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Introduction to Fanny Hill by Sean Walsh

We first hear about Fanny Hill in 1737, when The Order of the Beggar’s Benison held a meeting at Castle Dreel in Anstruther, Scotland. Here are the minutes:

1737. St. Andrew’s Day. 24 met, 3 tested and enrolled. All frigged. The Dr. expatiated. Two nymphs, 18 and 19, exhibited as heretofore. Rules were submitted by Mr. Lumsdaine for future adoption. Fanny Hill was read. Tempest. Broke up at 3 o’clock a.m.

The Beggar’s Benison was, as the careful reader will have inferred, a sex club. It has notable place in the the long-ish list of such societies in Eighteenth-Century Britain; its unusually colourful prehistory of corrupt priests, early British Saints and folk fertility rites provides one distinction, while the happily full record we have of its arcana and rituals (the initiation ceremony, for example, seems to have consisted of the inductee’s masturbating onto a large silver plate in front of the rest of the group) provides another.

The odd thing about Fanny turning up on the East Coast of Scotland among a jumble of aristocrats, Jacobites and smugglers in the 1730s is that she’s early: the novel won’t be published for over a decade. It’s not so hard to explain: perhaps the name’s the kind of pun that occurs to more than one; perhaps that there’s a tradition of blue jokes that we’ve lost, and our novel is a massive fantasia on a traditional figure. A distant relative of Cleland is on the list of the Order’s founding members: it’s possible an early draft was passed up to Scotland, or inspiration was passed down to London.

However, it’s pleasant to think there might be something more curious at work: to believe that Fanny was in fact written by the age, and that before it found the right conduit, the dupe who’d write it all down, we catch a trace of an ur-Fanny, a premonition of her, in that stormy November Masturbation meeting.

Fanny Hill is a remarkable book by a not especially remarkable author, a very Eighteenth-Century literary man. His background was undistinguished. His Father, William, was a solid civil servant and sharp social climber, whose long career had left him well-connected: in the early Eighteenth Century, political and literary networks overlapped to an extraordinary extent, and the age’s great poet, Alexander Pope, was a family friend. William contributed towards the facetiously pedantic apparatus of The Dunciad Variorium, Pope’s heroic and compendious satire on a miserable literary world of hacks, scribblers and plodders. It would have saddened him to know his son would be drawn into that vortex of dullness.

John was born in 1709. William managed to get his son into Westminster School, but Cleland was expelled within a couple of years. He entered the army, and worked for the East India Company militia, spending a little over a decade living in Bombay. He came back to London when he was around thirty and vanishes from our view for a while. We next see him in the Fleet, London’s prison for debtors, in 1748. He’d been arrested over a matter of £850, which is something like £100,000 to us, and he was kept there for over a year.

Cleland claimed to have written Fanny Hill while in the Fleet. He also claimed to have written it in Bombay. Take your pick. In any case, the first part of what was then called Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is published around November 1748, the second part in February of the following year. Cleland got out of prison in March, and there’s another quiet spell until November, when the trouble begins. The government put out a warrant for the arrest of those responsible for the ‘Memoirs’ and Cleland, along with Fenton Griffiths and Thomas Parker, the publisher and printer, was duly caught and incarcerated.

Cleland gets out of trouble, just. He places a recognisance of £100, and entirely disowns Fanny Hill: an error of youth, won’t do it again M’Lud, honest citizen, et cetera. It’s no good though. The bomb’s already been dropped. Fanny Hill is alive, and she will be going to and fro about the earth for centuries to come in pirate editions – in print by 1750 – and translations and films and parodies and sequels – wherever, in fact, the erotic imagination can place an appetitive scouse teenager with an inquiring mind.

There isn’t really anything like Fanny Hill before Fanny Hill. In one quite boring sense, yes, we can see where the novel comes from. There’s a big streak of Defoe’s street-tough heroines, Moll Flanders and Roxana, in the story of a woman making her way in London with only her wits, charms and a wobbly moral compass for guidance. Henry Fielding is still closer to the centre: at a guess, Cleland got his map of what prose might be able to do from Fielding. In many ways, it is just a fiction of its period. Notice especially its bizarre formal hangover from the pre-realist epistolary novel: it’s a pair of letters to an unnamed lady, as though Cleland were thinking ‘yes, but why is she writing all this down’? Especially towards the end, you’re running through a fairly straightforward novel of sentiment, educating us in the pleasures of virtue against those shallower and tiresome delights of vice, as missing lovers return and fortune and fortunes work out a balance.

