up, the 60s seemed relatively recent. I was not old enough to remember them myself, but it was clear that my parents did. It was reflected in their style, their attitudes, their musical tastes. It was familiar ground.
Yet How to Stay Married is the most extraordinary period piece. It’s a heady combination of the deeply traditional:
‘If a wife feels resentful that she is slaving away…she must remember that it isn’t all roses for him either. He has given up his much-prized bachelor status for marriage, and he probably expects…to come home every night to a gleaming home, a happy wife, and a delicious dinner.’
…and swinging free-love:
‘If you want to dance cheek-to-cheek with the most attractive man/woman in the room, wait until your husband/wife is securely trapped on the sofa in another room.’
Well, maybe not all that swinging. In this book, ‘affaires’ are inevitable, usually the woman’s fault, and to be tolerated; sleeping pills are swallowed willy-nilly; and a ‘slut’ is the keeper of an untidy house. Wives need to be treated with a ‘firm hand’, and men are like little gods who require cosseting and obedience. Women may well work (until children come along, when they must turn to making paper flowers for pin money), but they should tweak their hours so that they can get home in time to tidy up and have dinner on the table.
It’s as if the word ‘marriage’ means something different entirely. Or rather, perhaps the shock lies in the word ‘marriage’ representing a clear set of values and behaviours. Contemporary readers will be used to defining their own ‘marriage’ or relationship, finding a balance of personalities that works for them – or doesn’t. We are certainly not willing to make the level of sacrifices that young Jilly fully expects to make, just to keep our partners quiet.
None of this is meant as a word of criticism of the book – it’s a wonderful, enlightening read. Jilly’s voice is as pert and knowing as one of her characters, leaving the line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek rather blurry. The all-night sex and cocktail parties sound magnificent. But the best bit is Jilly’s cringing introduction: ‘What a smug, opinionated, proselytising little know-it-all I was then,’ she says.
So, perhaps don’t read How to Stay Married for matrimonial advice. But do read it to giggle and gasp at how much we’ve changed within a mere lifetime.
How To Stay Married by Jilly Cooper, originally published 1969, reissued in 2011 by Transworld.
It follows the reminiscences of a music critic who has reached retirement. As he reflects on his long career, we learn that he has sought out erotic encounters with a variety of virtuoso musicians.
Deep Purple has fallen out of print in the UK, but plenty of copies are available on Amazon.
This month’s Mucky Book Club will take place on Thursday 30th June 2011 (please note change of date!):
– live at The Ship, Wandsworth at 7pm
– on Twitter from 7.30pm under the hashtag #muckybooks
If you can’t make it on 9th, don’t despair – read along anyway, and add your comments to the bottom of this post!
The Mucky Book Club is open to anyone who would like to take part. If you’d like to join our mailing list (so that we can send updates to you via email), please use the form below.
On Thursday morning, I wake up to find that Herbert has already gone to work. Checking my phone, I find that I have a text:
2 minutes 51 seconds, sent at 00.53 the night before.
Ha! I text back, I reckon I can easily beat that.
Does that count as flirting? comes the reply.
Yes, I type, although possibly I am mistaking competitivity for arousal.
This is all the fault of Mary Roach’s Bonk, which I reviewed on Thursday. Bonk is a fascinating book about the science of sex, and it made me wonder if we couldn’t attempt a sexual experiment ourselves. I suggest this to Herbert.
‘I’m not measuring my knob so that you can post it on your blog,’ he says. ‘Not unless you’re willing to measure the capacity of your vagina, too.’
Although I am diverted by this possibility (in particular, how would one achieve it? My vote goes to a condom, a funnel and a jug of water), that is not what I had in mind.
‘No,’ I say, ‘I’ve already had an idea. I thought we could time our orgasms.’
‘Why?’ says H, not unreasonably.
‘Well, we’re obviously both much slower to orgasm when we’re working together. I want to find out what the difference really is. I even have a hypothesis.’
‘I reckon I’ll be as quick as you when I’m masturbating alone…’ (H: ‘I doubt that very much) ‘…but much slower than you when we’re working together.’
Cut forward to Thursday evening. Herbert’s 2 minutes 51 seconds is in the bag. I place a stopwatch next to the bed and tell Herbert not to think about it.
‘I’m not sure that’s going to be possible,’ he says.
‘Aha!’ I say, ‘The Hawthorne Effect! The experimental results are affected by the presence of the observer!’
‘Hm,’ says Herbert, which I take to mean, ‘that didn’t help.’
Of course, the problem with this particular experiment is that both of us are invested in the results coming out a certain way. Herbert does not want to look like he’s a premature ejaculator. I, on the other hand, would prefer to not come off as the sort of woman who requires hours of torturous ministrations in order to come.
‘We have to just go for it,’ I say to H. ‘As fast as possible. Agreed?’
‘Fine,’ says H.
The initiative, therefore, is very much mine to take. I’m convinced that I climax much faster if I’m taking an active role in sex, rather than lying back and waiting for an orgasm to occur. I start the stopwatch, place it on the bedside table, and then, mentally counting the seconds that have already elapsed, leap on top of Hebert and begin rubbing myself enthusiastically against his manly bits.
