Thursday, April 1, 2010

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

While perusing Amazon for a copy of Fanny Hill, I was overwhelmed by the many editions of this book. I am not sure why I should be so shocked, the brazen novel was published in 1749, allowing for many versions to be released over the centuries. But what is it about this book where we are still interesting in reading it here in the 21st century? Was it great literature? Nope, not really. It was smut, written by John Cleland in an attempt to escape debtor's prison.

Originally published as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the novel would come to be known by the name of its main character which sounds strangely enough like a naughty lady-bit. Fanny is an orphan teenager who moves to London and takes lodgings with a madam who wastes no time transforming the young girl into a prostitute. But instead of this being the same moralistic story as Hogarth's Harlot's Progress, Fanny enjoy her various sexual exploits which, like our modern pornos, are more plentiful than the plot line is complicated. Yes, Cleland was not out to open the eyes of the public to the plights of poor women; he was in the entertainment business.

John Cleland was an educated individual who worked for the Bombay company. It was in India that he allegedly began penning the manuscripts which would become, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. The tale was an erotic novel and Cleland probably wrote it only because he knew: sex sells, and he needed some cash. The book was published in two volumes and it wasn't until a year after its publication that word got around to the wrong ears about the intimate details it divulged. Censorship laws may have been repelled, but for whatever reason Cleland's book didn't fit into this category and he was put on trial for obscenity. He saved himself by laying no claim to the book, stating he just happened upon the manuscript and embellished it. That didn't stop it from being published under the title Fanny Hill with some edits to the most scandalous parts. Rumor has it, the book was contained even more scandalous scenes that are now lost to us. For the next couple of centuries the book would be sold on the black market and banned from just about everywhere. The book wasn't even published in the United States until the 1970s!

Now, the problem is quite opposite. There are so many editions of the book, I can't even decide which to choose! I'm torn between these two (below), since they're both from indie publishers. I'm leaning toward the second one but worried it's from too late an edition. Oh dilemmas.

Check out some of the covers from some of the many editions. I was surprised by the amount with 19th century paintings and there are a plethora of different and creative covers which I found quite interesting.


  1. I have to admit I never made it through the book either of the two times I've tried. I just get bored about half-through and "forget" about it... Last time I made an attempt was last summer when on vacation in Poland. On the plane home, I was seated next to two nuns! True story... after a while, I found it a bit awkward to read further with the Sisters next to me, though I doubt they had any clues to what I was reading, so I read the airlines magazine instead. Now I can't remember where I put the book.

    Anyway, I read somewhere that Cleland was homosexual? When you think about it, the male body and its various parts are described very.. ahem... detailed here and there.

  2. Too funny! I would be very uncomfortable on that plane ride! But still, very interesting that you couldn't make it through the book; I can see why though.

    Perhaps Cleland was gay. Given, most men are obsessed with their manly bits more than need be, but one of the supposedly lost scene was one between two men!

  3. I must confess that I never got though the whole book either. I've read Erica Jong's "Fanny", with pleasure, albeit rather red in the face at times... I can't say how closely she follows "Fanny Hill", but it's a funny book.

  4. I made it through the movie-an interesting film to watch with one's mother! But the BBC did a nice job with it, especially the costumes and sets. I've been meaning to grab a copy of the book, and now I know where to find it! Thanks!

  5. There are actually several versions of Fanny Hill on the site that you can download for free. I have a couple and have tried to read them, but I often get sidetracked and don't go back to them for ages. Because I have a difficult time reading for any length of time on the computer screen, I keep wondering if a book would be better...

  6. i've been meaning to get myself a copy since watching and loving the BBC production a couple of years back...i hope you discover the best version and let us know!

  7. in the short summary that I've read, story has a happy ending. Thank you for amaizing infomation that you bring everyday, I can't get enough of it:)

  8. Hmm now that I see not everyone can get through it...and given my limited reading time, maybe I will go with the purple cover version!

    Then I'll watch the BBC version :)

    @Katya, Thank you very very much!

  9. Sounds like a fun smutty book! Maybe I'll look for it. :) Thanks for the info!

  10. I love Fanny Hill! I don't find it any more slow-going than any other 18th c. prose (but then that may be just me*g*) What I do find most entertaining about it is how sympathetic Cleland is to his heroine and the other female characters. This is very unusual for so-called dirty books, which are almost always written from the male point of view, and which usually spend much more time describing the women's willinginess than their, uh, motivation.

    I think this may be why some critics wonder if Cleland was gay, too -- not so much for the attention he pays to the "rampant steeds", but for how he seems to understand the women.

    And yes, though it's silly and predictable, there IS a happy ending.

  11. That's a good point! Those who were sympathetic to 'the weaker sex' could be easily accused of being more than just Enlightened!

    I ordered my copy yesterday, I hope it's good and un-edited just like it's supposed to be!

  12. I have one of the B&N editions in my To-Read pile (the one with the pretty purple cover :p). I haven't set down to read it yet, but have a friend who picks it up every time he comes over, opens to a random page, and starts reading aloud. This has become something of a running joke because every time--and I do mean EVERY time--the random page is inevitably in the middle of a sex scene. He says he'll give up if he can ever find a page in the book that does *not* include explicit content XD

  13. It just so happens I am the illustrator of that second version of Fanny Hill (thanks for the plug!)

    I will say in all honesty if you are looking for a reading version, I don't really recommend my own edition -- it's replicated from a 19th century printing with partially modernized spelling (but not totally modernized for some reason.)

    If you're looking for illustrations in a sort of homage to the Tijuana Bibles, that's what the selling point is. I love drawing 18th century costumes but unfortunately Fanny tends to be undressed a good deal of the time -- I left on her what articles I could, even if it was only her hair-papers.

  14. I ended up with your book in the end, and have no regrets about it! Your illustrations won me over.

    With my reading schedule, there's no way I'm going to read Fanny Hill over again any time soon, so I figured if the text is altered I wouldn't really know a difference in the end.

    Thank you for writing, this is good timing too since I have been working on a review of the book! You should illustrate another 18th century novel, preferably one with lots of fabulous clothes!