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Fanny Hill by John Cleland
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Fanny Hill (1748)

by John Cleland

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Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
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. But I’m glad it survives, and I’m glad I read it. ( )
4 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 |
be warned, this book, written in 1749, & having for at least 200 years been banned before it was ever allowed to be seen on these shores, is a classic example of 18th century erotica. it tells the story of Fanny, & young country girl, who loses her parents to an illness, probably smallpox, & ends up traveling with a young woman of better means to London, where is she is abandoned a second time, & falls in with a madam. She has a series of adventures, but never loses her heart to any other man but her beloved Charles, who was lost to her when his father sent him on an ocean voyage to recover a fortune. Because most of you will never read this or even want to read it due to the content, Fanny eventually makes her way in the world, becomes a respectable woman, & through sheer chance, finds her beloved Charles in a driving rainstorm at at inn where he is stopping on his way to London by horse, & she to the country to visit a friend by coach. Of course, they eventually wed, & she writes her memoirs from the vantage point of a much loved wife & mother who recalls her past history.

A lot of it is a little "detailed", LOL, & may make some readers uncomfortable, but it really is kind of cute in a way. I got a laugh out of it, it's much more entertaining than modern erotica, that's for sure.

At the last, it really is a love story, & the ending left me happy. ( )
  Lisa.Johnson.James | Apr 11, 2014 |
Despite its age and obvious differences in style from modern works, I found this book quite interesting beyond the never ending descriptions of the main character's sexual encounters. True, the author relies heavily upon (to the modern reader) long winded descriptions of sex in much detail. Beyond that, however, there were some interesting insights into the male perspectives. In particular, I was fascinated by the sections describing how wealthy, intelligent men can be "duped" into believing just about anything from a woman they desire. Apparently things have not changed much over the centuries. ( )
  la2bkk | Jan 10, 2014 |
I read about Fanny Hill many years ago, and was always curious about the book. Somehow, I never did manage to get my hand on a copy until one evening, when I had to wait for my daughter, and my IPad froze. I toodled off to a book store, and found this book.

Now, the book is about the sexual life of the young lady, Fanny Hill, and how she stumbled, from a life of poverty into prostitution. She was taken advantage off, when she was orphaned in her teens, and thus the story begins.

The book is replete with sexual themes, and is a continuous romp through the dales of sexuality. In this sense, I can quite understand how this would have completely shocked the sense of public morality in more conservative times. Having said that, the writing is elegant and not at all obscene.

About twenty years ago, I would have been greatly charmed through the length of the book. As it so happens, at my current stage in life, I wearied of the book about three quarters down the length, and just wished that they would get on with it! ( )
  RajivC | Dec 28, 2013 |
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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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Madam,
I sit down to give you an undeniable proof of my considering your desires as indispensable orders.
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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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Book description
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)

(see all 7 descriptions)

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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