Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland
Published in two pieces: Nov 21, 1748 and February 1749 [side note: I’m kind of loving that it was published on my birthday (granted, 240 years before, but the feeling is the same). But have no fear parental units, no plans of following in the illustrious Fanny Hill’s footsteps.]
Published in the U.S.: 1963! Huzzah for obscenity laws!
Publisher: According to wikipedia, Fanny Hill was published by the Fenton Brothers, who were arrested a year after publication for “corrupting the King’s subjects.” While you’re on the wikipedia page, I highly recommend the extract from the book. Just so you can get a taste.
Time to completion: a week
Difficulty: so much with the blushing. and words that died out two hundred years ago.
Stars: ahh. See the rating scale for Shades of Grey here.
You can’t really review a book that’s over 250 years old. What’s the point? It’s not going anywhere.
For those who have never encountered Fanny Hill, it’s the story of a young girl who at the tender age of 15 becomes a prostitute. It’s written as a series of letters from Fanny to an unnamed woman, seemingly of higher social status. She’s trying to explain herself and her decisions, and her own happy ending. Fanny ran away from home to London (“by repairing to London, in order to SEEK MY FORTUNE, a phrase which, by the bye, has ruined more adventurers of both sexes, from the country, than ever it made of advanced”) and was taken on, she thought, as a maid to a lady. The lady, it turns out, thought Fanny was a whore, tried to give her a client, whereupon Fanny fainted dead away and fell in to a fever. Upon discovery that Fanny was still *gasp* in a state of virginity, the lady schemes to sell her most precious jewel to the highest bidder, which she does. Blah blah blah, Fanny falls in love and runs away, her lover gets sent off by his father, and she’s heartbroken. She floats around for the rest of the book, mistress to this man, mistress to another, discovering the infinite variety and pleasure the act of love can bring. Eventually, she’s her own mistress and upon repairing to a house in the country, runs back into her love Charles, and they get married. Note that when the book ends, Fanny is 18 years old. EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD. ohmigod.
This book is, to my knowledge and understanding, one of the oldest, if not the original, erotic novel. And as such, has been banned over and over again. Obscenity laws must love this book. The number of different ways sex is described is magnificent. The number of ways John Cleland describes various body parts is breathtaking. I do stop to wonder- who was John Cleland and how did he reach these conclusions about what women like (or don’t like)? I don’t know, and I won’t try to speculate on his sex life, but I’m pretty sure it was active, to say the least.
It’s hard not to laugh while reading this. One, it is a legitimately funny book. Any book worth reading should be, in my mind, funny. At least once in a while. Two, as I said above, the number of metaphors and euphemisms written here are just beyond counting. I tried to find a list, but didn’t try very hard- the results aren’t shocking but I dare you to google “the number of ways sex is described in Fanny Hill” and try to come up with useful information. Most of them made me giggle, if not laugh loudly, generally in the middle of rush hour back to Queens.
For your reading pleasure, some of the more ridiculous bits. (and this is just a sampling. There are so, so many.)
I, struggling faintly, could not help feeling what I could not grasp, a column of the whitest ivory, beautifully streak’d with blue veins, and carrying, fully uncapt, a head of the liveliest vermillion: no horn could be harder or stiffer; yet no velvet more smooth or delicious to the touch.
Maybe this is what John Cleland thought women thought? Whatevs.
…as he introduc’d his plenipotentiary instrument into her…
Plen-i-po-ten-ti-ar-y. Adjective: invested with full power or authority, as a diplomatic agent; conferring or bestowing full power, as a commission; absolute or full, as power (via dictionary.com). Ok then.
In the mean time his machine, which was one of those sizes that slip in and out without being minded…
You probably get the picture by now. It should be a rather vivid one. At least, I thought it was pretty vivid. More vivid than today’s romance novels? Well, depends on who you ask. For what I read, hoo boy yeah. Compared to Fifty Shades? Well, maybe not so much. Better written to be sure; there may have been more sexytimes in Fifty Shades, but they were definitely more effective in Fanny Hill.
There were two things that stood out to me about Fanny Hill that showed how romance has NOT changed in three hundred years and it probably never will. The description of female beauty was just as hackneyed and stereotypical and standardized as it is today. This is a personal issue I have that I will probably never get over. The second is marriage as happily-ever-after (HEA). I almost died when I realized that Fanny’s HEA was marrying her Charles. For the love of god, whyyyy does every romance novel end with marriage and a house and 2.5 kids and a dog? I thought this book would end with her taking charge of her destiny, running a half-way house for other 15 year old girls so they didn’t have to become whores or something but NO, she gets married. Augghhh. Frustrating to the max. How about an ending where the hero and the heroine just end up in the same city with steady jobs and a social schedule that allows them to go to free movies in the park during the work week? Is that asking too much? Because I really don’t think so.