THE LADIES OF RYLSTONE
In 1984, a group of decidedly proper, middle-aged women in Kensington, California, decided to meet together to talk about the role of eroticism in their lives. They read well-known authors like Henry Miller and AnaÃ¯s Nin. They checked out magazines like Penthouse, Chic, and Playgirl. They told each other what they found erotic and what they didn't. They delighted in being able to take a subject generally separated from polite conversation and address it directly in a group.
Although none of the women were experienced writers, they began to experiment with writing erotic stories of their own. They met monthly and read to each other what they had come up with. Eventually, they christened themselves The Kensington Ladies' Erotica Society, and published a collection of the stories they had written. They called their anthology Ladies' Home Erotica (later changed to Ladies' Own Erotica when Ladies' Home Journal magazine threw a fit).
The book was an immediate and long-standing publishing success. Here was a group of distinctly regular, unassuming, even shy, mother-next-door types (in their group photograph, all the authors are discreetly masked) who chose to engage erotic writing with open hearts, common sense, and wholesome good humor. The idea charmed a public used to being bombarded with glamour and sexual titillation from one direction, and with anti-sexual bombast from the other. Ladies' Own Erotica and its sequel, Look Homeward Erotica, both blockbuster successes, put women's erotic writing on the mainstream publishing map once and for all. The books proved there was a broad market for erotic writing by women, writing that was very diffrent from the male-oriented stories being published in commercial porn magazines. It also declared to the world that erotic interest and imagination was not limited to people under 30 -- or to people under 50 for that matter. Ladies' Own Erotica and Look Homeward Erotica helped clear the way for the multitude of anthologies of women's fiction -- many of them, ironically, as sexually outrageous as the Kensington Ladies' stories were not -- that have become accepted mainstays of the publishing world over the last 15 years.
Now the fickle finger of fate has selected a group of equally proper, equally "post-youth" ladies from the town of Rylstone, England to remind the world that a little erotic fun can be full of heartwarming and wholesome appeal -- and as British as tea and crumpets -- no matter what your age, gender, social class, sexual orientation, or sexual sophistication.
A group of women active in the Rylstone chapter of the Women's Institute, a traditional British outlet for womanly community service, has published The Ladies of Rylstone Calendar, a series of twelve discreet nude photographs of themselves engaged in various housewifely activities. Much as was the case with their Kensington sisters fifteen years earlier, the subtly erotic outpouring of the Rylstone ladies has taken both the publishing world and the media by storm and therefore put genteel, middle-aged eroticism back into the consciousness of the world at large.
It is most decidedly a made-for-media story. When the women in Rylstone, a town northwest of London, heard about the upcoming Women's Institute calendar, an annual fund-raising homage to women's crafts and homemaking skills, they joked about putting together a "pin-up" style alternative, in which they themselves would serve as the nude models. This was back in 1997, before the film The Full Monty, in which a group of British working-class blokes strip to the buff in an amateur dance routine, became a cult hit. The idea that these women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s might expose themselves for the sake of charity was good for a hearty laugh, but not something the women were about to take too seriously. Not, that is, until John Baker, one of their husbands, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma the following year.
Coming face to face with serious life and death issues has a way of changing people's perspectives on a lot of things. Having a close friend or mate deal with the possibility of dying definitely reorganizes one's sense of what really matters in this life. The women of Rylstone decided to put their fund-raising potential first and their modest second Their goal was to raise money for the medical center where Baker was being treated, and they returned to the idea of the nude calendar with a new kind of dedication. It could be a fun project, they decided collectively. It would also be a celebration of life to hold up to the real possibility of John Baker's imminent death. Baker himself loved the idea, but doubted that the women would have the nerve to go through with such a thing. When Baker actually died shortly thereafter, the women -- mothers and grandmothers all, aged 45-66 -- resolved, despite their considerable nervousness, that they would in fact produce the calendar, as a tribute to him.
Terry Logan, husband of one of the women in the group, agreed to be the photographer. But how to accomplish the task of actually taking the photographs? None of the women felt comfortable exposing themselves to the watchful eye of a husband of a good friend. It was decided that the women would wear robes while they struck the pose that was to be in the calendar. Logan would compose the shot, then leave the room. The woamn being photographed would then drop her robe, Lynda Logan (Terry's wife) would snap the picture, and everyone's sense of propriety would be preserved. After a few laps around that track, however, (and, the women note, with the help of a soothing quantity of red wine), everyone agreed that the protocol was both cumbersome and unnecessary. It was time to forget about being embarrassed by a little benign nudity and get on with the work at hand.
Still, there were limits to be respected. The women agreed that there would be no nude bottoms in the photos. Some of the women were comfortable with their nipples being shown, others were not. Nipples, the group decided, would be a matter of personal choice. (Later, the producers of the Rosie O'Donnell show would turn out to be more even conservative than these small town British ladies. When pictures from the calendar were displayed on Rosie's show, the exposed nipples had been airbrushed away.)
