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The Sands of Pleasure

By Filson Young

‘No one ever advised me what to read or forbade me to read something… I liked books about prostitutes and vividly recollect a novel called The Sands of Pleasure by a man named Filson Young. It must have been well written otherwise I would never have remembered it so perfectly to this day. It was about an Englishman’s affair with an expensive demi-mondaine in Paris‘ – Jean Rhys

A forgotten gem set first on the Cornish coast, and then in fin de siècle Paris, Filson Young’s gorgeous, elegiac novel tells the story of Richard Grey, a young engineer who is building a lighthouse on a stormy beach. Whilst overseeing this construction, living amongst sailors and workmen in a remote cottage, he meets John Lauder, a sophisticated, slightly jaded man of the world, and his sister, Margaret. 

John decides that his young protégé needs respite from the isolation of Cornwall and takes him to Paris on a whirlwind tour of the City’s hotspots – the Folies Bergere, the café Maxim’s and the gruesome Cabaret du Neant. Richard is captivated, intoxicated by the exoticism and charm of this demi-mondaine world. He falls for Toni, a German “cocotte”- beautiful, vivacious, with her ‘vampiric mouth’ and capricious whims – and they embark on a passionate affair.

This is a fascinating take on a legendary era of Parisian history, terrain occupied by giants of French literature like Colette, De Maupassant and Proust, and painted by Lautrec, Klimt and Schiele. The louche, candlelit world of the demi-mondaine is contrasted with the austerity of Richard’s life on the Cornish coast, and the heroism of labour. Written by Young in just five weeks, this burst of energy is reflected in the pace of the narrative and it’s dreamlike atmosphere. Despite the novel’s erotic charge – exceptional for that time – it was lauded on original publication, and remains a story to captivate and enchant the modern reader.

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