on March 2, 2002
I once reviewed Matthew Lewis' 1796 novel "The Monk" and said that it should be rated "R". Well, having just had the experience (and it is an experience) of reading John Cleland's 1748-9 novel, "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," everything else just seems like children's literature. Cleland's "Memoirs" was simultaneously reviled and a best seller, declared obscene and yet continued to be published illegally througout the 18th century. In the aftermath of the public frenzy for and against Samuel Richardson's ultra-famous novels "Pamela" and "Clarissa" and Henry Fielding's equally famous responses, "Shamela," "Joseph Andrews," and "Tom Jones," Cleland's novel strikes out into wholly uncharted moral and aesthetic territory.
Similarly to Defoe's "Moll Flanders," Cleland's novel begins with its heroine, Fanny Hill, an innocent, uneducated country girl, thrown at a very early age into the cruel world of London and forced into a life of prostitution. As an innocent virgin, the madam whose house she live in is saving Fanny for a noble customer whom they expect daily, but learns about sexual commerce by watching other prostitutes in the house. Eloping with a beautiful, wealthy young man named Charles before she engages in any sexual activity, the novel concerns Fanny's sexual awakenings and her life with and without her first love, Charles. The way that the novel refigures fidelity in the relationship between Fanny and Charles is astounding.
Cleland's master-stroke, if you will, linguistically, is to write a whole-heartedly pornographic novel and couch everything in such a rich variety of metaphors. Graphic scenarios can be found on almost every page, but there is a marked and remarkable absence of graphic language. Structurally, Cleland's plotting of Fanny Hill's escapades is exquisitely balanced and even-handed. Morally and aesthetically, "Memoirs" comes straight out of the strain of 18th century moral philosophy associated by turns, with Shaftesbury and David Hume. From Shaftesbury, Cleland takes the idea that aesthetics and morality should be judged on an equal form in works of art. From Hume, he takes the radical stance that vices and luxuries are not inherently evil, and even acceptable when not carried to extremes. Cleland makes judicious use of these structural and philosophical elements in creating one of the strongest and most liberated heroines in English literature.
Among other points of interest in the novel, there is the prevalence and even propriety of expressions of feminine desire, agency, power, and control over self and circumstances. Aside from her first entrance into London and her various periods as a kept-mistress, Fanny Hill is educated by the prostitute Phoebe, and the procuress Mrs. Cole to be an independent, self-regulating subject. Related to this is the rather revolutionary notion inferred that sexual education predicates all other sources of knowledge, and is at heart, the basis and foundation of human interaction, at least in the semi-utopic world of the novel.
There are so many fascinating things about Cleland's "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," it would take forever to puzzle through them all. All the same, I've only been able myself to think critically about the novel at some distance of remove from reading it. Reading this novel was an interesting, but frustrating, and at times impossible task. It's not a difficult novel to read in terms of prose, but for a 188 page novel, it tends to overwhelm everything else while you're reading it. Like I said, reading "Memoirs" is an experience - I often had to look at the cover to recall that this is no simple work of pornography, but an acknowledged work of classic literature. By all accounts, a captivating novel. It gets five stars just because it is so amazing and outlandish. Aside from the Marquis de Sade, who belongs properly to the excesses of the Romantic Era, I had no idea that there was anything even remotely like this in the 18th century. To quote that immortal philospher, Stephon Marbury, Cleland's novel is "all nude...but tastefully done."
on September 1, 1998
The wellspring of all erotic fiction. How can anyone give less then 5 stars to a classic of its stature...especially such a classic with so many naughty bits. Of course it was written by a man...geez guys look at the first author on the list. Ok ok so maybe the 5th time you hear Fanny rapsodize about "from his prodigious size I feared he would rip me asunder" it starts to get a bit old (or maybe not for some), but on the other hand, this is the erotica everyone grew up on before the days of xrated magazines. Just think...a naughty book your grandmother couldn't disaprove of...she probably read it too.
on January 6, 2010
Well, here it is - maybe the most famous dirty book in the history of the English language. And it's dirty, all right, but what it mostly is, is hilarious.