The women devoted a good deal of creativity to finding objects behind which they could hide their various body parts. In keeping with the theme of traditional WI calendars, familiar household objects were the favored props. A large cook pot worked quite nicely, as did an oversized tea kettle, a vase, an apple press, an artist's palette, Christmas sheet music, and -- in a somewhat more risquÃ© vein -- a "see-through" flour sifter. In a pinch, a bit of sewing or knitting could be strategically arranged.
Captions beneath the photos added their own wink to the mix. "Beautifully preserved" reads the title of one photo showing a woman ladling fruit into jam jars. "One lump or two?" teases another of the Rylstone ladies, smiling broadly as she pours afternoon tea. "Fruity and full bodied" is the description asigned to the woman who is pressing apples into cider. "Knit two together and cast off" says the woman who is busy with her embroidery needles.
Just as the Kensington ladies before them, the ladies of Rylstone discovered that they enjoyed sidestepping both the familiar social prohibitions about nudity and their personal reticence about allowing their bodies to be seen by others, especially when publicly disrobing could be justified in the name of a good social cause. Not that the Rylstone ladies didn't have to swallow hard from time to time along the way. These are not self-defined erotic way-showers, let alone San-Francisco-style sex radicals, to be sure. In the notes that accompany the calendar, they point out that Chris Clancy, 46, "was nervous, but determined to do it anyway." They applaud her perseverance with the simple statement: "She was brave." Rose Fawcett, 50, explains that she was able to become a good deal less nervous about exposing herself to the world after she had downed a healthy glass of red wine.
The Rylstone ladies make a point of telling the world that the whole nude calendar project, with its spirit of playful naughtiness, "was a source of joy and entertainment for John throughout his difficult illness," and that it has been an inspiration for John's wife, Angela, in the difficult wake of his death. Perhaps because of their infectious good spirit and their unmistakably non-salacious intent, the higher-ups of the staid Women's Institute have stood fully behind the Rylstone ladies throughout the project.
After much planning, wine, and photographic experimentation, the calendar was shot, laid out, printed, and finally released on April 12, 1999. It was very much a local event limited in scope to the village pub. None of the husbands (except for photographer Terry Logan) had been allowed to see the photos of their nude wives until the day the calendar became public. It was a coming out celebration of the first order. If any of the husbands had difficulty with the idea of their wives showing their bodies to everyone in town, they kept it to themselves. For the moment, in Rylstone, England, the idea of 50-year-old mothers posing in the buff for their neighbors' enjoyment was something to be appreciated and respected. Thus, when John Knowles first saw the nude photo of his wife, Lynn (Miss March), his response was simply to wonder aloud where she had gotten the demure pearls that hung around her neck.
From the moment the calendar was published, it was a smash hit. Word of the nude ladies of Rylstone spread quickly and the first printing sold out within a week. A more massive second printing (10,000 copies) was ordered. It was gone three weeks later. By the end of 1999, a whopping 88,000 copies of the self-published calendar had been sold, raising some $550,000 for leukemia research. Now, an American edition of the calendar has been released by Workman Publishing, with the potential of multiplying those numbers several times over. The bodies that the ladies of Rylstone nervously decided to show to a few friends and neighbors are about to become icons of unclothed, middle-aged femininity all over the world.
The ladies of Rylstone were not out for big-time fame, but with the international press jumping all over their delightful story, they have nonetheless been catapulted into the public eye. They have been invited to model at the Savoy in London during the height of British fashion releases. They have just completed an American book tour in conjunction with Workman's release of the calendar's American edition. Happily, none of their international publicity seems to have gone to their heads. They are pleased to know that they have loosened up the staid image of the Women's Institute, and even more delighted to have helped so many people celebrate women's bodies that fall outside the boundaries of the young and thin. Most of all, they seem to be enjoying their ability to affect how people feel about growing older. They note that a woman in her mid-40s wrote to say that she feels she can now go through her 50s, 60s, and 70s without thinking of herself as simply being in her declining years, and that a man wrote them to say that their calendar had helped convince his 47-year-old wife that she is still beautiful despite a recent mastectomy.
"I like to think of [the calendar] as a celebration of women in full bloom," say Tricia Stewart, 51 (Miss October). Indeed it is. It's a calendar that you can put up anywhere around the house -- even in the kitchen, even in the family room, even where the kids bring their friends. The sepia-toned photos are portraits first, nudes second. No one will complain that they are overly graphic. While the photography in the calendar is not the most imaginative in the world, it is nevertheless delightfully warm and full of good feeling. Here we are, the ladies of Rylstone smile, without our clothes on, and isn't life grand! However mild the Rylstone nudes may be, the fact remains that most people do not have full-sized calendars with photos of naked people in their kitchens, their family rooms, or wherever their kids go to play with their friends. Gentle, non-provocative nudes as a normal part of everyday life. How simple, how unspectacular, how sane, yet how unusual. A good message to deliver to the kids and to the neighbors, just as the ladies of Rylstone did to theirs.
Spectator, June 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg
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