Having been reduced from gentility to Grub Street, then locked up in the Fleet for debt, John Cleland set about writing a book that would sell. Thus, from the depths of his imprisonment emerges Fanny Hill, a dazzling chaos of lust and fornication, vice and masturbation, sodomy and flagellation; in fine, something for all tastes. Its success seems secure, especially since our obtuse Lords Bishops have issued warrants for the arrest of Cleland and his printer, whom they charge with corrupting the King’s subjects, an injury for which the King’s subjects are presently falling over themselves to pay six shillings.
Make no doubt that this work consists in scene upon scene of graphically depicted coition, and is like to be read tucked inside the Daily Courant; yet it stands as a hopeful parable on the duality of humankind, and how its warring opposites, the flesh and the psyche, may be reconciled.
Fanny Hill, an orphan not turned fifteen, comes to London, and in the manner of Moll Hackabout, is introduced into the house of a bawd who means to sell her maidenhood. Sapphic encounters awaken her lust, and subsequent adventures acquaint her with every manner of physical traffic that can be done between two persons, or more.
There are relationships of commercial obligation, gratitude and convenience, animal carnality, and at last, virtuous love. Fanny takes her pleasure in them all, revelling in the delights of her body, heedless of those moral edicts that claim our flesh is not our own to do with as we will. It is revealed to her that physical joys can be properly separated from love, and that the self may be utterly lost in the act, at which degree a rapture of divine order is attained.
Cockstands abound in Fanny Hill, and Cleland encompasses them all with a giddy fecundity of language. He gives us the minister, the maypole and the turbulent inmate; the steed, the spitfire and the mutinous rogue; the stretcher, the splitter and the sweet tenant. But for all that Fanny remains a stout devotee of the gristle, her last wisdom consists in this: “It is love alone that refines, ennobles and exalts it.” Thus she settles into marriage with her complete beau, as wholesome and respectable now as any Common Pleas judge.
Fanny Hill is printed by G. Fenton in the Strand, and will cost you a tablespoon-full of genial emulsion.