You wanna hear a fucked up one? You remember Victoria Kipps from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty? You know, the book about art history professor Howard Belsey and his family living in Wellington, Massachusetts (which is basically Cambridge), and the feud that erupts between the Belseys and the Kipps? Monty Kipps being liberal Howard’s right-wing arch nemesis, a man Howard’s son Jerome goes to work for – and whose daughter Jerome falls in love with. The daughter being, of course, the aforementioned Victoria. She’s first introduced when Jerome writes to his father from the office of the enemy. Jerome has only seen Victoria in photos but says she’s “very tall and beautiful.” Later, when he falls in love with her, dude’s singing a different tune:
I have no idea how you’re going to take this one! But we’re in love! The Kipps girl and me! I’m going to ask her to marry me, Dad! And I think she’ll say yes!!! Are you digging these exclamation marks!!!! Her name’s Victoria but everyone calls her Vee. She’s amazing, gorgeous, brilliant.
Must be some woman, right? Well, eventually even Howard’s enamored with her sultry sensuality. First time he sees her, he suddenly understands his son’s behavior. He also notices Victoria’s clothes, specifically that “the shiny purple material pulled tight across her chest” and that “she seemed to have large nipples, like the old tenpence coin.”
Now, clearly Zadie Smith intends this sexualization of the character. After all, we’re seeing her through the eyes of Jerome and Howard, two men (father and son, even) who both totally lust after her. But as a young man reading On Beauty, I became incredibly turned on by Victoria. Every description of her oozed with sexual tension. The next time Howard talks to her he thinks she’s “too perfect set against this white backdrop” and that “looking at her made him feel open to ideas, possibilities, allowances, arguments that two minutes earlier he would have rejected.”
I know that feeling. It’s the feeling of wanting someone so badly (and so wrongly) that suddenly your morals go out the fucking window, and you’re suddenly aware of how tenuous your moral compass is, how you’d be willing to give up a lot (or at least ignore the consequences) in order to sleep with this person in front of you. It’s not a good feeling, despite the damn-near unbearable excitement that comes with it.
Smith, by the end, condemns Howard for his weakness. This is where shit gets weird for me. So I’m already completely lustful over this Victoria, over such a confidently sexual woman, and then something fucked up happens. At Victoria’s mother’s funeral – yes, that’s right, a fucking funeral – Howard drunkenly stumbles upon Victoria upstairs in her bedroom as he tries to locate a bathroom. He sees that she’s upset. They talk. Things start to get weirdly flirty. She says, “I love your class. Your class is all about never saying I like the tomato,” meaning his lectures on art are “properly intellectual,” more about dissecting a work than appreciating it. She asks for a sip of his wine. He obliges. Then: “She did it,” and by it we mean she “jumped off the bed and into his lap.”
And then they fuck. It’s awkward, horribly unethical sex, the kind that we, the readers, are supposed to condemn. I mean, it’s wrong for all kinds of reasons: Howard’s married, Victoria’s much younger than him, she’s one of his students, she’s his son’s ex-girlfriend, she’s the daughter of his rival, they’re at her mother’s funeral. Phew. And though I understood all of that, when I read this passage, I was incredibly aroused. I couldn’t help it. Victoria’s sexiness, her forthrightness, her naughtiness all conspired to turn me on instead of leading me to moral outrage. It was a mortifying feeling, but one I couldn’t stop.
I was like Howard, and like his son, Jerome. I probably would have given up a lot to have sex with her. I, like Howard, might have ruined my life. I felt ashamed, as if I had no right to read Smith’s book. I wasn’t sophisticated enough for it, I wasn’t mature enough for it, and more than anything else I wasn’t moral enough for it. How could I be turned on by this situation?
Sure, Victoria is sexy herself, but surely that doesn’t mean that I can’t incorporate morality into my perception even when she’s having sex? Surely I can separate the two, right? Soon, though, as I got older, I began to see that this was exactly Smith’s intention (at least in part): she wanted Victoria’s sexiness to be convincing, to be almost unbearably direct and flirtatious. She wanted the reader to understand how much integrity and strength matter in adult life. Victoria’s beauty (no matter how rare, how inviting) is no justification. Weakness is not an excuse; it’s merely a symptom of itself.
In being turned on by this whole thing, I too was condemned. But, unlike Howard, I was reading a book, not living my life. Here, I could be aroused in an unethical way without ruining my life. It was like a warning, a test of my integrity that I didn’t pass.
Victoria’s like the crush you’re not supposed to have, and people often assert that unavailability exacerbates desire. While that may be true, it’s important not to simply accept the truth of it as unimpeachable. Because in real life, unlike in a book, the consequences of our moral weakness are far greater than our own integrity, even our own lives. There are others to consider – all the time, at any given moment. So while a person may like the tomato, that does not in any way give them permission to eat it.
Jonathan Russell Clark‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, Colorado Review, the Millions, Buffalo Almanack, Thrasher Magazine and DigBoston, where he was a book and theater critic. He currently attends the MFA program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and is at work on a novel.