Fifty years ago, an extraordinary pornographic novel appeared in Paris. Published simultaneously in French and English, Story of O portrayed explicit scenes of bondage and violent penetration in spare, elegant prose, the purity of the writing making the novel seem reticent even as it dealt with demonic desire, with whips, masks and chains.
Pauline Réage, the author, was a pseudonym, and many people thought that the book could only have been written by a man. The writer's true identity was not revealed until 10 years ago, when, in an interview with John de St Jorre, a British journalist and some-time foreign correspondent of The Observer, an impeccably dressed 86-year-old intellectual called Dominique Aury (born Anne Desclos) acknowledged that the fantasies of castles, masks and debauchery were hers.
Aury was an eminent figure in literary France, and had been when she wrote the book at the age of 47. A translator, editor and judge of literary prizes, for a quarter of a decade, Aury was the only woman to sit on the reading committee of publishers Gallimard (a body that also included Albert Camus) and was a holder of the Légion d'Honneur. She could scarcely have been more highbrow, nor, according to de St Jorre, more quietly and soberly dressed, more 'nun-like'.