I read Constance Ring by Amalie Skram a few years ago, and now Betrayed, and I have two other books by her yet (the ones about the time when her husband had her committed to a lunatic asylum).
Betrayed is a sort of 1860s version of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach – a young girl (seventeen), knowing nothing of the world is married off to a man (he’s a sea-captain), and is traumatised by her sexual initiation; but Skram’s society of 1860s Norway (and indeed London, where part of the book takes place) is a far more worldly (one might say, realistic) place than McEwan’s imagined 1950s England, and she takes the story in a much more interesting psychological direction.
Skram is interested, as far as I recall from Constance Ring too, in the sexual liberty given to men in society which is denied to women (respectable women, that is). Our girl here, Aurora, is not so much troubled by sex itself, as by the realisation that her new husband isn’t himself a virgin, but has indeed spent a good part of his life sleeping with as many woman as he has been able – largely, prostitutes. She sees this as a terrible sin. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, the main psychological dilemma in the novel is not so much the wife’s as the husband’s, who, deeply in love with his wife, cannot persuade her that this is just the way of the world, and, beginning to fall in with his wife’s vision of the world’s purity, begins to conceive himself as unworthy of her.
Although the sexual act itself remains absent (at least in any detailed description), sexuality abounds in the society described Skram describes; for the 1890s, it is fairly unflinching in its acknowledgement of a sexual underworld. But then, Skram had travelled a lot (the marriage to a ship’s captain was her own) and read a lot of French novels.
As sometimes happens, another book I’m reading, Ramón Pérez de Ayala’s Honeymoon, Bittermoon, is on much the same theme – except, more akin to McEwan, in this case both bride and groom have been kept in naivety; – and Pérez de Ayala acknowledges the mythical background to the story, giving a nod to Casper Hauser, and recounting the old Greek story about the king who brought up two children in a cave.