Writing sex: which classics would have received the Fifty Shades of Grey treatment?

From Brontë to Woolf to Agatha Christie, a romp through the sex scenes that might have been

"No writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN." This is William Thackeray introducing his book Pendennis. Perhaps surprisingly, it is clear he means something very specific: he thought that "society will not tolerate" an accurate depiction of a young man's sex life. He made the complaint several times: that he was constrained by convention from being honest about what he saw as a huge and vital part of life. It seems clear that if Thackeray had had the chance, he would have included sex scenes in his book – rueful, good-natured, nonjudgmental ones, surely.

So did his fellow writers, from the Victorian era up to more open modern times, share his wish for candour? It is a guessing game, as respectable writers of the past didn't even write about the constraints, let alone breach them. But let's do some guessing. Who was bothered by the conventions? Who would exercise their freedom if they were writing now?

We know that Charles Dickens would have liked more honesty. He wanted to clearly acknowledge that Nancy in Oliver Twist was a prostitute. Still, it is difficult to imagine him describing sex with those virginal Doras and Madelines. Trollope surely wouldn't dream of including sex scenes; he found the life of the mind so much more interesting.

You can imagine a modern-day Charlotte Brontë writing embarrassing confessional scenes about masturbation, Lena Dunham-style, or a bit like Sheila Heti – and not understanding why other people found it all a bit much. But then she'd provide some good, loving rumpy-pumpy when Jane Eyre is reunited with Mr Rochester, to keep everyone happy. Emily Brontë paints a vivid and convincing picture of overpowering sexual attraction in Wuthering Heights, but her apparently virginal imagination might have faltered at the final description.

After Edith Wharton died, explicit writing was found in her papers, so it is fair to conclude that the strong undercurrent of sexuality in her work would be more open if she was writing today. You can imagine Thomas Hardy producing horrible and upsetting rape scenes, but with none of the relish some writers take. You suspect Evelyn Waugh would pretend to turn up his nose, but sneak quite a lot of sex in there – he got away with a few startling moments in Helena (partly because nobody ever reads it), and is honest in his letters about liking what he called "smut".

Virginia Woolf could have written more explicitly than she did, and she was rude about James Joyce. But Woolf was also very concerned, in A Room of One's Own, that women's voices were lost because of what they tried not to say; that they tried to use men's voices. She also said novels "lie" and omit too much, because they deal with the big matters of life. Her and Thackeray's complaint ends up in the same place; sex, surely, was one of the things not dealt with properly. Woolf is funny about the inadequacy of one male writer's "indecent" sex scene, saying it is "impeded and inhibited and self-conscious". So surely she could do better? She does say that in a hundred years (from 1928) there will be a better, more complete book, which will give women their true voice – and thus, perhaps, also portray women's true sex lives.

The work of Golden Age detective writers John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin is very proper, but with hints that they were quite interested in sexual matters. It hangs round the edges of Dickson Carr's books, with their blackmail, sexy photos and nymphomania alongside the body in the locked library. With Crispin, something very weird pops out now and again. His 1946 book Holy Disorders is a most uncomfortable mash-up of black magic, Lolita and a cathedral close mystery. (It is no surprise to find that he used to swap porn with Philip Larkin.) Nowadays he'd surely be a lot more blatant and write a very different kind of book.

Once, a female interviewer asked the adventure writer Alistair MacLean why his book had few female characters and almost no sex. MacLean said wistfully that he really didn't know enough about that sort of thing. On the other hand, his contemporary Agatha Christie knew plenty, but she likes to sublimate everything to plot. It is difficult to imagine how sex would advance matters in her kind of murder story, so why should she bother to include it?

My final choice would be Daphne du Maurier. She would have rivalled Fifty Shades of Grey given the chance – in explicitness, if not necessarily direction of perversion. And it would have been much better written, too.

Over to you: which classic writers do you think would have taken advantage of today's literary openness?

Moira Redmond

The GuardianTramp

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