From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, is a novel presented as a memoir by John Cleland. Written in 1748 while Cleland was in debtor's prison in London (see also: literature written in prison), it is considered the first modern "erotic work of prose", and has become a byword for the battle of moral censorship. The novel was adapted for film several times, most famously by Tinto brass (Paprika, Italy, 1991) and as a BBC serial in 2007.
While the text satirised the literary conventions and fashionable manners of 18th century England, it was more scandalous for depicting a woman, the narrator, enjoying and even reveling in sexual acts with no dire moral or physical consequences. The text is hardly explicit as Cleland wrote the entire book using euphemisms for sex acts and body parts, employing 50 different ones just for the term penis. Two small earthquakes were credited to the book by Thomas Sherlock, the Bishop of London who implored Thomas Pelham-Holles to stop the printing of "vile books" and Cleland was arrested and briefly imprisoned. However, Fanny Hill continued to be published and is one of the most reprinted books in the English language. However, it was not legal to own this book in the United States until 1963 and in the United Kingdom until 1970.
The book concerns the titular character, who begins as a poor country girl who is forced by poverty to leave her village home and go to town. There, she is tricked into working in a brothel, but before losing her virginity there, escapes with a man named Charles with whom she has fallen in love. After several months of living together, Charles is sent out of the country unexpectedly by his father, and Fanny is forced to take up a succession of new lovers to survive.
The book is written as a series of letters from Fanny Hill to an unknown woman, with Fanny justifying her life-choices to this individual. Frances "Fanny" Hill is a 15-year-old girl with a rudimentary education living in a small village near Liverpool. Shortly after she turns 15, both her parents die. Esther Davis, a girl from Fanny's village who has since moved to London, convinces Fanny to move to the city as well, but Esther inexplicably abandons Fanny once they arrive. Fanny meets Mrs. Brown, a short, obese, rich woman who gives Fanny lodging. Fanny must share a bed with fellow lodger Phoebe Ayres, who seduces Fanny into having lesbian sex the first night. Unfortunately Mrs. Brown runs a brothel and Fanny is forced to spend an evening with an elderly, impotent, obese man. The man attempts to rape Fanny but fails. Fanny falls into a fever for several days. Mrs. Brown, realizing to her shock that Fanny was not a prostitute but rather a virgin—and that Fanny's virginity is still intact—decides to try to sell Fanny's sexual favors to the exceedingly rich Lord B.
Fanny recovers and spies on Mrs. Brown having sexual intercourse with a muscular, handsome, wealthy man. Fanny masturbates while watching them. That night, Phoebe enlightens Fanny about sex, child-bearing, anal intercourse, and other sexual practices. The next day, Fanny and Phoebe spy on another girl, Polly Ayres, having sex with a muscular, handsome, exceptionally well-endowed young Genoese merchant. Afterward, Phoebe and Fanny engage in mutual masturbation. Six days later, Fanny meets the 19-year-old wealthy nobleman, Charles, and they fall in love instantly. Charles helps Fanny escape the brothel the next day. They go to an inn outside London, where Fanny has sexual intercourse with Charles for several days. Charles takes Fanny to his flat at St. James's, London, and introduces her to his landlady, Mrs. Jones. For many months, Charles visits Fanny almost daily, making love to her. Fanny works hard to become more educated and urbane. After eight months, Fanny becomes pregnant. Three months later, Charles mysteriously disappears. Mrs. Jones learns that Charles' father has kidnapped his son and sent him to the South Seas to win a fortune. Upset by the news that Charles will be gone at least three years, Fanny miscarries, falls ill, is nursed back to health by Mrs. Jones, and sinks into a deep depression.
Mrs. Jones tells Fanny that the now-16-year-old girl must work as a prostitute for her. Mrs. Jones introduces Fanny to Mr. H., a tall, muscular, hairy-chested rich man. Fanny unwittingly drinks an aphrodisiac, and has sexual intercourse with Mr. H. Fanny concludes that sex can be had for pleasure, not just love. Mr. H puts Fanny up in a new apartment and begins plying her with jewels, clothes, art, and more. After seven months, Fanny discovers the Mr. H. has been having sex with Fanny's maid. Fanny resolves to seduce Will, Mr. H.'s muscular, curly-haired, 19-year-old servant. Will has an extremely large erection: "...not the plaything of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a Maypole, of so enormous a standard, that, had proportions been observed, it must have belonged to a young giant. ... In short, it stood an object of terror and delight." A month later, Mr. H. catches Fanny having sexual intercourse with Will, and stops supporting Fanny.
