A banned book: Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland
I am still blushing from my reading experience with this novel, so please be still my trembling heart as I write this humble review…
This book, first published in 1748, was extremely controversial for its explicit sexual content. Considered to be the first “pornography” in written format, it definitely fits the criteria of erotica and I admit that I scoffed at the idea of what “erotica” meant in the 1700’s, assuming it would be laughably chaste to today’s modern reader. I also assumed there would be a sad story of a woman’s fall from grace and suffering misdeeds at the hands of horrible men a la Marquis de Sade’s Justine. Consider me corrected. I see now that the truly shocking aspect of Fanny Hill isn’t the sexual content, but the manner in which our heroine embraces and even applauds the lifestyle of the whore, in this genre dubbed “the whore’s autobiography.”
Young Fanny is a beautiful but naive country maid whose parents unexpectedly die during an epidemic, leaving her orphaned just as she is ripening into womanhood. I expected this–a poor, unprotected woman left to the world and abused because she’s too innocent to care for herself. This seems to be the manner in which this trope always begins, and yet Fanny differs quite drastically from other heroines of this genre.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Fanny, while she does fall into the hands of the equivalent of a madam in a brothel, actually enjoys and embraces her sexuality. She represents something totally different from the usual depiction of women in these scenarios–unhappy, ill-used, ruined–rather, she enjoys engaging in sexual activities with partners who treat her respectfully. She takes pleasure in the sexual acts that she undergoes; rather than be a pawn of desire for her male counterpart as is common in most literature of this time (or really even in modern depictions of sexuality) she actually initiates and engages in many of her episodes out of her own desire rather than to satisfy “the Gallant” seeking her service. Fanny is at first very naive but she openly learns the mechanics of sex between men and women and becomes enflamed by it. She actually enjoys the act of sex and as such makes a truly controversial figure indeed. Women were not meant to enjoy sex–even today society shames women who openly embrace their sexuality.
There are definitely some problematic issues with this novel–there are instances where women are forced into losing their virginity and the men are obliquely forgiven for being “unable to control themselves” which is hugely irreconcilable with the modern reader (or one would hope that it would be). Rape is essentially justified in that passion just can’t be contained by the male creature. As long as they are contrite afterward, the author seems to suggest, it’s a forgivable offense given that women are just “so irresistible.”
It is also largely homophobic, which again, strikes a different chord with today’s readers than it would have at the time it was written. Fanny has a lesbian encounter very early in the novel and seems to despair of it throughout the rest of her story–as if this is the worst behavior she commits in a litany of condemned sexual acts. She also witness a scene of two men engaging in sex and it throws her into an insensible rage. The message is clear that sex is perfectly acceptable — even twisted, dark acts, as long as it’s between a man and a woman. Again, this is a message that would be greatly challenged by today’s modern reader.
Also, though the nature of the content is quite explicit, as a reader you begin to take things less seriously as the author uses a seemingly inexhaustible amount of euphemisms to describe genitalia and the mechanics of sex (seriously, it must have taken this man forever to come up with all the different means of describing an erection) that start to verge on the hilarious. Overall, though, I think it’s an important work of fiction that was very much ahead of its time in creating a heroine that breaks the taboo of being sexually active outside of the marriage bed and NEVER SUFFERS ANY CONSEQUENCES at the hands of these actions. She is never considered a ruined woman, never suffers any ill will or societal snubs. In fact, SPOILER ALERT!!!! she ends up happily married and very wealthy at the end. This was (and hey, even still remains) truly a shocking prospect for women at the time.