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Fanny Hill by John Cleland

Fanny Hill (1748)

by John Cleland

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“(T)here (is) no dress like an undress.”

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.

Brooklyn, NY
( )
1 vote RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
In 1748 English novelist John Cleland went to debtors’ prison; while he was there he wrote a novel that went on to become the most prosecuted and banned book in history. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is often referred to as Fanny Hill and is considered one of the first pornographic novels in the English language. Due to the release of this book, Cleland and his publisher Ralph Griffiths were both arrested and charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects”. The book went on to become so popular that pirated editions were sold underground. The book’s popularity eventually saw the book being published in 1821 in the United States, where its first known obscenity case convicted publisher Peter Holmes for printing a “lewd and obscene” novel.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure tells the story of an orphaned fifteen year old with no skill and very little education named Fanny Hill. She leaves her village to find employment in London, where she is hired by Mrs. Brown. Fanny believed her employment was legitimate and that she would be working as a maid but she discovered that Mrs. Brown ran a brothel and intended to sell her maidenhead. The prostitute that shared her room opened Fanny’s innocent eyes to the sensuality of sex. She eventually falls in love and runs away with a man named Charles.

I do not want to go into too much detail about the plot of this book; in fact I have only covered the very first part of the story. I started off this review with mentioning that John Cleland wrote this book while in debtors’ prison and I think this is an interesting fact to remember. Cleland plays out all types of sexual fantasies while he is locked away; the novel pretty much covers everything you can think of sexually. The all-important one in this book was losing her maidenhead, which was sold to at least three different clients. However there is something deeper going on within the pages of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

This novel kept getting banned until 1973 in the United States; it was the introduction of the Miller test which finally lifted its banning. The Miller test is a three prong obscenity tested used in the United States Supreme Court to determine if something should be labelled as obscene. The work is considered obscene if all three conditions are satisfied and I am going to quote the law here so you better understand the Miller test.

(a) Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest
(b) Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law
(c) Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The ban was lifted because Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure holds literary and artistic value and rightly so. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is a stunning book to read, the proses are elegant but I also found it fascinating how many erotic fiction tropes comes from this one book. I have not read many erotic novels, but from what I know and read, there is a lot that this genre needs to thank John Cleland. All the cliché scenarios and sex scenes owe a lot to this novel but one I am glad I don’t see any more is the use of the word ‘machine’. The idea of men walking around with machines between their legs bugged me and I just didn’t like that terminology; unfortunately the word ‘weapon’ seems to have survived.

This was a fascinating exploration into the origins of erotic fiction and sex scenes in literature and ultimately I am glad to have read Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. It is not that often that I associate steaming sex scenes with literature of the 18th century, so it is good to know that people were deviant back then. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure isn’t just about sex; Fanny Hill works as a sex worker but she also finds love. She discovers that sex outside love isn’t as pleasurable and this is the message that I really took away from this novel. Despite all the fantasies, I think John Cleland wanted to look at how important love is when it comes to pleasure seeking.

This review originally appeared on my blog: http://literary-exploration.com/2014/11/14/fanny-hill-or-memoirs-of-a-woman-of-p... ( )
  knowledge_lost | Dec 1, 2014 |
How extraordinary that a man thinks himself capable of writing an erotic novel from a woman's viewpoint. It's highly unlikely that Fanny considered her deflowering and professional life to be the mere larks that Cleland made them out to be. Pure fantasy and a man's fantasy at that. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 22, 2014 |
Don’t read this book if you dislike graphic descriptions of sex, because it’s chock full of it. Written in 1748, it’s very easy to see why it was banned for more than two centuries. “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”, more commonly known by the title of one if it’s later edited down versions, “Fanny Hill”, reads like soft-core porn. There is a semblance of a story: young Fanny Hill (wink wink, a synonym for mons veneris) is orphaned and taken by a family “friend” to London, where she’s promptly abandoned. She’s only 15, but men and boarding house madams have no qualms about preying on her. She quickly adapts, going through several sexual relationships and prostitution, but far from coming to actual harm, she enjoys it. She progresses from nervous virgin to ‘woman of pleasure’, more than willing to submit and experiment.