However, it doesn’t have any serious ancestors in terms of English pornography. It isn’t related to the explosive libertine literature of the Restoration, nor the earlier seventeenth-century classics, like ‘L’Ecole Des Filles’ (which Pepys burns after masturbating over it, ‘that it might not be among my books to my shame’. A poignant passage), whose frigid Aretine dialogues tend to resemble abstruse instructional manuals. In France, the great age of explicitly revolutionary pornography is just underway: works like Thérèse Philosophe, or Anti-Justine wrap desire up in radical intellectual baggage – and the great philosophical centre of porn, De Sade, was yet to come. Fanny Hill doesn’t have that baggage. It is rather a fabulous alchemical experiment that throws the early realist novel and straight-up erotica into an alembic and ends up accidentally creating the Pornographer’s Stone.

‘Accidentally’: again, Fanny Hill almost doesn’t seem the work of Cleland. I claimed earlier that it seems a pure creation of the age. It’s possible to be more specific, I think, and say that the novel is a dream or fantasia imagined by London to entertain or soothe itself. It is almost a book written by a city frightened of what it is becoming, watching people, goods, houses multiplying unstoppably, its growth accelerating towards an uncertain end that does not seem to be the promised Christian heaven. Everything is turning into money, and even that money is becoming unreal, a tangle of debits, credits and pieces of paper. This is the age and place when the modern hall of mirrors opens, and a world of literati and virtuosi are dimly aware they have wandered in and are lost among reflections of reflections.

What Fanny Hill keeps trying to do is dig back to the beginning or find the finish, to hit a solid, unanswerable reality behind the endless populous city and the mass of diseased, anonymous bodies that wander its streets. If that sounds a little misanthropic, I’m merely mimicking the Book’s odd discomfort with the flesh: it seems a little squeamish about the simple idea of meat in action: the ‘stiff horn-hard gristle’ of one penis, a vagina as a ‘recently opened wound’, another a ‘flesh wound’, another penis with a head ‘like a common sheep’s heart’. There’s a touch of Joseph Joubert’s aphorism on the genitals – ‘one has the look of a wound, the other of something skinned’ – in its attitude, a horror of and fascination with the animal act. Look at that scene towards where Louisa seduces the simpleton, ‘good-natured Dick’. The prose calls him a ‘man-machine’ – incidentally and perhaps coincidentally, that’s the title of the century’s single most radical work of philosophy, L’homme Machine by La Mettrie – his penis ‘an engine’ and can’t help but treat him an animal, an ‘over-driven steer’. Louisa too is turned into ‘as mere a machine’ as Dick by the end of it.

This mechanical emptiness is an abyss that draws the novel to it, even as it turns to find a kind of meaning in innocence and the very first actions of the flesh. Observe the novel’s curious obsession with maidenhead. Fanny’s journey is initially the loss of a sequence of virginities. It starts off with just looking, of course: seeing sex grotesquely, then aesthetically. Her initial sexual baptism takes place when Phoebe slips a finger or two inside. This of course, doesn’t count because it’s a lesbian experience, and nor does her next encounter: that may be with a male, but he’s a premature ejculator. Next she loses her virginity proper. And don’t forget that Fanny gives it up to the man who will ultimately be her husband: that narrative – the triumph of love – is one of the ways it answers the endless city.

Fanny loses another sort of virginity when she’s taken by Mr H—’s servant: his penis, ‘ a maypole of so enormous a standard that, had proportions been observed, it must have belonged to a young giant’, triumphs over ‘a kind of second maidenhead’. Then, of course, we move into Fanny’s lodging in Mrs Cole’s brothel. She’s first told to pass herself as a ‘MAID’, of course; and we get to know the girls of the house through each telling the story of her first time. Then Fanny has to act the virgin to con a customer. She does this with the aid of a device invented by Mrs Cole, which she describes at slightly unsettling length for what is after all a sponge with red stuff on it hidden in a bedpost.

By this point the attentive reader will have noticed that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen blood in the book. It’s the constant accompaniment to these tales of lost virginity, and even when Fanny doesn’t lose her virginity to that first premature ejaculator, she ends upwith ‘my hair all dishevelled, my nose gushing out blood’. It’s as though blood-trauma is the authenticating moment, the hallmark, signature or deposit proving that this is real, that this is primal experience. The blood fixation aspect of the book of course climaxes in the scenes of flogging: when Fanny bleeds under the lash, her client ‘flew to me, kissed away the starting drops, and sucking the wounds eased a good deal of the pain’. The book is set, largely, in a sequence of unnoticed, undistinguished interiors; blood is the interruption of reality. For all that the novel has a horror of the vagina as wound, it comes back time and again to blood as a reality that gives meaning.