Mind you, in some respects "Fanny Hill" is quite a good book too. We'll get to the reasons for that in due course. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to get through more than a few pages without laughing. Why? Because the author can't seem to come right out and say what he means, but has to describe it in the most strained, outlandish metaphors.
John Cleland came up with this story back in the early Hanoverian period, twenty to thirty years before the American Revolution, so I can't say what variety of dirty words he may have had access to, but you won't believe the ways he has his narrator, Miss Hill, describe a man's "engine" without actually naming it. The same goes for the corresponding parts of a woman's body, of course, and the narrative tends to describe two people having sex in similarly mechanistic terms.
Which is all very well - we're talking about the tale of a woman who makes her living by this mechanical process, after all. However, the metaphorical approach is not only funny in itself, it also adds a surprising layer of romantic detachment to the whole business. Yes, you get this poetic, romantic language in the middle of some of the raunchiest physical activity in existence, and the result is just plain hysterical. Eventually, Miss Fanny Hill sees a young man's white skin beneath his pubic hair and compares it to a sunrise peeking through the silhouettes of the forest trees. That was about it for me.
For all I know, John Cleland's contemporaries might have read these comparisons and thought them perfectly reasonable, but a sunrise through the trees? Really, now.
Also amusing, though less frivolous, is Cleland's description of sex from a woman's point of view. In this day and age his notion of what pleases a woman strikes one as uninformed, to put it charitably. Another reviewer has already pointed out that Miss Hill and her colleagues seem quite taken with a man's size, and evidently believe that simultaneous orgasm is not only desirable, but common. And so on and so forth. I don't think I need to go into much more detail, since Miss Hill is more than happy to do that for you, but you get the point.
All of this is bizarre enough, at least to the twenty-first-century mind. So are various other details of the story, such as Miss Hill's respective attitudes toward male and female homosexuality. Like most of her contemporaries, Miss Hill looks upon the first as despicable and the second as no big deal. On the other hand, I admit I was mildly surprised that Cleland included those sexual expressions in the first place. The same can be said for his inclusion of bondage and discipline, which his narrator seems to look upon as an object of pity at worst, a chance for adventure at best. For an author of his time, Cleland strikes one as probably about as enlightened as one could expect.
Which brings us to the virtues of "Fanny Hill". For one thing, the narrator's attitude toward men is very subtle and neither submissive nor contemptuous in the least. She finds the male obsession with virginity amusing, but appreciates both male courtliness and male forcefulness when they appear at the appropriate moments. Her opinion of men is a rather sweet combination of nonplussed head-shaking and appreciation, and her opinion of women is pretty much the same. Her body is for sale, but her mind is not. Excellent.
With the exceptions already mentioned and a few others, this book seems fairly easygoing about the idea of sex for hire. It's abundantly clear that without such an outlet, Fanny would very quickly starve. She is fortunate enough in the long run to find a procuress who acts like a professional, screens the clients carefully, and looks after the welfare of her girls, but she also meets enough mercenary monsters to show that good people in the profession are rare. With the safety net provided by her friends, however, it's clear from this narrative that there are far worse fates for a young girl than being a prostitute.
Without giving too much away (and who really cares about the plot arc in "Fanny Hill" anyway?), this novel is also refreshing in that it does not punish Fanny for her misdeeds by consigning her to perdition. You learn at the beginning that she eventually finds a loving husband, as do several of her friends, but in the meantime enjoys her work. Movies like "Halloween," in which sexually active girls die, are more puritanical than this, for goodness' sake.
Most gratifying of all, not to say astonishing, is the fact that "Fanny Hill" is actually a rather philosophical novel. Fanny finds the love of her life a very few pages in, loses him by a series of mischances, and in her profession thereafter she learns just what love is. She discovers that sex is good in itself, but by itself cannot compare with sex when one loves one's partner. Given this, she's neither more nor less likely to find happiness than any other woman of her day.
John Cleland was not the first writer to take such a humanist approach to sexuality, but he was one of the earliest English authors to approach sex without guilt. No wonder the clergy got on his case. And those mechanical metaphors may be ridiculous, but upon reflection, it's probably better to include a little poetry with sex, however clunky. Like Miss Hill says, sex by itself is good, but sex with love is better, in bed or on paper.
