John Cleland — Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

But our virtues and our vices depend too much on our circumstances…

Fanny Hill is at the most simplest description, 18th century pornography. Actually, if one wants to be precise, it’s the first published English prose pornography–pretty impressive, eh? At the time of its publication in 1748 and 1749, its author was in debtors prison. Since then it’s been the subject of numerous obscenity trials and bannings. In retrospect, it’s fairly tame, almost flowery, though it does depict sex in a very matter-of-fact sort of way that may be somewhat surprising considering the time that it was published.

Fanny Hill is an epistolary novel, written to an unknown woman in order to justify her long career and various misadventures. At the start of the novel, our heroine is a young girl of fifteen whose parents die unexpectedly. She is brought to London by an old friend (who has, unbenknownst to her, become a prostitute) and given into the service of Mrs. Brown, a brothel mistress, in order to earn her keep. Of course, Fanny’s innocence is such that she has no idea what she’s gotten herself into, until she is encouraged to meet and “marry” Mrs. Brown’s cousin, a disgusting old man who attempts to rape her. Shortly thereafter, Fanny meets the love of her life in the form of a young man named Charles, and runs away from the brothel with him, though of course things go awry there. The rest of the book is concerned with her changing fortunes; the various ways in which her career as first a kept mistress and then a common prostitute rises and falls, as it were.

The book is interesting mostly because of Cleland’s attitude towards sex as expressed through the character of Fanny. Far from being ashamed of sex, Fanny has a rather practical attitude towards it, at least after losing Charles and taking up with Mr. H. In her mind, throughout the book, although she reserves love only for Charles, there isn’t anything wrong with having sex for pleasure; in fact, it is an asset that she uses in order to survive. This is surely at least part of what earned the book the ire of the censors, in addition to the variety of different perversions are depicted, from sadomasochism, to flogging, and even, in an episode that was expurgated from a later edition, male homosexuality (female homosexuality, too, makes its appearance). It’s also quite funny, in a rather dry way.

Mostly, though, it’s an interesting relic from a time when such things were NOT talked about–let alone published.


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