The other day I was feeling like watching a costume drama set during the era I’m currently writing about in the novel, so I rented the 2007 version of Fanny Hill. I knew a little bit about it but never got around to reading it during my Master’s (moft likely becaufe I was focufing on Moral Novels written earneftly by Moral Women, about fuch ferious topics as Slavery, and not common fmut).
The movie was good, though despite the absolutely gorgeous, lavish costumes (see the image left, one of the prettiest dresses I’ve seen in a costume drama, ever) and good acting it had a rather, ah, Skinemax feel to it. I enjoyed it. Even better, oh joy of joys, certain things about the film intrigued me in terms of my ongoing 18th century research, so I immediately purchased the Oxford World’s Classics unexpurgated edition and read it with extreme quickness on my trip down to Tampa. Rarely have plane trips been so enjoyable.
First, a few issues regarding the actual text itself. For a while now, OWC has been updating their look: matte covers rather than glossy, sometimes cropping cover images to look more modern, adding a white bar with the title at the bottom rather than the old school red banner at the top, etc. Unfortunately, they have not upgraded their absurdly-easy-to-smear print, which I feel would be a nice thing to do for customers who care more about the durability than the appearance of their books. This issue of quality, and the fact that I find OWC’s system of endnotes to be distracting while trying to enjoy a text, has made me more likely to purchase from Broadview if I want a critical edition of an older novel, but unfortunately, Broadview has yet to release a Fanny Hill. On an infinitely more superficial level, I am freaking tired of seeing Boucher’s “Resting Girl” every time I pick up pornography from days of yore. There are plenty of other risque images from the 18th century if one looks a little– and if OWC wasn’t going to use something from Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress, which would seem a natural choice, I can’t imagine why they didn’t pick something from, oh, one of the countless illustrated editions of Fanny Hill which aren’t exactly difficult to find (a quick Google search immediately yielded one NSFW site full of dirty pictures, another half-second’s worth of looking on wikipedia gives up a lone image from a collection by Edouard-Henri Avril). Many of those could be cropped down to something acceptable for a book cover– maybe not that particular Avril image, but there are others. So, just sayin’. On to more substantial matters!
The book is a good read. More and less filthy than I expected, Fanny Hill is not exactly one-handed reading, it’s instead one of those cultural oddities like Lost Girls, e.g. erotica for people who like to think in general and who also enjoy thinking specifically about the nature of arousal, what is and is not considered erotic throughout time, who like to occasionally be confronted with the discomfort that can arise from fantasy stemming from things that would be unacceptable in reality. So, yeah, I just wrote that ridiculously highbrow explanation for consuming vintage smut.
Certainly there are passages that read as pure pornography, including Fanny’s lesbian experiences, her voyeuristic observation of a prostitute servicing her lover, her later affair with the well-endowed manservant of her gentleman keeper Mr. H–, the bacchanal where Fanny yet again sells her virginity, the interlude where Fanny and a lusty sailor fuck in an inn. But there are doses of reality that interfere with pure enjoyment, especially for a modern individual, but that would likely have given most readers some degree of pause when it was published in 1748-1749 and then surreptitiously re-published and circulated before the Lady Chatterly’s Lover obscenity trial that made it widely available in the 20th century. For example, Fanny’s defloration is pretty grisly (like all other deflorations in the book, the pain the women experience is not glossed over, nor does it disappear after their first time), and then Fanny is raped by a gentleman while she is very depressed over miscarrying due to the shock of her true love being sent to the South Seas. In Volume Two, a fellow whore in a “cluck” of prostitutes Fanny becomes a part of tells of losing her virginity to a rapist, and another whore seduces a mentally handicapped young man, to name just a few things that made me say “huh.”
I haven’t read a lot of the academic criticism of Fanny Hill, though there have been many treatments of the book, including one by my personal academic heroine, Janet Todd. For myself, on both a critical and an uncritical level, I enjoyed it. I was personally unsettled by the casual way rape is discussed, and how women who are raped generally come to admire, if not love, their assailants, but given that Fanny Hill makes several references to Pamela, that sort of nonsense was not entirely surprising. I was also unhappy about the section toward the end of Volume Two that heaps vitriol upon male homosexuals, but it seems that John Cleland’s stint in debtors’ prison, where he wrote Fanny Hill, was due to a debt to Thomas Canon, who wrote a book called Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplified, so there might have been an ulterior motivation to discrediting practitioners of the art of buttfucking.
That said, lesbianism is at least given some page-time, as is female masturbation, and some sexual fetishes are also explored without excessive jokes at those men with “peculiar humours,” such as the gentleman with a love of hair-brushing. There is also a simply delightful encounter with a birching enthusiast named Mr. Barvile. Also, throughout it all Cleland loves nothing more than describing with notable enthusiasm the male “machine,” resulting in several descriptions such as the following:
. . . behold it now! crest-fall’n, reclining its half-capt vermillion head over one of his thighs, quiet, pliant, and to all appearance incapable of the mischiefs and cruelty it had committed. Then the beautiful growth of the hair, in short and soft curls around the root, its whiteness, branch’d veins, the supple softness of the shaft, as it lay forshorten’d, roll’d and shrunk up into a squob thickness, languid, and born up from between the thighs, by its globular appendage, that wondrous treasure-bag of nature’s sweets, which rivell’d round, and purs’d up in the only wrinkles that are known to please, perfected the prospect; and all together form’d the most interesting moving picture in nature. . .
I saw with wonder and surprize, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a may-pole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant: its prodigious size made me shrink again: yet! I could not without pleasure behold, and even venture’d to feel, such a length! such a breadth of animated ivory, perfectly well turn’d and fashion’d, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish, and velvet-softness, might vye with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root, through the jetty sprigs of which, the fair skin shew’d as, in a fine evening, you may have remark’d the clear light aether, through the branch-work of distant trees, over the topping the summit of a hill: then the broad and bluish-casted incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins, altogether compos’d the most striking assemblage of figure and colours in nature; in short, it stood an object of terror and delight.
Jesus Christ. Yes, the whole book is like that.
Overall, I am pleased that I took the time to read Fanny Hill. I think it is remarkable that, though obviously written by a man (and wholly man of his era in a number of ways), this work is presented first-person from the point of view of a woman, and treats frankly her delight in sex and sexuality, as well as her ability to separate sexual enjoyment from feelings of love. This is problematic at times, especially given the uncomfortable moments with rape and sexual abuse, but overall Fanny Hill really does present a stirring and somewhat innocently bawdy picture of 18th century sexuality. The text also does much to contradict notions that sexual enthusiasm outside of reproduction is something people discovered in the 20th century, and that women’s sexual enjoyment was neglected previous to the sexual revolution. Though Fanny’s (and the other women’s) carnal appetites are presented for the titillation of a male audience, it is interesting to note that the notion of old-timey British sexuality being somewhat repressed (“close your eyes and think of England”) is really a misinterpretation of Victorian propaganda. 18th century notions of female sexuality recognized that women masturbate, that women can be active participants in the sexual act, and can (and should) orgasm during sexual encounters. Those same notions often presented problems for women– for example, though the female orgasm was considered important, it was considered such because doctors thought women must orgasm to conceive, which in turn was used to discount women’s complaints of rape if they conceived, since if they conceived, they must have orgasmed, etc.– but they also created a world in which female sexuality was at least talked about, if often inaccurately.
So, all in all, time well spent.