Benshlomo says, Relax and enjoy yourself until your true love comes along.
This book is fascinating, not merely as an erotic novel (and the historical significance of this book cannot be denied) but also as a glimpse of society and mores of the mid-18th century.
Fanny is an orphaned girl who goes to London to Seek Her Fortune and ends up with a career alternating between prostitution and being a kept woman. Unlike most porn, she's not always happy about her sexual encounters, and there are times when she's heartbroken over a lost love. She's decieved by a woman who claims to be hiring her "as a companion," in a another scene she's exploited by a money-hungry landlord.
As she grows older, though, Fanny becomes more in charge of her sexuality and more open to exploration. We, as readers, also see a glimpse of 18th-century prostitution and the demimonde of kept mistresses (which many wealthy men of the period kept).
Hardly a rollicking farce (there are times when sex has serious consequences) but at times it is humorous. Never crass or vulgar, but nevertheless explicit, this bawdy gem is worth checking out. Fanny is always honest about herself and what she does to survive, and pulls no punches. (I took away a star because, at times, it is difficult going because of the outdated language, but don't let that deter you.)
on November 7, 1999
I was astonished when I read the book. It is really erotic and therefore a real book of this century. And it is filled with all the ingredients you need to have a successful book; drama, despair, love and sex. You can compare it with novels written today, and it will still stand out as somewhat extraordinary. What can I say, except for: read it! The book will make your heart beat faster and your body become warmer. It will keep you warm through the whole winter!
on January 24, 2009
A young country lass is abandoned in London without any money or supervision. Having come there with the intention of entering into service, she is instead unwittingly swept into prostitution because she is so lovely and there is a strong market for maidenhead. By dumb luck, Fanny manages to hold onto her virginity just long enough to give it to Charles, who remains the love of her life despite her subsequent dalliances. Fanny and Charles are separated against their will, and her life follows an increasingly lurid trajectory as she becomes more than one gentleman's kept woman, works in a brothel, picks up a john on the street, indulges various fetishes, witnesses a male homosexual encounter through a peep hole, and eventually inherits a sizeable fortune from an elderly gentleman with whom she consorted until his end of days. When she and Charles re-encounter each other, Fanny's new wealth enables them to be together, and so she ends respectably married and maternal after all.
The sex in this book is graphic. The descriptions of "engines" and "chinks" are overblown and hilarious. Fanny and her paramours certainly seem to enjoy themselves, and simultaneous orgasm is always achieved! There is never a violent or scary or even utterly abject moment, so a life of prostitution is quite romanticized here.
This edition has some typesetting issues toward the end of the book (dropped letters and mixed up spacing), and sometimes they did interfere with being able to read the text accurately.
The book is a quick read and funny. Fanny is a stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold who is rewarded with middle class respectability. Not realistic, but definitely entertaining.
on July 27, 2001
I have just finished reading Fanny Hill, and I was really surprised at just how explicit the novel was! I was expecting a story that made much of a few kisses behind the pantry door or a bared ankle or two, but I was certainly wrong about that.
Cleland manages to write a steamy story without ever being crass or resorting to using filthy language to get a reaction. It's hard to belive that it was published in 1749. Everything about the people in the novel seems so modern and no one ever thinks that the people of Cleland's time even had thoughts or lives like he describes.
Yet this novel has it's problems too.
The plot is an old one, young innocent country girl goes to the big city to seek her fortune and falls in the hands of some disreputable people. It's a story that's as old as the profession the book is about. At one point in the novel I wondered if maybe the people who wrote the script for Pretty Woman had been reading Fanny Hill for plot ideas.
Cleland starts a very nice love story for our heroine, but then it fades out for most of the novel and returns without warning or explanation at the end. In fact, the end of the novel seemed rushed in this readers opinion, and rendered the whole story a bit silly. Not to mention a couple of holes in the plot that are big enough to drive a Mack truck through.
