I swear I put John Cleland’s Fanny Hill on my classics TBR because it appears on numerous lists of banned books. The subtitle, “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” gave me an idea of what this would be about. I assumed it would be something along the lines of The Diary of a Lost Girl, the story of a young woman’s fall from grace.
And indeed, it starts out very innocuous: Fanny Hill’s parents die, and, left with no other family or friends, she follows a visiting servant girl to London in the hopes of gaining employment there. Once the two girls reach the city, however, Fanny finds herself deserted by her travelling companion, and when she visits an employment agency, she is hired on the spot by a madame. Fanny is too naïve to realize that she is being brought to a brothel, where she is put under the wings of the madame’s “niece,” who shares a room with her and is tasked with introducing Fanny to her future responsibilities in the house.
So far, so good; nothing unusual here. The setup of how Fanny slides into prostitution is not exactly original, but it was probably the easiest and quickest way to get to the point—and likely the most realistic one as well. Imagine my surprise, then, when the two women retire to bed that first night of Fanny’s stay at the house, and the niece promptly starts to fondle Fanny. My eyebrows certainly rose up a bit, especially because we are not talking about some veiled references to secret touches under the blanket. Uh-uh, this is pretty explicit, especially for something written in the 18th century! Then I had to giggle, because of course the guy would write about girl-on-girl action. He was probably wishing he could join.
At this point, I arrived at work, blushing slightly, because, OMG, I listened to this on my way to work!! I promptly Googled “Fanny Hill” and found out that it is considered to be the first erotic novel published in English. Okay then, that explained a few things. Let’s just say that I was maybe looking forward to my drive home that day a little more than usual. Let’s also say that Cleland exceeded my expectations even once I was aware of the nature of this novel. I think the reviewers on Goodreads who call this pornographic are more accurate than the ones who call this erotic. Because that little bit of introductory action mentioned above is nothing compared to what comes after it…
Despite a horrific experience with her first man—the madame having sold off Fanny’s virginity to the highest bidder—Fanny is not too unhappy as a woman of pleasure. She has financial and emotional setbacks when her lovers leave her, but she is lucky enough to never find herself completely alone and destitute. She ends up living with three other women in what appears to be respectable employ, and Cleland conveniently forgets to explain how exactly all the men are able to sneak undetected into the apartment above the milliner’s store, where all the fun takes place. Lots of fun, with lots of men, one more perfectly built than the other. If you think you’ve heard all the euphemisms for various male body parts, think again. I can guarantee that you will discover a few new ones in this book.
While Fanny’s story is really only a thin excuse to write one sex scene after another, I have to give Cleland credit for being pretty original in describing all the various ways in which Fanny enjoys herself. And even though I initially rolled my eyes because the first action involved two women, the rest of the book doesn’t appear to be written with a male audience in mind. Fanny is an independent, adventurous woman who enjoys sex and is not afraid to take it when she can get it, and because she’s the one telling her tale, there are more descriptions of what she sees than what her partners see. I’m sure more than one female reader had to vigorously fan herself while secretly devouring this book.
And I imagine that she did have to read it in secret, since Cleland and his publisher—not surprisingly—were both arrested for obscenity once the book hit the shelves. They were ultimately forced to withdraw it from publication, and it took until 1963 for it to be allowed to be legally published in the UK and US again. No doubt the black market flourished in the 200+ years that the book was banned.
I can’t wait until the next time someone says the classics are boring. I know just which book to recommend…