Bestselling erotic novel Fifty shades of Grey is nothing more than Cinderella with added sanitised sex, Shirley Conran tells Anna Burnside

I t was a visit to one of London’s top sexperts that finally convinced Shirley Conran to write Lace. At the beginning of the 1980s, after a successful career as a journalist and non-fiction writer, she was

researching an educational tome about sex for teenage girls.

‘A woman would never discuss her sex life with other women and not really with herself,’ Conran recalls. ‘There was a lot of unnecessary expectation. Men’s sexual enjoyment is based on in-and-out sex. Men assumed that, for women, what worked was out-and-in sex. And of course it’s not so. ‘I went to see the best, most famous sexologist of the time, who also happened to be a woman. It was costing me £120 an hour and I was strapped for money. I went with my friend who worked at the Daily Mirror. We were both recording the interview. Towards the end, this woman said, of course you pee with your clitoris. You can hear us both

laughing on the tape. She repeated herself, got annoyed and suggested we go and check with Gray’s Anatomy.’ They did. Gray confirmed that Conran was correct. ‘It reinforced my belief that the book was needed.’ And instead of helpful diagrams and cheerful advice, she decided to give it a wildly shoulder-padded plot about four ballsy dames who do a good deal of inventive and enjoyable squelching in between editing magazines and choosing curtains for grand chateaux. Lace, first published in 1982, sold three million copies and showed a startled publishing industry that ladies would pay good money to read about high fashion feminists who enjoyed having goldfish inserted in their bits.

‘It’s been called a feminist tract and of course it is,’ says the author. ‘But I didn’t do that consciously. It’s what I thought. It’s a big sponge filled with feminist dos and don’ts.’

SMUT-LIT THROUGH THE YEARS APPROX 590 BC Sappho writes love poetry to women, on her home isle of Lesbos.

1680 The 2nd Earl of Rochester dies of syphilis aged 33. His works include Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, and Senor Dildo. Later played by Johnny Depp in The Libertine.

1748 Fanny Hill published. Its graphic depictions of lesbian sex, orgies and female masturbation mark it out even now. 1801 Napolean orders the arrest of the anonymous author of the scandalous Justine, later revealed to be the Marquis De Sade.

1928 DH Lawrence publishes a ‘private edition’ of Lady Chatterley’s Lover it wouldn’t be published openly until after an obscenity trial in 1960. 1930 The Mills & Boon publishing imprint, sensing a gap in the market, begins to specialise in romance i ction aimed at women.

2–9 Aug 2012 THE LIST 99