Critics point out that it’s male fantasy, and they’re certainly correct, but in one sense it seemed as honest to me, even as fantasy, compared with almost all other fiction before the 20th century, which completely avoid the subject of sex as if it doesn’t exist at all.

Cleland, on the other hand, takes it to an extreme. I counted 30 (yes, 30!) sex scenes in the 188 pages in the two volumes. That’s about one scene every six pages, and as each scene is typically a few pages long … well, this book is probably 50% sex by page count alone, and 95% sex by intention. Cleland cloaks it in a love interest and points out that sex without love isn’t the same, but it’s clearly just a vehicle for him to explicitly describe fantasy after fantasy, progressively getter edgier as he goes. The positions start off pretty basic, but in volume two they get more diverse (I’ll spare you the details), and there is voyeurism, sex in front of other couples, one scene of S&M, and one scene of (gasp) homosexuality, though for that one Cleland has Fanny quickly (and hypocritically) condemn it.

Frankly I’m tempted to rate the book higher because all this sex is wrapped up in beautiful, quaint 18th century language which I smiled over and found pretty erotic at times, it’s so unique for the time period, and it points out ways sex is the same throughout the centuries, and ways it (or our understanding of it) was different. It’s interesting to me that the female orgasm was thought to involve an emission, and that oral sex plays no part here at all.

However, I have to be balanced. It’s so overkill in quantity that the power of any one scene is reduced. You may have to read it concurrently with another book as I did, which is rare for me, because it’s hard to stay “in the mood” for nonstop sex descriptions at all times of day while reading (or while others are around, lol). There are a few scenes that resemble reality, e.g. men who are either hideous or less than virile, but by and large it’s so over-the-top in fantasy, and includes cringe-inducing scenes where Fanny is basically raped, taken by force, but goes along with it and enjoys it.

This edition was also annoying despite a great cover, showing Boucher’s “Reclining Girl” from 1751, an eye-goggling classic from Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. The font was too small, and the annotated explanatory notes were not only repetitive and obvious at times, but also committed the cardinal sin of revealing the ending, ruining what little plot there was. Grrr. It’s as if the editor was the annoying kid who constantly needs to raise his hand in class. If you do read it, I’d suggest something other than ‘Oxford World’s Classics’.

Anyway, would the book be better if Cleland toned down the sex, introduced some of the horrors of prostitution (STD’s, violence, addiction, depression), and peered realistically into a frightened, traumatized girl’s psyche? Definitely. But I suppose then it wouldn’t be Fanny Hill. I’m glad it survives, and I’m glad I read it. ( )
6 vote gbill | Sep 7, 2014 |
If I could go back in time and track Cleland down for a nice chat, I'd smack him in the face with a clipboard and watch him like a hawk till he'd read through the list clipped there in its entirety. Better yet, I'd take a woman and a man back with me, both of them less concerned with feminism issues to an unholy extent than I, and let the conversings about the genders commence. Maybe then, perhaps, I'd figure this author out.

The list? An abridged version of the following.

If you've seen my review of [Delta of Venus], you know I take erotica seriously. That whole spiel about increasing respect and social justice and all that jazz? Still relevant, sadly so when considering this piece appeared in 1749. That's 265 years ago, 18th century stuff alongside the likes of Voltaire and Swift and we're still mucking around in slut shaming. Seriously! This is a classic written by a dead white male two and a half centuries ago, and it's chock full of feminism! Second wave feminism at that! Where are the feminist scholars and, more importantly, where are the rest of those classics/elitist/whatever your name for those in the literature "know" who are reading this without taking a single smidgen away from it besides the fact that it's bad erotica?

Yes, bad erotica. While it may have done the job more than 250 years ago, these days people like their porn with a little more...well. Now that I think about it, a great deal of today's Fifty Shades of Grey readers don't actually mind if the biology's a little off so long as there's plenty of writhing and fingering and whipping, which this work has in full. The only difference really is Cleland's constant hitting home the fact that, while women have different equipment, they have the same need for pleasure and more importantly respectful pleasure, whomever the companion they happen to be with. Now that's something that could put modern readers off.

Men know not in general how much they destroy of their own pleasure when they break through the respect and tenderness due to our sex, and even to those of it who live only by pleasing them.

