Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Fanny Hill has already been mentioned once before in this column. I wanted to review it because it is a singularly beautiful novel, even if it is considered a little tame by today’s standards.
John Cleland’s novel was first published in 1748 and caused immense consternation when it did, unsurprisingly. It was banned immediately for its disreputable content, thereby gaining instant notoriety. It is the tale of Fanny Hill, a young woman in Augustan England who chooses the world’s oldest profession as a means of gaining middle-class respectability and financial independence. She is sweet and easygoing and views her work as a means to an end. It is a rather delightful romp (600 pages) and an easy read; not to mention providing us (the readers) an intimate look at sexual practises in the eighteenth century.
Fanny dreams of finding love and romance, and I empathised with her dreams. It is a pleasure to read this book because she achieves quite a lot of growth as a character and as a person, and learns a thing or two along the way. I can see why this novel was regarded as scandalous back in the day; nobody ever talked about sex frankly, and to do so in novel form resulted, as we know, in imprisonment for Cleland. The book remained banned for centuries, although also managed to gain popularity underground. It is now widely available from all reputable book stores.
Cleland managed to write a book that is chock full of feminist ideology. Fanny is a character who is unmarried and who has chosen to become a lady of pleasure because she sees no other options available to her. However, there is a lot of emphasis on a woman’s pleasure in the book, and the right of a woman to pursue sexual encounters for the sake of pleasure alone. This was far ahead of its time because at the time that Cleland was writing it was perceived that women endured sex for the purposes of procreation alone. No thought was given to the female orgasm until Cleland dragged it, kicking and screaming, out into the open.
For all that, the book is distinctly homophobic, and there are some outdated notions as to what constitutes pleasure, and frankly, some disturbing scenes where sexual assault is forgiven because the offender is perceived as pathetic or deserving of pity in some fashion. The book also seems to rush rapidly from one romp to the next, so it often feels like Fanny’s sexual adventures (various short stories about various encounters) rather than a full-length novel about a woman’s sexual awakening.
As I said earlier, it is a beautiful novel, with lovely lush sentences, and rather quirky references to certain body parts, with multiple names and phrases provided, which certainly leads to a giggle or three. It is worth a read, despite the problems, simply for the sake of reading it, and it isn’t often I say that about a book.
(The columnist loves to write about food, travel, and feminism in a little cottage by the sea in Chennai)