I don’t think we’re usually this vigorous. Soon, I am sweating and panting with the exertion. Herbert groans and holds onto my breasts as if they’re life-floats, and I regret putting the stopwatch so far away. He’s bound to come first, and then I’ll lose my stride dismounting and fetching it. I gasp this to Herbert.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘after I’ve come, I’ll start counting.’
I very much doubt the scientific validity of this approach, but then I do find that my orgasm is a cumulative affair, and I fear having to start again from scratch if I get distracted in this way. I bounce on, trying to ignore the nagging thought that I’m doing all the hard work here. Actually, though, I’m really enjoying the franticness of it all. It’s as if there’s no space for arousal-destroying thoughts to creep in.
And then, quite suddenly, I feel the genesis of an orgasm way down in my belly. Sensing victory, I bear down on it, and then draw up my pelvic floor muscles until it erupts in me – a small orgasm, but a definite one nonetheless. Now I’m the one who starts counting. How long is it seemly to wait before I check the stopwatch?
‘Do you want to go on top?’ I say casually to H, and while we change positions, I reach over and check the watch. 16 minutes 40 seconds. I reckon at least half a minute has passed, so I’m calling that a 16 minute orgasm. A whole minute after Tim Ferris would have given up the ghost, but none too shaming.
Herbert, however is still going. It’s not for the want of trying. We shift from Missionary to Doggy, and then he suggests I finish him off by hand.
Wow, I think, that’s surely the most unreliable of methods. But I enthusiastically grab hold, and after that it doesn’t take long for H to shudder into orgasm. This time, the stopwatch is in my (other) hand.
‘20 minutes 4 seconds,’ I say. And then, although I don’t mean to, ‘I can’t believe I beat you! I’m so chuffed.’
‘Yup,’ says H, ‘and I feel like a sexual marathon man. It’s a win-win.’
This morning, I wait until I hear the toaster click on downstairs and then dive onto the bed with my stopwatch. After a fair amount of effortful masturbation and heavy breathing (I love Abby Lee’s term ‘bully wank’ for these moments), I manage a reasonable, if grudging, orgasm.
1 minute 56 seconds. I run downstairs, dressing gown flapping open.
‘Oh my god,’ I say, ‘I beat you on both counts.’
Hebert looks me up and down for a few moments in a mixture of awe and resentment.
‘That’s nothing,’ he says, ‘You should see how fast I am when I use the Flip Hole.’
So, if I was to write up a research paper on this (a really rubbish one with completely invalid, non-representative data that would get crucified at the peer review stage), what would I conclude? Well, the female orgasm is not necessarily as elusive as we’re led to believe, particularly if, like me, you’ve, er, practised a lot.
Moreover, I think we’ve demonstrated that sex a deux is a highly inefficient way of achieving an orgasm. It’s a hit and miss affair, and observation seems to inhibit orgasmicity (is that a word?). In the light of my findings, I foresee a whole new movement towards streamlining sexual pleasure. Cutting out the middle man leaves you free to fit more orgasms into your day, or to take up a useful hobby like gardening. Maybe I’ll pitch my ideas to Tim Ferriss.
Or does that possibly miss the point?
*Is that reference actually completely obscure? Was I the only one who found it memorably amusing to be patronised by Jennifer Anniston?
I should start by issuing a warning to anyone who plans to read this book: Bonk will turn you into a sex-fact-spouting monster (in my case even more than usual), for whom every turn in the conversation conjures up a fresh piece of erotic trivia that absolutely must be shared.
In fact, the very title could represent the way in which these factoids rise up inside your consciousness and demand to be let out.
Bonk! Did you know that the ridge under the head of a penis has evolved to displace the semen of any previous lovers?
Bonk! The distance between the clitoris and the urethral opening determines whether or not a woman can orgasm through penetration alone.
Bonk! An odour of semen is detectable on a woman’s breath with an hour of having unprotected vaginal intercourse.
What I found completely enchanting about Bonk was Mary Roach’s voice – witty, bouncy, humane and inquiring, she manages to walk the line of being light hearted without making light. This is not a book about the dark, exploitative history of sex; it’s a book about how sodding hard it is to study it.
The lack of evidence out there – and the difficulties that researchers face in funding and conducting the science of sex – is staggering. Torn between commercial pressures (most notably from drug companies looking for the next Viagra, preferably for women) and the nervous conservatism of funding committees (who seem to suspect sex researchers of being a bit pervy), it seems that scientists are still unable to answer some of our most basic questions about arousal.
If Bonk ever leaves the reader feeling as though this cloud of information doesn’t amount to any better understanding of sex at all, then this is a fair representation of the piecemeal nature of the evidence-base on sex. I, for one, found it immensely entertaining, but also slightly startling: are we really this incurious about our most basic urges?
For a great taster of Mary Roach’s work, you can watch her TED talk here (16 mins; probably NSFW unless you have headphones!).
© 2021 Betty Herbert. All Rights Reserved.