Helena Frith Powell lives in France and is the author of Two Lipsticks and a Lover, an investigation into the lives, lusts and secrets of French women, from the cultural circles of Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the exclusive Sonia Rykiel sex shop.
“Why are French women so sexy? Ever since 1066, we’ve been enthralled by the innate superiority of the French female. Never mind Larkin and 1963; the French were at it well before that. French women are beautiful, stylish and chic – but they have something else that many English women lack. One of their tools, every bit as potent as their matching underwear, is their knowledge of literature. They see being well-read as important as being well-groomed. In order to outwit our French female foes across the Channel, here is a list of the top 10 sexy French books, guaranteed to land you a date with Thierry Henry.”
1. Chéri by Colette
All 10 books on this list could be by Colette, the most sensual and evocative writer of all time, who lived like one of her sexy heroines, still dancing on tables at 65, and marrying her son-in-law. Every woman’s fantasy, this tells the story of an ageing courtesan (49!) who remains irresistible to her much younger lover.
2. Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin
Classic faux-brow, this is the book that French girls love to take seriously, even though it’s nothing more than a story of adultery, written by the lover of Duff Cooper, British ambassador to France during the 1940s. When Cooper was away, Louise hunkered down with Diana, his wife. The smouldering passion between the fictitious ambassador and his mistress is a splendid example of Parisian society at its best and most snooty. Cooper himself did the English translation.
3. The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras
Possibly the maddest book ever written, but the title alone makes the book worthy of inclusion on this list. Voyeurism, lesbian leanings, broken hearts and adultery: what more could you ask for?
4. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
The sound of cicadas and the smell of suntan oil jumps off the pages. Is there a sexier location in the world than the south of France? Not only are the teenagers getting down and dirty, the grownups are too. As the young narrator says, “Fidelity is arbitrary and sterile.” – a mantra her father lives by. This sexy, poignant, moving and brief book is a must. If you read only one book on this list, this should be it.
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
No list of French books of whatever genre is complete without Madame Bovary. The unfortunate heroine, whose only crime is an endless search for romantic love, gives us some of literature’s sexiest moments: the mussed-up bed, the carriage ride, the sheer foolishness of falling in love with French men. Madame Bovary’s choice of lovers are 19th-century versions of Bridget Jones’s fuckwits.
6. Emmanuelle by Emmanuelle Arsan
My husband’s favourite French book. He says he reads it for the philosophy. It is the story of a woman getting laid. A lot. In just about every position and place imaginable, but mainly Thailand. This book has entertained French boys since publication. I fully expect to find it under my son’s pillow in a few years’ time.
7. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos
“It’s beyond my control.” Is there a more brutal line in literature? This is the book that justifies any amount of appalling behaviour. It turns seduction into a game and an art form. While the Anglo Saxons were reading Pride and Prejudice by candle-light, this book was teaching French society how to frolic and seduce.
8. I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda
Worth it just for the opening story, the Courting Rituals of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Two strangers meet in a street; dinner follows; candles flicker as the sexual tension burns.
9. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond de Rostand
A play based on the life of the 17th-century swordsman Cyrano, this is the olden day equivalent of a cyber romance. Proof of the enduring attraction of words. And that you can still be sexy, even if you’ve got a big nose and a floppy hat.
10. The Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
In the first half of the 20th-century, if you wanted to publish anything vaguely sexy, it had to be in Paris. Nin is the quintessential female player, willing to risk everything for the sake of art and adventure. This is one of her best books, a collection of erotic short stories. Her catchphrase was: “I really believe that if I were not a writer I might have been a faithful wife.” Unlikely, but extremely cunning to blame her creativity for her lasciviousness.