Fanny is taken in by Mrs. Cole, the mistress of one of Mr. H.'s friends, who also happens to run a brothel in the Covent Garden neighborhood of London. Fanny meets three other prostitutes, who are also living in the house:
- Emily, a blonde girl in her early 20s who ran away at the age of 14 from her country home to London. She met a 15-year-old boy who, being sexually experienced, engaged in sexual intercourse with virgin Emily. Although the two lived together a short time, Emily became a street prostitute for several years before being taken in by Mrs. Cole.
- Harriet, a brunette and an orphan raised by her aunt, had her first sexual experience with the son of Lord N., a nobleman whose estate adjoined her relative's.
- Louisa, the bastard daughter of a cabinetmaker and a maid who entered puberty at a very young age and began engaging in extensive masturbation. While visiting her mother in London, Louisa began masturbating in her mother's bedroom. The landlady's 19-year-old son caught her and made love to the 13-year-old girl. Louisa spent the next few years having sex with as many men as she could and turned to prostitution as a means of satisfying her lust.
A short time later, Fanny participates in an orgy with the three girls and four rich noblemen. Fanny and her young nobleman begin a relationship, but it ends after a few months because the young man moves to Ireland. Mrs. Cole next introduces Fanny to Mr. Norbert, an impotent alcoholic and drug addict who engages in rape fantasies with prostitutes. Unhappy with Mr. Norbert's impotence, Fanny engages in anonymous sex with a sailor in the Royal Navy. The unfortunate Mr. Norbert soon dies, however. Mrs. Cole then introduces Fanny to Mr. Barville, a rich, young masochist who requires whipping to enjoy sex. After a short affair, Fanny begins a sexual relationship with an elderly customer who becomes sexually aroused by caressing her hair and biting the fingertips off her gloves. After this ends, Fanny enters a period of celibacy.
Emily and Louisa go to a drag ball, where Emily meets a bisexual young man who believes Emily is a man. The truth is discovered, and the man makes love to Emily in his carriage. Fanny is confused by her first encounter with male homosexuality. Shortly after this incident, Fanny takes a ride in the country and takes a room at a public tavern after her carriage breaks down. She spies on two young men engaged in anal homosexual intercourse in the next room. Startled, she falls off a stool and knocks herself unconscious. Although the two men have left, she still rouses the villagers to try to hunt the two men down and punish them.
Some weeks later, Fanny watches as Louisa seduces the teenage son of a local woman. His erect penis is even larger than Will's, Fanny believes. The boy, clearly a virgin, engages in somewhat violent, brutal sex several times with Louisa. Louisa leaves Mrs. Cole's a short time later after falling in love with another young man. Emily and Fanny next are invited by two gentleman to a country estate. They swim in a stream, and the two men have sex with the girls for several hours. Emily's parents soon find their daughter, and (unaware of her career as a prostitute) ask her to come home again. She accepts.
Mrs. Cole retires, and Fanny lives on her savings for a while. One day she encounters a middle-aged man of 45 who looks 60 due to his very poor health. The man falls in love with Fanny but treats her like a daughter. He dies and leaves his small fortune to her. Now 18 years old, Fanny uses her new wealth to try to locate Charles. She learns that he disappeared two and a half years ago after reaching the South Seas. Several months later, a despondent Fanny takes a trip to see Mrs. Cole (who had retired near Liverpool). A storm forces Fanny to stop at an inn along the way, where she runs into Charles: He had come back to England but was shipwrecked on the Irish coast. Fanny and Charles get a room together and make love several times. Fanny tells Charles everything about her life of vice, but he forgives her and asks Fanny to marry him, which she does.
What is remarkable and innovative about the novel is that Cleland's writing style is witty, learned, and full of Classical asides. Also, Fanny herself does not, like Roxana or Moll Flanders, repent. She has no remorse for her education in sex, although she does realize that she is being exploited. Further, Fanny acts as a picara: as a prostitute she shows the wealthy men of the peerage at their most base and private . Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe had written about women forced into compromised situations before, and they had hinted graphically enough that the subversive and erotic context was present, but neither made their heroines women of pleasure. Neither of them imputed to their women any joy in their situation, whereas Cleland does.
