Fannikins’s Cunnikin

Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones

by Erica Jong
NAL Books, 505 pp., $12.95

Erica Jong
Erica Jong; drawing by David Levine

Not long ago there was a popular novelist called Jeffrey Farnol, who is now entirely forgotten—which, when you think about it, is as long ago as you can get. Farnol wrote period novels in a narrative style full of e’ens, dosts, ’tises, and ’twases. Men wearing slashed doublets said things like “Gadzooks!” in order to indicate that the action was taking place in days of yore. Farnol was manifestly shaky on the subject of when yore actually was, but he had a certain naive energy and his books were too short to bore you. His masterpiece The Jade of Destiny, starring a lethal swordsman called Dinwiddie, can still be consumed in a single evening by anyone who has nothing better to do.

Erica Jong knows a lot more than Farnol ever did about our literary heritage and its social background. Her new book, which purports to be the true story, told in the first person, of the girl John Cleland made famous as Fanny Hill, draws on an extensive knowledge of eighteenth-century England. This is definitely meant to be a high-class caper. Nevertheless Jeffrey Farnol would recognize a fellow practitioner. There is something Gadzooks about the whole enterprise. On top of that it is intolerably long. Where Farnol’s Dinwiddie, after skewering the heavies, would have made his bow and split, Jong’s Fanny hangs around for hours.

Jong’s Fanny, it turns out, would have been a writer if circumstances had not dictated otherwise. Circumstances are to be congratulated. Left to herself, Jong’s Fanny would have covered more paper than Ruskin. There is something self-generating about her style.

I wrote Tragedies in Verse and Noble Epicks, Romances in the French Style and Maxims modell’d upon La Rochefoucauld’s. I wrote Satyres and Sonnets, Odes and Pastorals, Eclogues and Epistles. But nothing satisfied my most exalted Standards (which had been bred upon the Classicks), and at length I committed all my Efforts to the Fire. I wrote and burnt and wrote and burnt! I would pen a Pastoral’ thro’out three sleepless Nights only to commit it to the Flames! And yet were my Words not wasted, for ev’ry budding Poet, I discover’d, must spend a thousand Words for ev’ry one he saves, and Words are hardly wasted if, thro’ one’s Profligacy with ’em, one learns true Wit and true Expression of it.

Five hundred pages of that add up to a lot of apostrophes, i’faith. But the fault lies not with the ’tises and ’twases. A historical novel can survive any amount of inept decoration if it has some architecture underneath. Take, for example, Merejkovsky’s The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, in the learned but stylistically frolicsome translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney.

“Nay, nay, God forfend,—whatever art thou saying, Lucrezia! Come out to meet her? Thou knowest not what a woman this is! Oh, Lord, ’tis a fearful thing to think of…

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