Two ends of the erotica spectrum

He is now in bed with me the first time, and in broad day; but when thrusting up his own shirt and my shift he laid his naked glowing body to mine . . . Oh! insupportable delight! Oh! superhuman rapture! What pain could stand before a pleasure so transporting? I felt no more the smart of my wounds below; but, curling round him like the tendril of a vine, as if I fear’d any part of him should be untouch’d or unpress’d by me, I return’d his strenuous embraces and kisses with a fervour and gusto only known to true love, and which mere lust could never rise to.

Oh, that Fanny Hill, never a dull moment, never a plain word.

John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure—one of the pioneers of the erotic novel, I am told—is fantastical. The words above, though effectively warming my purple-prose-deficient heart, are just that: violently verbose language that brings you the increasingly unreal logic of Fanny Hill’s world. It was fun, yes—I loved drowning in the language, giggling notwithstanding—but, essentially, there is nothing realistic to be pegged on the recollections of our heroine.

These are sexual fantasies, its characters based on archetypes. An innocent, orphaned country lass travels to London, only to fall prey to—egad!—the raptures of prostitution, thanks to a parade of sparks and colleagues and benevolent Madams. Sure, our Fanny meets unscrupulous characters, but they always disappear in the nick of time, and she’s saved by really, really nice people. There is nothing gritty about this. In Cleland’s version of seedy London, prostitutes are basically elusive goddesses. There’s even little to no comparison of Fanny’s station to other, less fortunate women in the same trade. There’s nothing here that will make you fear for Fanny’s life. At most, you fear that she’ll end up destitute, or, well, abandoned and unloved.

There’s just a lot of sex, sex, sex—sex that, mind you, never comes out and says that it’s sex. I don’t think there’s even mention of bodily organs. To Fanny Hill, everything is a metaphor. Is this a sign of the times? Or was Cleland having too much fun circumventing the actual naming? Either way, Fanny rocks it. Hysterically to this modern reader, but she freaking rocks the whole wide-eyed, oops-prostitution! vibe.

[Illustration for the book, captioned “Fanny Emboldens William,” by Édouard-Henri Avril. Edited for, um, modesty—click the photo to embiggen.]

Her rocking it is strange, even to me. Because a dominant facet of Fanny Hill’s character is her passivity. Hella, yes, is she passive. Things happen to her, things that she initially meets with bewilderment. And perhaps it’s the language’s power, but I did not mind. It only feels as though our Fanny’s just biding her time, waiting to realize the enormity of her capabilities to give and receive pleasure. Or that she’s naturally shy. I dunno. Greater credit can be attributed to the fact that when Fanny acts, she shines.

One of the best parts of the novel, in my opinion, was when Fanny seduces the well-endowed errand boy of the man who’s been keeping her mistress. Fanny once caught Mr. Man in flagrante delicto with her maid. So, she seeks revenge. But it soon becomes more than revenge. By seducing—and not just merely being an object of the seduction—Fanny gains power over herself, she’s become aware of what she can do with the body so many men and women want as their plaything and bedmate.

Which is a terrible contrast to the main character of Melissa Panarello’s much-hooplahed One Hundred Strokes of the Brush before Bed. This book’s narrator is 14 to Fanny Hill’s 15. Both books are confessional, Panarello’s in diary form while Cleland’s is epistolary. Queasiness for your average reader aside and regardless of the time period, both are documentations of a very young woman’s sexual awakening. The similarities, however, stop there.

Mostly because Panarello’s narrator is an out-and-out idiot. [Come on, Main Characters, remember that little talk we had about me needing to respect you?] The shorthand description for this ghastly book: Misery porn, but without the redemption, only a lot of nonsensical suffering and pretentious, call-your-vagina-“Secret”-repeatedly sexual encounters.

Our narrator—I shudder to call her a heroine—becomes aware of her lust, the need to assuage a need within her. And so what does she do? She goes on a series of asinine and preposterous hook-ups, where she’s basically treated like dirt; she’s molested every which way, there’s a repeated demolition of her body and her self—and what does she do? She writes in her dear diary, lamenting her sad fate, only to jump willy-nilly back into the craziness again! And she’s going, Oh, but I feel so wretched and abused, and I am crying golden tears, and my Secret is too, but ooh, when he calls me again, I’ll be sure to meet him sans panties! Use your noggin’, honey, please.

It’s not morality I’m pointing out here. It’s self-respect, it’s common sense. There’s no other explanation for her tendency to indulge in sex that holds no pleasure for her—except that she’s stupid. She refuses to preserve any shred of dignity for herself. And then she curses her fate, and then she proceeds to annihilate herself once again. I am not titillated, I am not enchanted, I am not even aghast that someone so young embarks on so much sex.

I was laughing, okay? Testament to my black heart, I was laughing whenever you referred to your Secret, whenever you went home covered in god-knows-what to brush your hair a hundred times before bed. Okay, so I grimaced when you went on one of your moronically desperate attempts to keep having sex, but, Narrator, I was laughing when you cried.

Better to fall “victim” than to go out looking for ways to fuck yourself up, in this case. Ugh. Hello, Schadenfreude.

ETA: This will be my last grumpy post, for now. Heh. Have been reading a lot of really good books lately. So, I guess I just wanted to get the ranty Sasha out of the way. :)

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5 comments

  1. Hey, I love the Ranty Sasha. Keep up the great work!

  2. I agree, I really enjoy reading ranty Sasha.

    Also, I do not think I would ever dare post about Fanny Hill. Oh, I’d love to be able to do that. But my face goes bright read at the thought of it. Hmm.. I sense a challenge.

    1. Pretty please? I’d so love to read your thoughts on Victorian erotica. At the risk of sounding creepy, I’d buy a ticket to watch you read Fanny Hill, hahaha. To be fair, it was very difficult to read this book on the subway. Given the cover, and the fact that I was cackling at some parts.

  3. [...] recent reads—John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Panarello’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed [both discussed-ish here], and, now, Victorine by Maude Hutchins. The first two my brand me a closet pervert, but the [...]

  4. [...] Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland. [...]

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