18th and 19th centuries
The novel was published in two instalments, on November 21, 1748 and February of 1749, respectively, by "G. Fenton", actually Fenton Griffiths and his brother Ralph. Initially, there was no governmental reaction to the novel, and it was only in November 1749, a year after the first instalment was published, that Cleland and Ralph Griffiths were arrested and charged with "corrupting the King's subjects." In court, Cleland renounced the novel and it was officially withdrawn. However, as the book became popular, pirate editions appeared. In particular, an episode was interpolated into the book depicting homosexuality between men, which Fanny observes through a chink in the wall. Cleland published an expurgated version of the book in March 1750, but was nevertheless prosecuted for that, too, although the charges were subsequently dropped. Some historians, such as J. H. Plumb, have hypothesised that the prosecution was actually caused by the pirate edition containing the "sodomy" scene.
It was not until 1963, after the failure of the British obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960 that Mayflower Books, with Gareth Powell as Managing Director, published an unexpurgated paperback version of Fanny Hill. In December 1963 distributor Ralph Gold was summonsed under section 3 of the Obscenity Act. The defence argued that Fanny Hill was a historical source book and that it was a joyful celebration of normal non-perverted sex - bawdy rather than pornographic. The prosecution countered by stressing one atypical scene involving flagellation, and won. Mayflower decided not to appeal. But the case had highlighted the growing disconnect between the obscenity laws and the social realities of late 1960s Britain, and was instrumental in shifting views to the point where in 1970 an unexpurgated version of Fanny Hill was once again published in Britain.
- ...and now, disengag’d from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant. Its prodigious size made me shrink again; yet I could not, without pleasure, behold, and even ventur’d to feel, such a length, such a breadth of animated ivory! perfectly well turn’d and fashion’d, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root, through the jetty sprigs of which the fair skin shew’d as in a fine evening you may have remark’d the clear light ether through the branchwork of distant trees over-topping the summit of a hill: then the broad and blueish-casted incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins, altogether compos’d the most striking assemblage of figure and colours in nature. In short, it stood an object of terror and delight.
- But what was yet more surprising, the owner of this natural curiosity, through the want of occasions in the strictness of his home-breeding, and the little time he had been in town not having afforded him one, was hitherto an absolute stranger, in practice at least, to the use of all that manhood he was so nobly stock’d with; and it now fell to my lot to stand his first trial of it, if I could resolve to run the risks of its disproportion to that tender part of me, which such an oversiz’d machine was very fit to lay in ruins.
References in popular culture
References in literary works
- In a portrait that appears in the first volume of Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fanny Hill is depicted as a member of the 18th century version of the League. She also appears more prominently in "The Black Dossier" as a member of Gulliver's League, as well as a "sequel" to the original Hill novel, complete with illustrations by Kevin O'Neill. The setting of her involvement with the League begins with her divorce from Charles after he is caught in the act in a brothel kept by former League member Amber St. Clare, and is shown to have been sexually involved with both Gulliver and Captain Clegg nearly 40 years before the second League was founded. She doesn't age as an effect of her stay at Horselberg. This version has apparently pursued a lesbian relationship with a character named Venus (who seems to be an amalgamation of the various versions of the Goddess of love in literature) for at least a century and a half as of the Black Dossier and in contrast to the novel's relationships this one seems to be enduring.
- In the book Frost at Christmas by R. D. Wingfield, the vicar has a copy of Fanny Hill hidden in his trunk amongst other dirty books.
- In Lita Grey's book, My Life With Chaplin, she claims that Charlie Chaplin "whispered references to some of Fanny Hill's episodes" to arouse her before making love.
References in film, television, musical theatre and song
- The novel is also mentioned in Tom Lehrer's song "Smut".
- A tongue-in-cheek reference to Fanny Hill appears in the 1968 David Niven, Lola Albright film The Impossible Years. In one scene the younger daughter of Niven's character is seen reading Fanny Hill, whereas his older daughter, Linda, has apparently graduated from Cleland's sensationalism and is seen reading Sartre instead.
- In the 1968 version of Yours, Mine, and Ours, Henry Fonda's character, Frank Beardsley, refers to "Fanny Hill" when giving some fatherly advice to his stepdaughter. Her boyfriend is pressuring her for sex and Frank says boys tried the same thing when he was her age. When she tries to tell him that things are different now he observes, "I don't know, they wrote 'Fanny Hill' in 1742 [sic] and they haven't found anything new since."
- In an episode of M*A*S*H, Radar O'Reilly thanks Sparky for sending the book Fanny Hill but says the last chapter was missing and asks "Whodunnit?" Sparky answers "Everybody."
- In a segment in the film The Groove Tube (1974), children's TV show host KOKO the Clown asks the children in his audience to send their parents out of the room during "make believe time." He then proceeds to read an except from page 47 of Fanny Hill in response to a viewer's request.