Review: Smut by Alan Bennett

Forget E.L. James; Alan Bennett brings us two tales of a smutty nature, told in his inimitable, dry yet tender style.

Smut consists of two ‘unseemly’ stories, The Greening of Mrs Donaldson (first published in the London Review of Books in 2010) and The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, in which Bennett presents us with scenes of recognisable British day-to-day life, tinged with erotica and sexual intrigue.

The Greening of Mrs Donaldson focusses on a late-fifties ‘respectable’ widow, with an unappealingly arrogant daughter and a part-time job impersonating ill people for the benefit of students at a local teaching hospital.  She decides to take in lodgers, partly to supplement her income but partly for the danger and young company.  However, she gets a lot more than she bargains for when her lodgers suggests an alternative arrangement when they fall behind in the rent.  Mrs Donaldson accepts their offer and it transforms her life, allowing her to reflect on the nature of relationships, her ‘respectable’ reputation and ultimately what it is to be in control of ones own life, although Bennett is careful to say there is no moral to the story.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes really deals much more with her son, Graham; Graham feels that his mother must be shielded from the truth about him, or, more precisely, his sexuality.  However, it seems that in fact the women in this story – Mrs Forbes and the woman he marries, Betty – are in fact more perceptive than he realises.  It turns out that Betty is shielding Graham and he, Betty and Mr Forbes are all attempting to shield Mrs Forbes – Bennett draws out the British obsession with appearing to behave in the way that society expects, while all sorts of exciting, risky and salacious things occur beneath the surface.

I very much enjoyed reading this little gem; Bennett is effortlessly funny and knowing, his wording subtle enough to be inoffensive given the subject matter, but also cheeky, giving us a very clear idea of exactly what might be happening.  Erotica is all the rage at the moment, with the Fifty Shades of Grey revolution, but this shows us how so-called mummy-porn really should be done.  This is all about real life, real people and real concerns, not some bizarre anti-feminist S&M fantasy.  If you’re looking for a quick, well-written read with a few ever-so-slightly naughty bits, this is perfect.

Kate Neilan @Magic_Kitten