Its other response to the terrifying city is to build a fantasy world: it’s a sort of pastoral idyll, a classicised English countryside that tries to exist outside time. You catch a glimpse in the brothel orgy, when Harriet is transformed during her bout in the ring into a landscape: beneath her belly there’s that ‘central furrow’, with ‘two pouting ridges’, and some ‘downy sprig-moss’ resting on it (the girls in the brothel are sold as country girls as well as maiden, of course). More obviously, there’s that curious scene when Fanny and co head out of town and go frolicking in the river. It’s curious because it doesn’t add a new perversion or excitement; up to this point there’s been a near-mathematical progression through sex acts, from voyeurism to flogging to love. Here, there’s only a pretty version of sex – the novel’s drifted into classic Augustan pastoral, a game of Nymphs and shepherds.

It is a fairly terrible moment. One of the most likeable things about the Eighteenth Century is its cynicism towards its own ideals: a century later the Victorians may have believed they were the spiritual heirs of Athens, but the Georgians knew that there was something shabby about their rebuilding of Rome; that for all it could dream of liberty and the modest life of virtue, it all seemed to totter and spill and all end up as a terribly funny joke. Fanny Hill seems rather foolish when it isn’t in on that joke.

There’s one other moment in Fanny that almost comes from nowhere, and that’s her peek at gay sex – a ‘criminal scene’ – which is followed by a lengthy condemnation of ‘male misses’. There are a few other moments involving cross-dressing, the condemnation of fops and penises almost, but not quite going in the wrong – and for Cleland it is very much wrong – hole that suggest homosexuality is haunting the novel, that’s it’s a dark doppelganger to all the straight, bloody, country-pleasures fucking that’s going on. In fact, this is a tangled area in Cleland’s life. When he was jailed for debt, one of the creditors was a Thomas Cannon, the author of a tract called ‘Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated’. Cleland had previously posted a notice on Cannon’s door, calling him ‘Molly Cannon’ (and you don’t need an especially thoroughgoing grasp of eighteenth-century slang to figure out what a ‘molly’ is); when back in prison for writing Fanny Hill, Cleland sends a letter to Secretary of State Lord Chesterfield, largely an attempt to exonerate himself, but which takes a detour and draws attention to Cannon’s pederastical tract. The passage on gay sex in Fanny Hill may be another attempt at vengeance; but its singular anger and the author’s eventful relationship with Cannon leave one feeling that Cleland and homosexuality is a story we may never fully understand.

Despite these strange undertows of blood-lust and flesh-horror and gay panic, Fanny Hill was hugely succesful. There’s a ton of editions – 20 in English by the mid-nineteenth century, 14 French in a variety of translations by 1800 – helped, obviously, by the shadiness of the world it comes from: there’s no-one defending copyright on a book that might drag you to the jailhouse. Even in France it beats all pornographic rivals, right through the Revolution to the end of the century. Fanny, then, has her immortality. Cleland isn’t so fortunate.

His story is slightly boring and sad if you’re know the form for second-division eighteenth-century authors. Unperformed plays with classical themes; a nutjob etymological treatise attempting to show that Celtic was the original language of Europe; tracts on the Freemasons (He thinks they’re druids); a period writing government propaganda; a couple of novels that are neither pornographic or good. All he needs is an essay for or against paper credit and a plan for extracting the salt from seawater, and he’d have the complete set of Grub Street projects.

James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s biographer, visited him in April 1778. He was living in a room ‘filled with books in confusion and dust’, and mostly was content to tell Boswell of those patrons who had disappointed him, and those who had paid. It’s all rather shabby. Boswell’s kindest observation is that ‘there was something genteel in his manner amidst this oddity’. For a while, though, sometime in the 30s or 40s of the century, Cleland had been inhabited by a spirit, that of the age or that of a city, it’s hard to tell, and under that influence he created a definitive encyclopedia of erotics for the era, left a book that has obsessed schoolboys, censors and genteel collectors of erotica for centuries and imagined one of the immortals. That is not such a terrible fate.

Sean Walsh is a writer from England. His personal site can be found at themidnightbell.com.

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