Of course, there are problematic aspects, namely the homophobia, the pretense of sex only being successful when dick thrusting is involved and resulting invalidation of female pleasure, the multiple instances of sexual assault rapid fire forgiven because the assaulter was attractive/pitiful/remorseful/what have you. Less problematic and more absurd were the multiple male orgasms business: so sorry, men, but your refractory period averages a half hour and can even go on for days, whereas women, you're good to go.

Also, the synonyms for penis. I'm not even going to go into that. If you want a list, the book's been around for a while. Spoilers abound and may even be carefully categorized.

Besides all that, not only does Fanny Hill like sex so long as her partner's not an asshole, she likes educating herself! Behold.

...he it was who first taught me to be sensible that the pleasures of the mind were superior to those of the body; at the same time, that they were so far from obnoxious to or incompatible with each other that, besides the sweetness in the variety and transition, the one serv'd to exalt and perfect the taste of the other to a degree that the senses alone can never arrive at.

No wonder the unabridged version's been taken to trial as recently as 1963, as god forbid a woman reconcile body and mind so ardently. Yeesh.

While I'm at it, have some more breakdowns of female stereotypes:

Silks, laces, earrings, pearl necklace, gold watch, in short, all the trinkets and articles of dress were lavishly heap'd upon me; the sense of which, if it did not create turns of love, forc'd a kind of grateful fondness, something like love; a distinction it would be spoiling the pleasure of nine tenths of the keepers in the town to make, and is, I suppose, the very good reason why so few of them ever do make it.

...all 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 pleasures of destroying it, and which they are so greviously, with all their skill, subject to mistakes to.

You're welcome. ( )
2 vote Korrick | May 11, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Clelandprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kliphuis, J.F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Plumb, J.H.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quennell, PeterIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wagner, PeterEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I sit down to give you an undeniable proof of my considering your desires as indispensable orders.
I felt the prodigious keen edge, with which love, presiding over this act, points the pleasure: love!  that may be styled the Attic salt of enjoyment; and indeed, without it, the joy, great as it is, is still a vulgar one, whether in a king or a beggar; for it is, undoubtedly, love alone that refines, ennobles, and exalts it.
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I could have scream'd out; but, as I was unwilling to alarm the house, I held in my breath, and cramm'd my petticoat, which was turn'd up over my face, into my mouth, and bit it through in the agony. At length, the tender texture of that tract giving way to such fierce tearing and rending, he pierc'd something further into me; and now, outrageous and no longer his own master, but borne headlong away by the fury and over-mettle of that member, now exerting itself with a kind of native rage, he breaks in, carries all before him, and one violent merciless lunge sent it, imbrew'd, and reeking with virgin blood, up to the very hilt in me ...

Then! then all my resolution deserted m; i scream'd out, and fainted away with the sharpness of the pain; and , as he told me afterwards, on his drawing out, when emission was over with him, my thighs were instantly all in a stream of blood that flow'd from the wounded torn passage.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140432493, Paperback)

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, commonly known as Fanny Hill, has been shrouded in mystery and controversy since John Cleland completed it in 1749. The Bishop of London called the work 'an open insult upon Religion and good manners' and James Boswell referred to it as 'a most licentious and inflaming book'.

The story of a prostitute's rise to respectability, it has been recognized more recently as a unique combination of parody, sensual entertainment and a philosophical concept of sexuality borrowed from French libertine novels. Modern readers will appreciate it not only as an important contribution to revolutionary thought in the Age of Enlightenment, but also as a thoroughly entertaining and important work of erotic fiction, deserving of a place in the history of the English novel beside Richardson, Fielding and Smollett.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:46 -0400)

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Fanny Hill, also known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, has been a notorious novel since it first appeared in London in 1748-9. Banned for its obscene content, this fictional account of a young woman's unconventional route to middle-class respectability is, in fact, a lively and engaging comic romp through the boudoirs and brothels of Augustan England, with a heroine whose adventures and setbacks never lessen her humanity or her determination to find real love and happiness. Fanny's story offers modern readers sensuality and substance, as well as an unusually frank depiction of love and sex in the eighteenth century.… (more)

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