Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland

First published: 1748.

Edition read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, ed. Peter Sabor.

Provenance: purchased from Blackwell’s secondhand section

Read: October 2014, on the slow-moving commuter bus in the evenings.


UGH I am sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to writing. I note that it’s been ten days since I’ve posted anything at all. Work has been enervating, to say the least, punctuated by a lot of weeknight socializing, and, well…anyway. Here we are. I have a cup of coffee, Bruckner coming through the speakers (Os Justi, which, if you’ve never heard this before, just do yourself a favor and click on it), and my notes arrayed about me, ready to begin talking about Fanny Hill.

Where to start? Maybe with the plot. Fanny Hill (yes, yes, it’s crude slang, what did you expect, this book was the PornTube of its day) is a young country girl whose parents die. She’s pretty and innocent, and puts herself into the protection of a rather more worldly-wise young woman, who takes her to London and dumps her in the hands of a brothel madam. The rest of the novel delineates Fanny’s adventures as a mistress, a high-class prostitute, and then a mistress again, before finally reuniting her with her first lover and allowing her to settle into a happy-ever-after. She is sort of like the little sister of Moll Flanders; all of her criminal and sexual activity is wiped clean at the end of the novel, her sins forgiven.

Like Defoe, Cleland is writing at a time when the novel genre has no clear boundaries. He positions his book as a memoir, so we hear everything in Fanny’s voice, and see everything through her eyes. This is both refreshing and problematic for a twenty-first century reader: on the one hand, hearing a female voice in fiction speak candidly and unashamedly about sex is unusual, but on the other hand, that voice is being ventriloquized and manipulated by a man in a narrative that is, let us be frank, pornographic. So how much of it is a legitimate attempt to understand female pleasure and motivations, and how much of it is just another literary man’s wank fantasy (to put it bluntly)?

The sex scenes are some clue. The first one is with another woman, and Fanny is quite keen to abdicate all responsibility for her part in this: “[it] robbed me of all liberty of thought”, she writes. Nevertheless, her own response is clearly enthusiastic:

“the extensions of my limbs, sighs, short heavings, all conspired to assure…that I was more pleased than offended.”

Despite her horror of actual homosexuality, Fanny likes sex, and although she’d rather have it with a man than a woman, her objections are never moral. Her first suitor is turned down, not because of any piety on Fanny’s part, but because he is ancient and insufficiently attractive. She’s independent of mind, determined in character, and knows exactly what she wants. Maybe the fact that Cleland  is a man lends these traits a touch of inauthenticity; maybe Fanny is a prototype of the Cool Girl made famous by Gone Girl’s maniacally brilliant Amy Dunne. But the very attribution of these thoughts and feelings to a woman’s mind–and an extremely young woman at that–is transgressive, even today.

There are other elements in the novel which suggest that Fanny’s stereotypically male characteristics are perhaps a result of Cleland having observed the mechanics of female sexuality more carefully, and more open-mindedly, than most men of his era. Female assessment of male attractiveness, for instance, is absolutely key in this novel. Academics of all stripes like to throw around the concept of “the male gaze”: the idea that women, and objects, gain their societal value from how they appear and how they are constructed by the men who look at, assess, and evaluate them. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure reverses the idea by giving the power of evaluation and judgment to a woman. The first time Fanny sees Charles, her first lover and eventual husband, she describes him as lasciviously as any man has ever salivated over a woman. (That salivation thing is almost literal: later, when she seduces a footman, she refers to him as “meat” and comments,

“I should have thought anyone much out of taste, that could not have made a hearty meal of such a morsel.”)

The male gaze is irrelevant in comparison to Fanny’s opinions and decisions, and the men she chooses are mostly objects to her.

How many prostitutes in eighteenth-century London had lives like this? Not many. Mrs Cole, Fanny’s madam, is presented as a good and moral businesswoman, who cares for her girls as though they were daughters, requiring them to get regular medical checkups, giving them week-long holidays if they show signs of becoming too tired, ensuring that they are well fed and clothed, and–perhaps most importantly–giving them choices about which clients they entertain. Fanny makes a point of telling us how good a woman Mrs Cole is, and how unusual this situation is, but we lose track of the fact because we see no other brothels. There has obviously been some editing of the truth: very few fifteen-year-old virgins in a brothel would have been permitted to choose how, where and with whom they lost their virginity, but Fanny chooses Charles and sails onwards to great fortune. Despite his interest in female autonomy, Cleland is writing for men, and for a story about sex work to be palatable to those who consume it, it has to be tidy. Modern-day pornography is like this too: no one ever fumbles for a condom, trips while taking off their trousers, menstruates (well, not in mainstream porn, anyway), or demonstrates anything too uncomfortably lifelike. It’s fantasy, after all. So Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is, perhaps, a more unusual fantasy than most, taking an idiosyncratic point of view; but it is still fantasy. We’re a long way from Anne Hathaway’s agony as the shorn Fantine of Les Miserables (which is also fantasy, just on the other end of the spectrum.)

The male gaze, that baleful item, returns near the end of the book. By this point Cleland has worked out that it’s quite difficult to keep writing sex scenes without repeating material. He has exhausted regular sex, group sex, masturbation and flogging (a surprisingly common fetish for eighteenth-century men, and described with remarkable generosity of mind), and Fanny notes, rather wearily, that

“the words…flatten, and lose much of their energy and spirit, by [their] frequency.”

Perhaps for this reason, Cleland switches in the last thirty pages or so to a Thousand and One Nights style of narration, where each of the whores (I use the word with reservations, but it’s the word the novel uses) describes how she lost her virginity. It’s a piece of titillating page-filler, with the women’s experiences always described from an external point of view. It stands out because there’s so little like it in the preceding pages; Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is not a long book, but one feels that Cleland could have improved it just by cutting this bit.

Nevertheless, when Fanny gets her reward at the end of the book in the form of Charles (who returns from having been rather implausibly shanghaied), it’s deeply satisfying on an emotional level as well as a personal one. The reader likes her–it’s impossible not to, she’s candid about her own shortcomings and thoroughly charming–and wants her to succeed. And we know that she will be happy; Charles is a kind and thoughtful young man who is interested in cultivating her intellect as well as in her body. She is intelligent enough for other patrons to have considered her worth teaching, as well, and given Charles’s family wealth, she will act as the chatelaine of a large estate. There can be no doubt that Fanny lands on her feet. Why punish her for having been a prostitute when, instead, Cleland could show us how capable that life has made her? As she notes herself,

“Our virtues and our vices depend too much on our circumstances.”

A revolutionary assertion in any era, I think, and one that makes this book well worth reading.


For more classic books that address female sexuality, see:

Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe (ed. G.A. Starr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)

Justine, by the Marquis de Sade (transl. John Phillips (Oxford: OUP, 2012)

A Sicilian Romance, by Anne Radcliffe (ed. Alison Milbank (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

For more on Cleland’s work and context, see:

“What is Fanny Hill?’, B. Slepian and L.J. Morrissey, in Essays in Criticism 14 (1964) 65-75

“Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure: Pornography and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century English Novel“, Michael Shinagel, in Studies in Change and Revolution, ed. Paul J. Korshin (Menston: Scolar Press, 1972)

Male Novelists and their Female Voices: Literary Masquerades, Anne Robinson Taylor (Troy: New York, 1981)

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