I enjoyed reading The Seductress, and if that surprised me, it says a good deal about my own jaded expectations as a reviewer. Mea culpa. I do try to review books in terms of their intended audience, whether they appeal to me or not, but this time it was no stretch. Vivianne LaFay writes with a freshness and attention to historical and artistic (as well as anatomical) detail. What could have been just another formulaic travel framework to support sex scene after sex scene becomes a journey with as much fun to it as heat, and the colorful “Gay Nineties” era in all its contrasting licentiousness and repression makes a perfect setting.
Emma, Lady Longmore, has been happily married for a year or so to a much older man who has taught her a great deal about sex, and has encouraged her to explore his epicurean library of literature on that subject. She is, of course, exceedingly beautiful, but she’s also intelligent, well educated, clear-headed, and able to be self-sufficient, which turns out to be a very good thing when the family doctor determines that she is unable to bear a child. Her husband, although he’s been very fond of her, decides an heir for his estate is more important than a beautiful, intelligent wife, and pressures the doctor to declare that their marriage was never consummated and can be annulled.
Emma is saddened, but adjusts, and, after agreeing to depart without making a fuss as long as her ex-husband will support her financially for a while, she begins to realize the benefits of her situation. She does indeed become a seductress, rationalizing her first adventure as doing a favor for a young cousin whose clergyman fiancee clearly needs some education in matters of the matrimonial bed. When her travels present her with more occasions to provide such instruction she comes to truly believe that teaching young men (and eventually a few young women) what they need to know to be skilled lovers is her true calling, and a noble one.
None of this sounds especially original, but Emma goes about her crusade with compassion as well as passion, and humor as well as explicit eroticism. In Paris she educates a young Englishman just out of boarding school who has never seen a naked woman before.
“I would never have dreamed that female anatomy was so... complicated,” he declared. “When fellows talked of a woman's thingummy I imagined a front passage like the back passage, and that was all.”
This attitude is echoed some time later by a student in an elite Swiss girls’ school where Emma spends a short time teaching etiquette of various sorts.
“I had no notion that a woman's parts were so complex,” Faith declared, in wonder. “I thought we just had a hole down there.”
“So did I,” confessed Lotte. “Now, when I am alone I shall take my hand mirror and look at myself down below.”
They could scarcely have a better instructor than Emma Longmore.
There are, of course, many scenes of more sophisticated and dramatic eroticism, including visits to notorious haunts of the demi-monde such as The Jockey Club in Florence, and what Lily, a high-class courtesan Emma meets in Paris, refers to as “‘Parisian low-life in all its dubious glory.'” The descriptions of the arts and free-ranging culture in the 90’s may be my favorite aspects of the book, with references to Toulouse Lautrec and Oscar Wilde, Gustave Moreau and Nelly Melba, Art Nouveau décor and Charles Worth fashions, and many other icons of the times that convinced me that the author did her research well. I was especially delighted when Lily mentioned a bar called ‘A La Souris’ which is frequented by those ladies which our sainted Queen Victoria believed could not exist, leading Emma to say, after a moment of puzzlement, “Oh! You mean women of the Sapphic persuasion!”
LaFay makes Emma a heroine to inspire affection as well as lust, so when the requisite dark, mysterious stranger appears to be stalking her from city to city and attempting to win her over, while she reacts with a combination of unwilling attraction and repulsion, I hoped against hope that her self-possession and independence would not be diminished by the inevitable romance.
I needn’t have worried. We proceed to get plenty of mature, experienced sex, quirky, varied, occasionally innovative, and agreeably over-the-top. We also get a satisfying romance on Emma’s own terms, although the revelation of her lover’s deep dark secret falls rather flat, but the book already had me in a good mood, so I forgave that.
I was in such a good mood, in fact, that I forgave some stumbles in editing toward the end, as when one minor character is repeatedly called by two different names with no apparent reason other than the author’s failure to change all the occurrences when she changed her mind, or the blank left which she must have meant to go back and fill in when she decided which term for “penis” to use this time. I even managed not to wince too much at the very frequent uses of “she smiled” as a speech tag. Yes, I know, it’s very common usage these days, but just try envisioning actually forming words while you’re smiling. Not a pretty picture on the whole.
LaFay has written two sequels to The Seductress: The Mistress and The Actress. On the basis of this very entertaining book, I’d say those should be worth checking out as well.