Rating: 3. Not bad
Read before: New read
The book tells the story of an orphan who, without any other prospects, travels to London. She’s taken in by a brothel keeper who plans to sell her virginity, but she escapes and instead falls in love and becomes the mistresses of a young Lord. Now Fanny must make her way in life doing the only thing she knows how … prostitution.
I added questions for the first chapter (or letter) but I removed it because Fanny Hill is a memoir, not a "normal" novel in the sense that the first chapter represents a hook. Using that approach all the questions revolve around how Fanny being so naive ... when by the end of the first chapter Fanny's been seduced, kept as a mistress, abandoned, a mistress again and more. There just doesn't seem to be any point asking any questions.
It’s interesting to ask who is the intended audience of Fanny Hill. I don't think it's the practised seducer or debaucher, who'd most likely find the repetitive nature of missionary sex tedious. It feels more like the novel’s intended for the “everyday” man and woman looking to spice up their lives … and most probably women. The prose is delicate; if I think about it it's actually poetic, graceful and respectful. And the plot is a Cinderella plot: boy meets girl and seduces girl, father separates boy and girl, girl must support herself (by prostitution but manages to enjoy herself while staying true to the boy in her heart), and finally boy returns to find girl, they marry and live happily ever after.
But it’s the parts of the story that fall outside the Cinderella plot that are most interesting to me (ie the idea of Fanny enjoying sex while staying true to her lover Charles) because they’re at odds with society’s views that sex without love is ‘tainted’, and to enjoy sex with many while loving another is to taint and debase that love. This doesn’t happen in Fanny Hill. John Clelland turns this idea upside down (which incidentally cling to life some 300 years later) and strikes an early blow for women’s rights. Go John!
Fanny, as a woman, owns her body and her heart and can do with either as she wishes. She has to support herself and I can’t blame a girl removed from scrubbing stairs and emptying chamber pots not wanting to return. So Fanny’s entrée into whoredom isn't a surprise—but her evident enjoyment of it is. Of course without this enjoyment the novel would have taken a much different, and darker, turn.
I also thought about whether Fanny Hill is pornography:
• a creative activity of no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire; or
• any material that is sexually explicit; or even
• the depiction of erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement (Merriam-Webster).
According to some Fanny Hill is pornographic, with its erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement. But Fanny Hill is more: the full descriptions of sex in great detail are neither crude or offensive, the book offers an interesting insight into a part of life that's generally veiled from the everyday, and in providing Fanny with a voice, independence and the right to live her life, without condemnation, and to enjoy it.
I understand why the book was banned because of the copious and detailed descriptions of sexual encounters. But I also love the delicacy and sensitivity of the descriptions of these encounters where anatomy and sexual acts are never referred to clinically. That’s a definite talent and it’s added some beautiful purple prose to the English language. It’s this talent that leads me to add John Clelland to my list of the ten ten people I’d like to ask to a dinner party. I dare say he’d be able to tell an interesting and unconventional tale or two to liven up the conversation!
And this unconventional story (being Fanny Hill) led Clelland into trouble with the law. Fanny Hill was written during a stint in debtor’s prison and given the likely audience the novel must have easily made enough money to clear Clelland’s debts. But the novel took him out of the frying pan and into the fire as he was arrested and at the time said that he wished, “from my Soul”, that the book be “buried and forgot” (Sabor).
I’m glad it hasn’t been buried and forgotten, and I’m glad Fanny got her boy. We all deserve to be happy, no matter the path we travel to get there.
PS Another epistolary novel I like. This is starting to become a habit!