Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, is an erotic novel by the English novelist John Cleland first published in London on November 21, 1748. Written while the author was in a debtor’s prison in London, it is considered “the first original English prose pornography and the first pornography to use the novel form.” It is one of the most persecuted and banned books in history.
Just think that Cleland, the publisher and even the printer were arrested. The author disowned the novel, the book was withdrawn from circulation and could no longer be legally printed for over a century!
Fanny Hill: plot
Who is Fanny Hill?
Cleland’s book consists of a series of letters from Frances “Fanny” Hill to an unknown woman, called “Lady”, in which Fanny explains and justifies her life choices.
Fanny Hill is an uneducated young girl who lives near Liverpool. After the death of her parents, a friend of hers convinces the girl to move to London but she soon disappears. Fanny is hired as a maid by Mrs Brown, a woman whom she believes to be a wealthy woman, but who turns out to be the mistress of a brothel.
When Fanny first arrives at the brothel, she is immediately introduced to Phoebe. They shared a bed the first night and Phoebe starts introducing her to mutual masturbation, where she Fanny experiences her first orgasm.
Little aware of Fanny, Mrs Brown had planned to use her as a prostitute. But her virtue is very important to her and she doesn’t want to give it away to anyone. When Fanny meets many who are willing to pay a lot of money for her virtue, she finds it repulsive and rejects them. Fanny falls ill for several days and Mrs Brown decides to sell Fanny’s sexual favors to another wealthy gentleman.
During a party, which is normally organized for men to find a prostitute, Fanny spies on Mrs Brown that she pleases a gentleman. This fact initiates her interest in experiencing certain joys. Shortly thereafter, she meets a young noble, Charles, who helps Fanny escape from the brothel and takes her to her apartment. They become lovers and for many months they meet almost every day, while Fanny tries to improve her manners.
The love story with Charles
After eight months, Fanny becomes pregnant and Charles wants to take her to meet her father. After meeting him, Fanny discovers that Charles’s father was the man who had originally paid a large sum to take her virginity. Charles mysteriously disappears: he was sent by his father to the South Seas to earn a fortune. Fanny has an abortion and falls ill; she is healed by the hostess, Mrs. Jones.
Mrs. Jones eventually hires Fanny as a prostitute and introduces her to her wealthy Mr. H, of whom she becomes her lover. Days go by and Charles does not come home, so Fanny, out of jealousy, seduces Mr. H’s servant, is captured and loses the man’s support.
Fanny is greeted by Mrs. Cole, who runs a brothel in Covent Garden, and she meets three other prostitutes, who briefly outline their backgrounds. Girls have a lot of relationships with men of all kinds. Fanny also meets a young bisexual man and is surprised by her first encounter with male homosexuality. In a tavern, she surprises two young men in unmistakable attitudes and passes out. Later, she wakes up the villagers to try to hunt down the two men and punish them.
Mrs. Cole retires and Fanny begins living off her savings. She meets a man who falls in love with her, but treats her as her daughter. She dies and leaves her small fortune. Therefore, Fanny is now able to try to locate Charles, who disappeared in the South Seas. Several months later, she meets Charles in a tavern: he was shipwrecked on the coast on his way back to England. Despite Fanny’s confessions of her about her life of vices, Charles forgives her and asks the girl to marry him.
Topics in Fanny Hill
Nature and sexuality
Nature and sexuality are the main themes of the novel. Fanny Hill appears as the product of a new idea of human nature. In fact, the Enlightenment era introduced the idea of the cult of Nature, which included sexuality. Since human nature must follow innate feelings and needs, there can be nothing abominable or sinful about it.
Behavior should be dictated by Nature, sexuality should be taken as its constituent and not fought. Through vivid images of sexual acts the author describes sexuality as a part of human nature and what is natural should not automatically be viewed as disgusting.
Love is another important theme addressed in the novel. With the example of the protagonist, the author shows how important love is to obtain greater satisfaction in sexual relations. Fanny has known many men, and quite different men with equally different desires, but her heart has always been involved, in a very empathetic way.
Charles was her only love, and this love carries him in her heart throughout her life. A bit like what happens to Sayuri, the geisha from Memoirs of a Geisha whose pure love for the general manager accompanies her throughout her life. In Fanny Hill, on the other hand, it is noted that an emotional level combined with a physical one is considered the highest level of happiness and is revealed in the novel as a fact.
Civil vs Wild
Another important theme of Fanny Hill is a clear boundary between what is civil and what is wild. Sexuality has the right to exist only in a civil and rational way. Animal manifestations of passion are not welcome at all, sex should be refined and polite. This contrast is recounted by Cleland speaking of two brothels.
In the first brothel, Fanny is forced by Mrs Brown to do what she has to, and she painfully struggles with rape involving an ugly man blinded by animal lust. In the second brothel, which belongs to Mrs. Cole, sex is surrounded by a multitude of rituals and courtships, so this institution is represented as “exemplary”.
The use of the allegorical tale was in use in the Enlightenment society; Cleland is said to have wanted to write Fanny Hill to introduce the elegance and sweetness of French libertinism to his country. We think that only 20 years earlier Jonathan Swift had published Gulliver’s Travels as a satirical tale of his contemporary society.
Fanny Hill is a 16-year-old orphan who then meets women who are inclined to sell their virginity or innocence. She will put herself under their aegis, taking advantage of this sensual awakening that is so new to her.
Unfortunately, these erotic pages do not leave an impression of pleasure, on the contrary they tell the pain that certain assaults may have caused the girl. If you remember we had talked about certain themes with the painter Artemisia Gentileschi or when they are systematic we suggested reading and viewing The Handmaid’s Tale. It is not a question of permissible, but enforced libertinage.
The characters have little psychological depth. But this is not the case. In fact, a distance is essential, which gives the impression that the young woman has to submit to her life and her destiny.
Fanny Hill has been so successful, but it has always been censored, obviously for the themes, very modern if you like, and for the very detailed descriptions. For some, this type of writing is magnificent, because it leads the reader to intellectual enjoyment in the absence of physical enjoyment.
Certainly for others there is the pictorial interest, for example that for the edition with Hogarth’s engravings.
Instead for all the others it is because they are curious and sinful … that’s why this is the most censored book!