‘I’m not going to apologise for the way I am. You’ve had all of me that I can give, Paul. If that’s not enough, there’s nothing I can do about it.’
– Peter O’Donnell, Modesty Blaise
I know that we bloggers tend to over think many of the issues that make up our lives, but one that has interested me more than others and so been the subject of many posts is my acceptance of polyamory. As I wrote way back in 2015, I am essentially monogamous in a polyamorous relationship. Although I know that this may change in the future, I currently have no need for another partner than my husband; monogamy isn’t really a choice, it’s more of just who I am.
But despite this, I feel very strongly about the benefits of polyamory and have always seen it as a preferable relationship structure, even before I actually was part of one. I used to create complex fantasies about beautiful men who would fall in love with me but would still fuck around and then come back tell me all about it afterwards. Hollywood heartthrobs who would sleep around when on location, musicians who would not let what happened on tour stay on tour. Is it any surprise that I fell for a sex blogger? And it wasn’t just the voyeurism of the story within a story that turned me on; I felt validated even in fantasy by my wayward lover coming back to me.
And I am fascinated by where this acceptance and appreciation of open relationships came from. It wasn’t from my parents or family – as I’ve described before, I come from a middle class, white, conservative (big and small C) background where divorce is considered an alternative lifestyle. And it wasn’t from movies or romance novels. Other than the occasional obligatory threesome, open relationships were rarely part of the mainstream media that I consumed in my teens and early 20s, if the option was even available. Spending time with someone other than a monogamous partner was cheating and that was always a bad thing.
Except, I’ve realised, that as a teenager I did read a series of books that presented what was essentially a fully functioning, happy and accepted polyamorous relationship. These books remain some of my favourites and I often still read them when I’m looking for an easy escape. The lessons these books taught me about sex and relationships weren’t as obvious as those I learnt from Rupert Campbell-Black and Jilly Cooper, but they had as profound an effect on my sexual future. It just took me a while to recognise this as the couple in question are not in a sexual relationship.
I’m talking about Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin, characters created by Peter O’Donnell in 1963 for a comic strip in Evening Standard and later for a series of novels, published from 1965 to 1996. Modesty is a women born between the wars who grew up in refugee camps, learned to fight and scheme, and went on to become the leader of a successful crime syndicate called The Network. Once she had made £1 million, she retired but her need for that adrenaline rush often drew her back into dangerous capers, although she now fought against crime, usually at the request of the British Secret Service. Obviously, she is staggeringly beautiful and intelligent. I love her.
Willie Garvin is her right-hand man. A Cockney, frequently and not very originally described as a rough diamond, who Modesty discovers in a Calcutta jail, fighting for his life. She sees some spark of opportunity in him and has him released, employing him in her organisation. So grateful is he for this second chance that he blossoms into an extraordinary criminal mastermind and companion for Modesty; always considering himself her second but standing at her side in ability. She was his Princess, his saviour, and although the books are very clear in emphasising that they don’t have a sexual relationship, there is no doubt about that strength of their connection.
I love him too. With his sandy hair and strong rugged physique, Willie was a long term fantasy fuck and I created complex scenarios when I stole his heart, fucked his brains out and was super fabulous, as I often am in my fantasies!
But this is where I find these fantasies interesting – and why I suspect that these are the seeds of polyamory – because even at my most fabulous, I never replaced Modesty Blaise as Willie’s number one. I imagined myself as his lover, his love, his everything, but she was still his Princess and he would still always drop everything to run to her whenever needed. And that was OK. It was understandable. Preferable even. Willie also had a number of other lovers – he’s written as the type of guy with a girl in every port – and it never crossed my mind that that would change.
Looking back, it’s obvious. It’s polyamory!
Through the thirteen Modesty Blaise books, I learnt a lot about sex and feminism, and how far we’ve come since the 1960s. The descriptions of Modesty’s neck as a column and her tan that could have ‘made a fortune for the man who bottled it’ would now be mocked in those tropes about male authors describing women, and the surprise Modesty often dealt with when presented as a capable leader is thankfully also outdated, although still not unbelievable.
But she was a strong women in control of her sex life. She had multiple lovers and did not let them take anything from her that she did not want to give. To adopt a much used, old-fashioned but not unhelpful phrase, Modesty gave her body with joy and freedom, and clearly loved sex, but never needed a relationship, never needed a partner. In my favourite novel, A Taste for Death, she comes the closest to settling down. Her relationship with Steve Collier, a mathematician, spans two novels but, instead, he ends up marrying Dinah Pilgrim, the women who comes closest to tying Willie down. Both of them couldn’t quite cope with loving Modesty or Willie respectively while still being second to the core primary relationship.
I didn’t see it that way. Reading about Modesty and Willie, I understood that different partners can fulfil different roles. I understood that the value of these partners wasn’t belittled by the presence of others and that sex wasn’t always necessary to build meaningful and important relationships.
In short, I learned about polyamory without knowing what it was called. More, I learned that I liked it and, well, the rest is history…
This is post #4 of a planned 6, all written during the 12 hour Smutathon writing challenge.