Overall, it's a good book, and should be read if for no other reason than to see for yourself just how erotic it really is. No matter what expectations you have when you pick the book up, it will surprise you, and probably pleasantly so.
on July 22, 2002
This little book amazed me the first time I read it, for it is a delightful mix of erotica and story-telling in olde English. Sensuality with style and elegance, without being vulgar or hackneyed, or boring. With an excellent portrayal of the title character, this book deals in detail a very sexual theme, taking you to a different time. Shows how love, passion, and pleasure survive every age and time. Delightful.
on November 30, 2012
Published in 1748, "Fanny Hill" is one of the first novels (and certainly the very first pornographic novel) published in the English language, and in these anything-goes days, language is perhaps its greatest strength. Endeavoring always to avoid lewdness and unseemliness, the author, John Cleland, is endlessly creative and expressive in the euphemisms he uses to maintain propriety. His dialog is ever so correct, in keeping with the times and style of his day and in contrast with the rogues, reprobates and strumpets who populate his novel. He gingerly handles the most common and indecent situations with delicacy and refinement. His vocabulary and sentence structure, certainly old-fashioned nowadays, are a rich and delicious banquet for contemporary readers. If his style seems a bit stiff, it is certainly in keeping with his subject.
Cleland never fails to amuse, and he certainly conjured up some good laughs on my part.
The novel is written by a man from a woman's point of view--something I always find interesting.
on August 17, 2013
This pithy bit of wit (on p. 110 of the 2001 Modern Library paperback edition, which I just read) is about as close to a maxim as John Cleland -- in the mouth (or at least the thoughts) of Fanny Hill comes.
Cleland writes in an appropriately corseted Victorian vernacular. This particular edition maintains his peculiar spelling, syntax and punctuation, all of which present certain obstacles to a contemporary reader. Lucky for us, the subject-matter presents no such obstacle. Eminently more readable (and less laughable) than Anne Desclos's (nom de plume: Pauline Réage) Story of O, Fanny Hill or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure contains many of the same elements so sportingly penned by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones -- complete with happy ending. John Cleland, however, is no Henry Fielding. If the definition of `circumlocution' in Webster or the OED doesn't say `cf. John Cleland's Fanny Hill,' it ought to!
There's a wee bit of popular wisdom in Fanny Hill, an example of which can be found on p. 93: "We may say what we please, but those we can be the easiest and freest with are ever those we like, not to say love the best." And yes -- as several critics suggest -- there's ample irony, particularly in Volume II. "(A)ll my looks and gestures ever breathing nothing but that innocence which the men so ardently require in us, for no other end than to feast themselves with the pleasure of destroying it, and which they are so grievously, with all their skill, subject to mistakes in (on p. 149)"; and "(as) no condition of life is more subject to revolutions than that of a woman of pleasure, I soon recover'd my chearfulness (sic), and now beheld myself once more struck off the list of kept-mistresses, and return'd into the bosom of the community, from which I had been in some manner taken (on p. 162)."
And how does Fanny (i.e., John Cleland) conclude her tale other than through a happy reunion with her first lover--and only real love? Permit me to quote at length from p. 174: "You may be sure a by-job of this sort interfer'd with no other pursuit, or plan of life, which I led in truth with a modesty and reserve that was less the work of virtue, than of exhausted novelty, a glut of pleasure, and easy circumstances, that made me indifferent to any engagements in which pleasure and profit were not eminently united; and such I could with the less impatience wait for at the hands of time and fortune, as I was satisfied I could never mend my pennyworths, having evidently been serv'd at the top of the market, and even been pamper'd with dainties...".
As Gary Gautier suggests (in almost inscrutably convoluted academic jargon) in his Introduction, and as Liza Minnelli, in the 1972 film version "Cabaret," had so lustily sung. "money makes the world go around, the world go around, the world go around...".
Do I recommend a reading of Fanny Hill? Absolutely and without equivocation! After all, sex has been an appropriate topic of literary discourse here in the Western world since the Ancient Greeks (Sappho) and the Ancient Romans (Ovid and Catullus). Boccaccio, Rabelais, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sterne, Fielding, Cleland & Co. merely embellished upon the genre, each in his own particular way.
Trompe-l'oeil (or, The In and Out. Of Love.)