Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
Every age gets the pornography it deserves. The people who are now making a fuss about Fanny Hill, John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, do nothing about the real pornography of today—the incitement to violence, torture, maiming, and killing, often topped up with sexual perversity, which are presented with a sickening kind of pleasurelessness, on the screens of television and cinema and in pulp fiction. It can be suggested (as Havelock Ellis once did) that some kinds of pornography are socially useful; they may allay evil desires by acting as a sort of imaginative distraction. They may lead us away from action into harmless fantasy. Whether this is so or not, the real test is not what the average man thinks; it is the test of artistic merit, and if he is called upon to judge, it is the average man’s duty to find out what artistic merit is. He will find himself considering man’s often brilliant exploration of his own imagination. Nothing could be more horrifying and inciting to sadistic action than those terrible pictures of Goya’s called The Fantasies and The Disasters of War; however, one sees, at once, that Goya’s art transmutes them and places them in that area of our minds where the difficult but indispensable moral and civilizing process can operate. The same transmuting process can be seen in the treatment of the classical but surely sordid encounter of Leda with the Swan; in the brothel paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, in the pathos and laughter of Maupassant’s Maison Tellier. I believe one can see it also in that minor amatory exercise, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. No one is asked to say how meritorious an artist is in these matters, but it is essential for the transmuting element to be recognized.
Since 1749 when it was first published in London, many sensible people have thought that Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, usually known as Fanny Hill, had this element. It has its place in the history of literature, not in the history of smut. Smut never lasts. The story is obviously inflaming, but even lane Eyre or Lorna Doone inflames. Fanny, a country girl abandoned in London, describes how she enters a select brothel—note the word “select”—and goes into prolonged, detailed descriptions of several kinds of sexual adventure and intercourse. In doing so, however, she never utters an obscene word, rarely descends even to colloquialism, never to the clinical; she indeed writes an elaborate literary language that would do credit to any master of baroque and poetic utterance—shall we say Henry James?—spoken in a drawing room. And it is not shabby baroque. The disconcerting thing about the book—as a piece of “pornography”—is that it has charm. Many have thought the intercourse of the sexes brutal even when blessed by the Church; more refined and indeed naturally sensitive or passionate people have found the very opposite. Fanny belongs to the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Fanny December 12, 1963