Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review: Fanny Hill

Disclaimer: The following review speaks openly on issues of a sexual nature in relationship to an 18th century erotica book. Those sensitive to this sort of discussion may choose to skip over this review.

erhaps you recall a short while ago when I was deliberating over which edition of Fanny Hill to read. I ended up buying this edition with illustrations by Talia Felix and was not disappointed.
Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, is the story of a young woman (teenager, really) who moves to the bustle of London and quickly is scooped up by a madame to become a prostitute. Her virginity is sold and Fanny is very near being raped if it weren't for the client's impotence. Fanny is safe for the time being until a new danger appears in the form of falling in love with one of the young men visiting the brothel. They run away together where she does indeed loose her virginity and becomes head over heels in love with him. Unfortunately the two young lovers are separated and Fanny is forced into a life of a kept mistress and later, prostitute. Although she seems to enjoy her profession, her mind always wanders back to her lost love.

Let me first be clear about this book. It is smut. It was written with the intention to titillate and therefore has very little plot yet a large amount of detail when it comes to talking about sex. If you are looking for great literature of the 18th century, you won't find it in Fanny Hill, you will find, however, what tickles a 18th century gentleman's fancy. That in itself is interesting.

What one part of me (the sarcastic, bitter, feminist side) was thinking was, Well, not much has evolved in men's tastes. Penises had to be described in great detail, and size was a big topic. But that is just a detail I have come to expect when it comes to males and topics of sex. One of the first sexual scenes was girl-on-girl, so once again I was thinking about how men are creatures of routine and their tastes haven't evolved much in 200 years, and so on and so forth. But then there was something that I did notice which I found interesting: there was no oral sex. Oral sex was considered to be something the French favored throughout the centuries, and in page after page of the sexual scenes in Fanny Hill, its absence was obvious. It seemed as though this article of foreplay wasn't even a thought, or perhaps it just wasn't attractive to bedroom frolickers in 18th century England, or perhaps that was just Cleland's taste. Another noticeable difference was in the attention to pubic hair Cleland included in his details. The same things we, in the modern age, take great care to hide away, was a real turn-on for both men and women, if we are to believe what Cleland has to say!

As for the edition itself, I was pleased with my selection. I knew I wanted an illustrated version since I'm a visual person [feel free to begin snickering and making comments in context to the book]. I enjoyed Felix's illustrations which were reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley's style and added some fun to a text which can get redundant. Yes, redundant; you might find yourself skipping through the sex scenes once you get halfway through the book. But despite the little plot and large amount of redundant sex scenes I still found myself enjoying Fanny Hill.

That's what she said.


  1. I'm currently reading "Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century" by Julie Peakman, which I find very interesting. They talk about oral sex and notes that one of the reason it wasn't very popular, was that hygienes often lacked in that area, so it wasn't very appealing to put your mouth to it. Prostitues in London, who engaged in it, had it specially mentioned in the various catalouges that one could get.

    "She is as talented silent as she is when she speaks." :-)

  2. I've been wanting to read "Fanny Hill" for quite a long time now. It was also adapted in a movie, wasn't it?
    I found the thing about pubic hair very striking as well in Apollinaire's "sex books" (yes, he did write some, I thought it was a nice love story and found myself reading that :P). Fashion and tastes change...

    @Iris >> thanks for the suggestion, I'll definitely read it !

  3. Thanks for yet another fabulous review Heather! (Long overdue) summer reading methinks. I'm so looking forward to June 25th - no more exams until October; but then it's all Eng Lit and Theatre so I won't mind!

    @Isis, too, thanks for the suggestion and the chuckle at that quotation =p

  4. This is fascinating. I'm not sure I could bear to read the book, but I would be very interested in browsing, just to get a better idea of the content. Thanks for the review.

  5. @Isis, I wondered about that, actually. But my mind refused to stay on the topic for long for fear of a gross out. I will have to pick up that book!

    @Camille, It is a movie, so I will have to check that out as well. I'll be curious how it is adapted.

  6. I'll have to give this edition a try. I like pictures ;) Honestly, I do know what you mean about illustrations.

    And it was made into a movie, but not nearly as...interesting as the novel itself. Probably the BBC TV series is the best one to try if you're so inclined. At least they don't pull many punches when it comes to following the novel.

  7. it's one of the books i've always fancied reading but not got around to so remains on my wishlist.

    i think you're very generous to men when you say our taste haven't evolved mucn in 200 years...2,000 might be nearer the mark!

  8. I was actually tempted to say that but I was worried I had insulted enough of my dear male readers!

  9. Thank you for a great review and for settling a tough decision - what book on my to-be-read pile to read next!

  10. I had a difficult time with this book because of the somewhat violent sexual images, describing the penis as a machine that drills into a woman (or something like that). It's a fascination book, though. The BBC movie version is pretty good, too, except that it moralizes the story a little, which Cleland clearly had no mind to do.

  11. I just finished this about a month ago. I was quite disappointed with the ending. Although I had expected it to end that way, I was saddened that my expectations were met.

    Some of the sex scenes (in my opinion) were very well written, but it did get to be a little much the more it went on. My version was a non-illustrated - and some of the scenes might have been better with a visual. :)

    I am happy to finally have it off my list of "to reads" though!

  12. On the oral sex thing -- There's a book from the 1880s or so called "My Secret Life" where a man is describing his (supposedly true) sexual exploits. He's into plenty of weird things, but when he gets to trying oral sex (receiving) he describes how he didn't really care for it but couldn't find any reason to think less of those that do. Thought that was very interesting, though, given nowadays one is actually considered kind of weird if you're not into it, and it's presumed to be so natural.

  13. That is very interesting! Like you said, it seems like something, dare I say, so natural for us modern types. It's hard for me to imaginea man nowadays going, "nah, it's alright but I don't think I need to do that again!"

  14. I have a mate who writes C18th book reviews, he's the one that pointed this website to me. He is writing a review of Fanny Hill and says that she reminds him of Forrest Gump.

  15. Finally had a chance to read this now that I got my Nook for Christmas. This guy clearly has a thing for thighs, huge cocks, each one bigger than the next, and the color vermilion.

    I thought the same sex scene was an interesting peek into the times. She was offended, which seems to me like an absurd reaction in this day and age.