Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 30, 2008

Fanny Hill (1748), by John Cleland

I haven’t read any books of Fanny Hill’s type, except, many years ago, The Story of O, (1954) which I found unpleasant.  So why read Fanny Hill?  Well, it’s one of the 1001 Books You Must Read, and I’m doing the 1% Well-Read Challenge (see the Challenges page), and contrary as I am, I decided to start at the bottom of the list in the 1700s.  I’m reading it today, courtesy of Project Gutenberg and it’s text only, no pictures! (Phew!)

The story begins with Fanny’s innocent origins in a country village, the death of her respectable parents, and the faithless friend Esther who takes advantage of her.  Tales of the wealth, ease of life and excitement in London persuade Fanny to travel there, paying Esther’s fare too from her meagre purse.   Once there, of course, Esther abandons her, and Fanny has to fend for herself.  Her search for work leads to her an agency where lurks Mrs Brown, who immediately regales her with cautionary tales about the wickedness of London and whisks her off with promises of safety and respectability.  Fanny’s naiveté blinds her to the perfidy of her ‘saviour’, and she believes herself to be hired as a companion…

More by good luck than anything else she manages to evade sleazy old Mr Crofts, and instead escapes with a handsome young gallant called Charles.  Her first experience is therefore of her own volition,  and Fanny happily becomes his mistress.  However Charles’ father puts paid to their happiness when he arranges for Charles to be spirited away to the South Seas to take care of an inheritance.  Before long Fanny is in debt to an unsympathetic landlady, who demands that the debt be repaid by pleasing a certain Mr H, but he casts her out when he discovers that she has shared her favours with a young servant.  Fanny is then taken into the care of a Mrs Cole, who runs a ‘house of accommodation’ where Fanny thereafter has a succession of other lovers.  She eventually leaves Mrs Cole, finds herself a sweet old man who conveniently dies and leaves her a large fortune – which comes in handy when Charles returns from the South Seas with no money at all.

According to GoogleBooks, the authorship of this story cost Cleland any ambitions he might have had as a writer.  It was not legally available in the US till 1963,  and the UK till 1970, though it has been in print almost continuously.  Considering its ignominy, why then was it included in the 1001 Books?  Well, according to Peter Sabor, who wrote an introduction to it for the Oxford Classics Edition, the book holds a place in the development of the novel, and even though feminists make the IMO valid criticism that Fanny’s cheerful enjoyment of her experiences are a male fantasy expressed by a female character, there is a literary charm to the prose.  It is well-written, and the plot is well-constructed, especially compared to the writing of Cleland’s contemporaries.  There are debts to John Donne’s poetry rather than Chaucer’s bawdiness, and there are elements of romance, not least of which is the happy ending when Fanny is reunited with Charles.

There’s not much in it to shock nowadays…



  1. […] Teresa (The Sun Also Rises)16. Lisa Hill17. Beverly (The Bell Jar)18. Beverly (Choke)19. Laura (Persuasion)20. Melanie (The Bell Jar)21. […]


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