The True Story of 'The Story of O' by Pauline Reage
Created | Updated Nov 3, 2006
The Story of O is an erotic novel concerning a woman called O and her willing journey into bondage and submission at the hands of her lover. It is unusual because it has two beginnings and two endings. After reading the first few pages there is a second version, being shorter and more direct and lasting only half a paragraph, before the story continues. After the words 'The End', on a new page, is an alternative ending. It comprises only three lines, but it helps to explain how completely O is bound, of her own accord, to her lover.
Published in Paris in June 1954, it was written by Pauline Reage, a pen name for journalist and translator Dominique Aury. The first edition had a print-run of only 600 copies, but it has since sold millions and hasn't been out of print for nearly 50 years.
The Story Behind the Story
The author kept her identity secret until just before her death on 2 May, 1998 - at the age of 91 - when she revealed that she had written it as a love letter to Jean Paulhan, her lover of 20 years. Jean liked it so much he suggested immediate publication. She had written it because, although their affair eventually spanned three decades, she worried that he would leave her for a younger lover, although never thinking he would leave his wife. Knowing of his admiration for the work of the Marquis de Sade, she told him she could write like that too. When he doubted her, she began The Story of O. She sent him each chapter as she completed it, and he encouraged her to keep writing and finish it. The finished book told how O gave herself completely to her lover, and became his willing partner in a BDSM1 lifestyle. It contains scenes of a very explicit nature.
After a few reluctant rejections from publishers, it was finally published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert2. It was published, at the same time, in English for Olympia by Girodias, a colleague of Pauvert's and a publisher of erotic books for sailors. Although the translation was very puritan, words were mis-translated and the author was not happy. It had been rushed through in less than three weeks as the publishers wanted to release both issues together.
In February 1955, Histoire d'O won the literary prize Prix des Deux Magots, and the novel's standing was assured. The book quickly gained notoriety and public outrage led to a police investigation as the book became more well known. Despite the interrogation of both publishers, they refused to reveal the identity of Pauline Reage. Dominique was still discovered, though, and legal action against the book was set in motion by the government. She still kept her identity as secret as she could to protect her family, despite receiving both fan and hate mail. As she had not intended the story to be published, she remained unmoved by the public attention and always refused to answer when she was asked if she had written it. Luckily for Dominique, a friend of hers was living with the Minister of Justice and, after having lunch with them both, he told her how happy he was to have met her. The following day, he issued a decree ending all the proceedings against her.
Although Girodias had never had a contract for printing rights, it was understood that he would only print 2000 copies on one print-run. He changed the title of his version to The Wisdom of the Lash and had it retranslated before he printed it again. He also left out the preface by Paulhan. He put that down to a mistake by the printer, but never explained why he changed the title, or why he had run the book again.
Although The Story of O was never officially banned in Britain, censorship laws forbade publication here of the two English versions. The Vice Squad seized a number of copies, but no further action was taken. It continued to be published in Paris and distributed 'under the counter'.
In 1963, Pauvert sold the American rights to Grove Press. Copies of the book were sent to the American publisher, but they were seized by Customs. On appeal they were released by the same official who had allowed Lolita five years previously.
Grove Press insisted on a new translation, by Sabine D'Estree, and it was published in 1965 in America, and five years later in Britain. Sabine was another pseudonym; one that was also kept secret for a long time. 'She' was Richard Seaver, a translator who had lived in France for many years.
In 1974 the book was turned into a film. It was in French and it wasn't very good, but it resulted in the book being produced as a paperback. It subsequently appeared as a Book Club version for the first time. 'Pauline' gave two interviews about the book in the same year, but again retreated into silence when they were over. The film was refused a classification by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) in Britain for over 25 years, only being granted an 18 certificate in February 2000. It was released, uncut, onto DVD and video eight months later.
In the late 1980s, the manuscript of the book was sold to a private collector. He took Dominique's original writing, the typescript, and various letters between Dominique and Paulhan about the publication. He also asked for a one page letter from Dominique... she gave him three. The same collector also owned De Sade's 120 days of Sodom.
During an interview Dominique was asked about the alternative endings. She replied:
I didn't know how to end it, so I left it open. Why not? I am not a novelist, you know.