Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2017

Transgressions (1997), by Sarah Dunant

TransgressionsTransgressions is such a deeply unsettling novel, it has completely revised my opinion of the author.  I discovered Sarah Dunant’s novels with Mapping the Edge,( 1999) when it was first published, and I went on to read her historical novels and reviewed them on this blog: The Birth of Venus, (2003); In the Company of the Courtesan, 2006, and Sacred Hearts, (2009).  I enjoyed them as light fiction with a feminist slant on women’s choices during the Renaissance.

But Transgressions (1997) is a most unpleasant book. I can’t discuss it without spoilers.


It’s the story of a Czech-British translator called Elizabeth Skvorecky, who is living alone in a large Victorian house in London since she separated from her husband about a year ago.  She is working on a trashy Czech novel which features gratuitous violence against women.  She is offended by the trashiness and takes it upon herself to rewrite the prose, and she adds to the storyline in order to ‘improve’ it.  In doing so, she becomes engaged in its plot and finds some of its sadomasochistic scenes erotic.  I admit it: I skipped over these scenes.

At the same time, someone is gaining access to her house when she is out, and messing with her mind.  This person removes her favourite CDs, sets up a dining table laid for two, and rigs her stereo system to start playing her favourite tune when she comes home.  Dunant does a convincing job of muddying the waters: for a while it’s not clear whether Elizabeth’s ex-husband is responsible, whether it is a stray lover that she takes up with in a half-hearted way, or whether it is her memory or her subconscious at work.  She contacts the police but they don’t take her seriously, and although an atheist she also consults a woman cleric because she thinks it might be a poltergeist.

It is at this point that this novel becomes in itself transgressive.   When the interloper is revealed as a stalker who arrives in her bedroom to rape her, Elizabeth decides, despite her panic, to submit in order to survive.  She has heard that this advice is given to rape victims: surrender can be a means of surviving the ordeal without violence.  But Elizabeth does more than merely submit, and I found this sequence of events with its hints of eroticism repugnant in the extreme.  Without going into details, the scene suggests that rape is about sex, when it’s not, it’s  always about power.

I cannot imagine what this author was trying to achieve with this novel.  It’s not going back to the Op Shop, it’s going in the bin.

Author: Sarah Dunant
Title: Transgressions
Publisher: Time Warner UK, 1997
ISBN: 9781860492570
Source: Op Shop, and I’m glad I only wasted $2 on it.


  1. I really enjoyed her book The Birth of Venus but haven’t read anything of hers since that one came out.


    • Hello Melissa, thanks for dropping by:)
      If you like historical fiction and you liked The Birth of Venus I think you will like the other two as well. But as for the rest of her earlier work, I’m not going there, not now I’ve read this one!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am always pleased that you are able to say that you thoroughly disliked a particular work and why. I have read a bit of erotic fiction over the years, and about 10 years ago, made a point of reading Henry Miller and Anais Nin. But don’t worry, I agree with entirely about the wrongness of representing rape as sex. Reminds me of an Ian Banks book (name forgotten) that begins with a rape.


  3. Very interesting—my only Sarah Dunant has been her most recent, In the Name of the Family, and I had no idea she’d written non-historical/Renaissance-set stuff. What you say about rape, sex and power is interesting, too; I wonder whether she was trying to make a point about the potential for power that’s inherent in submission (this is a whole part of BDSM subculture and is referred to, rather gloriously, as being a “power bottom”). Still, sounds as though it didn’t exactly hit the mark for you!


  4. Elle, Bill, I’d have to re-read the book carefully to be sure (and I’m not going to) but I think she was exploring the rape, sex and power issue by tackling the question of power. Back in the 80s I remember coming across a school of thought that said that rape is only the most terrible thing because men think that their possession (the woman) has been violated by it, and *they* i.e. the men (fathers, husbands, brothers) can’t get over it. It used to incur the death penalty, like murder, because it was thought that a woman who’d been raped was as good as dead. Soiled goods. Couldn’t be married off. Was no longer an acceptable wife etc. The rapist’s power extends far and wide from this interpretation and that is why rape in war is a common tactic, it’s a way of establishing power over both genders.
    From a feminist PoV the notion that because some man performs a criminal act upon a woman’s body, it’s the *woman* who is permanently defiled by it, is affronting. Men aren’t permanently ‘soiled’ in other people’s estimation if some other man assaults them.
    So (the theory goes) if the woman refuses to accept the violation aspect of it, and submits as if it’s just sex and not something that destroys her, that defuses the power aspect of it. This is the way that Dunant has portrayed it, though the woman finds that the theory of it doesn’t match with her lived experience of it. She refuses to wash herself obsessively but she finds herself wanting to. Her instinct for survival is at war with her instinct to be in control of her life.
    But I think the book handles this topic in a very clumsy way, and muddies the waters with its erotic strand. What I think Dunant doesn’t understand is that if the rapist doesn’t get his power trip through the sex, he will want it through some other form of violence. The politics of rape is a very complex matter but at heart there’s always a woman who’s had a terrible experience. I think novelists should be very careful indeed in traversing this territory.


  5. I read this one years ago (before I blogged) and my reaction was the same as yours. I absolutely detested this book and, yes, I threw it in the bin! I’ve never read anything else by this author and have no interest in rectifying that now.


    • Great minds think alike. Maybe the reviews of the time said the same thing and that’s why she reinvented herself as an author of lightweight historical fiction…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] reading has been no good at all.  After the debacle of Sarah Dunant’s Transgressions (see my disappointed review)  I tried Australian poet Libby Angel’s The Trapeze Act, expecting to like it after […]


  7. […] A tacky, tacky tale about how a woman living alone deals with a stalker.    By all means read my review but don’t waste your time trying to track down the book.  It’s from the author’s […]


  8. […] reading has been no good at all.  After the debacle of Sarah Dunant’s Transgressions (see my disappointed review)  I tried Australian poet Libby Angel’s The Trapeze Act, expecting to like it after […]


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