Forget what you’ve been told. Disregard the scenes of degradation, despair and early death depicted by Hogarth. The fact is, there was no greater bliss than working the sex trade in 18th Century London. The women in charge of the brothels were kind and caring, the clients were gallant and rich, and the prostitutes themselves were fresh-faced, beautiful and extremely compliant.
This is the picture painted by John Cleland in his elegantly written but tedious erotic novel, Fanny Hill: Or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Published in two volumes in 1748-1749, the novel is part satire, part a critique of social and sexual convention. It was condemned as pornography and banned in England shortly after publication; in the US it was only taken off the banned list in 1966. As far as we know it was the first original pornography written in English – most erotica until then came from France – and it remains one of the most banned and prosecuted books in history.
The story is uncomplicated: Fanny Hill, a naive, uneducated young woman – she’s 14 when the story opens – arrives friendless and alone in London after the death of her parents. She’s immediately taken in by the madam of a brothel, Mrs. Jones, who pretends to hire her as a maid. The plan, of course, is to train Fanny as a prostitute, after first selling her virginity to the highest bidder. The client is so old and ugly the terrified young girl fights him off and then falls ill for several days. When she recovers, Mrs. Jones sells her instead to a better-looking customer who successfully seduces her. Having lost her innocence, Fanny quickly becomes an eager and lusty working member of the household.
Her first client after the seducer is a wealthy young nobleman named Charles. They fall in love and he sets her up as his mistress in a private apartment. They spend the next few months in blissful cohabitation until Charles disappears, having been sent away by his father to claim his fortune in the South Seas. Fanny, who is three months’ pregnant, miscarries, becomes ill, and is nursed back to health by her landlady. Seeing no better way to support herself, Fanny goes back to her former way of living, enjoying a succession of “sprightly gallants”, some old, some young, and gradually builds up a nest egg. In the end, an elderly lover conveniently dies, leaving her a small fortune.
Being “not yet nineteen” and a lady of leisure, Fanny takes a trip up north to revisit the scenes of her youth. Along the way – oh happy coincidence! she meets up with her long lost love, Charles, back from his tropical adventures, and on his way to find her. Her story ends with a confession of her indiscretions; Charles forgives her, begs her to marry him, and they wind up married, prosperous, and respectable.
Like Moll Flanders, this is a first-person account told in the form of a letter. Also like Moll, it’s the story of a young woman’s successful rise to wealth and independence using her God-given talents. Unlike Moll, however, there’s not much to admire about Fanny. She has little or no agency of her own, being nothing but a (male) writer’s wet dream. Cleland, unlike Defoe, seems unwilling to allow his heroine any consideration of male privilege or the oppressed state of women. Sweet, compliant little Fanny gives herself to be used however and whenever her clients desire – gleefully enjoying every carnal moment: “what floods of bliss!” she exclaims at one point, “what melting transports!” In terms of character, she’s about as interesting as a blow-up doll.
Fanny Hill was condemned not so much for its descriptions of sex but because Cleland was so brazenly, and obscenely, graphic. There’s not an inch of Fanny’s body that escapes description … not a moment of amorous adventure that isn’t outlined in exquisite detail. Still, a modern reader seeking titillation might be frustrated by the author’s use of euphemisms. They are wildly imaginative, and at times they’re very funny. The following scene, describing Fanny and Charles in the act, is typical:
“…presently the sting of pleasure spurred them up to fiercer action: then began the storm of heaves, which, from the undermost combatant, were thrusts at the same time, he crossing his hands over her and drawing her home to him with a sweet violence. The inverted strokes of anvil over hammer soon brought on the critical period, to which all the signs of a close conspiring ecstasy informed us of the point they were at.”
Without ever using the word, his descriptions of the penis are positively homoerotic: “that terrible spitfire machine”; “this pride of nature”; “stiff staring truncheon”; “this furious fescue”; “that superb piece of furniture”; “that favourite piece of manhood”. Reading this, you can’t help thinking, Oh, if only!
I came to the book wanting to like Fanny. Very few heroines, before or since, have been portrayed as openly enjoying sex; the book’s defenders hail it as an important piece of political satire, an expression of the libertine movement of the Enlightenment. It certainly deserves its place in the literary and historical canon, and I’m firmly against banning books. Period.
But it’s been a bad few months. I find it increasingly difficult to read about young girls being “seduced” – i.e. raped – by men old enough to be their fathers when every day we’re confronted by similar stories in the real world.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.