We’re going back a little in time from the Labouchere Amendment, to 1748 and the perhaps surprising choice of an erotic novel told through the eyes of a female prostitute.
Female prostitution and homosexuality have long been linked in British law (Labouchere’s Amendment was to an Act concerned with the former, after all, and the Wolfenden Committee was convened in the 1950s to look at both issues).
Written by John Cleland, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill, is the first-person account of the eponymous character’s journey from her arrival in London as an orphaned innocent, through her employment at a brothel, her introduction to sex at the hands of another female prostitute, her first experience with a man, her subsequent life as a prostitute, and her eventual reunion with the young nobleman who took her virginity, whom she marries and saves from financial ruin and disgrace with the money she’s earned. She ends the novel a respectable lady, her wanton past behind her (although her marriage all the happier for her experience!). Not, one would think, a novel particularly relevant to queer history.Looking beyond the surface, however, Fanny Hill is a fascinating text for a number of reasons. Not only is it considered the first prose pornography written in English, and the first pornography produced in novel form, it’s one of the most banned books in history, and the subject of a number of historically significant obscenity trials. It has only been legally available in America since 1966, and the UK since 1970.
Beyond that, and more obviously, Fanny Hill is told in first person. Although long considered a text designed for the titillation of men attracted to women, what we actually read is the account of a woman attracted to men. Fanny describes, not herself, but her lovers — in lavish and loving terms.
Queer men are directly addressed in Fanny Hill, and not kindly. Fanny’s bawd (madam) describes effeminate, working class sodomites who assume female dress and pronouns, in vicious terms:
…she could not name an exception hardly of one of them, whose character was not in all other respects the most worthless and despicable that could be, stript of all the manly virtues of their own sex, and fill’d up with only the very worst vices and follies of our own…
Of course, that a keeper of a female brothel would be resentful of men stealing her clientele isn’t exactly surprising. Queer men of this type were colloquially known as “mollies,” the same term used to describe female prostitutes, implying the two were intrinsically linked in the public consciousness. But when we look at that quote again, we can see it isn’t as damning as it appears on the surface. Lessened first by the statement there was “hardly” an exception (which implies there were exceptions), by stating their character was “not in all other respects the most worthless…” the author tells us that in that one respect — their attraction to men — they find their worth.
Then Fanny happens to stumble across a pair of sodomites for herself. The scene in question is still omitted from a number of editions of Fanny Hill even today. Fanny is travelling by coach and decides to rest partway through her journey at an inn. She’s shown into a room which has been split into two by a partition. Looking out of the window, she watches another coach arrive and the pair of young men from it are shown into the room next door. She cannot see them, but she can hear through the partition as they immediately fall to flirtatiously roughhousing (at which point Fanny decides the younger must really be a woman in disguise). Being something of a voyeur, Fanny stands on a chair and pokes a hole through the partition to watch, and discovers to her surprise the “woman” she presumed to see was “like his mother behind, [but] was like his father before.”
Unlike her bawd’s description of grotesque and worthless figures mimicking women, Fanny observes a youth “towards nineteen, a tall comely young man” seducing another “not above seventeen, fair, ruddy, compleatly [sic] well made, and to say the truth, a sweet pretty stripling.” She considers both attractive, and takes them for gentlemen, not of the lower classes — the opposite of what she was told men like them were supposed to be.
Cleland narrates Fanny watching at the two men roughhouse, fondle, kiss, strip, and engage in penetrative sex. Again, it seems an unusual scene in an ostensibly female-centric work of erotica, although Fanny’s reasoning for continuing to watch a scene which she claims horrifies her is simple — to gather evidence for a prosecution (remember, ejaculation had to be proven in order to secure the death penalty for sodomy). Fanny wants the beautiful young men dead for engaging in a sex act described in more loving and playful terms than anything in which she engages with either her clients or future husband.
Indeed, heterosexual sex is usually portrayed by the author as something horrific, at best to be endured. Fanny’s loss of virginity — to a man she chose herself, and to whom she was attracted — was nonetheless so painful she “could have skream’d out” as he “drove forward with fury” into her with “one violent merciless lunge…imbrew’d and reeking with virgin blood, up to the very hilt.” After some “fierce tearing and rending” she falls into a dead faint: not exactly the stuff of romance.
Female bodies more generally are described in grotesque terms. During another instance of voyeurism, Fanny observes a woman with breasts “swagged down, navel low at least… of a worse colour, flagging-soft,” with “fat brawny thighs hung low, and the whole greasy landskip lay fairly open… a wide open mouth’d gap, overshaded with a grizzly bush, seemed held out like a beggar’s wallet for its provision.” And again, this is supposed to be an erotic novel designed to titillate men attracted to women?
But back to our young lovers at the inn. Once ejaculation has been achieved “with a long-breath’d kiss”, Fanny hops down from her stool and races to the door to alert the authorities and have the young men detained, when “some nail or ruggedness in the floor caught [her] foot” and she was “flung” on her face with “such violence that [she] fell senseless to the ground.” The sound of her fall alerts the lovers to her presence, and by the time she regains consciousness they have long fled the inn. She received, quite literally, a slap in the face for attempting to condemn the men.
What, then, are we to make of Fanny Hill? While I’m generally loath to draw correlations too directly between an author’s life and their work, there are more than whispers that Cleland himself was queer. He was expelled from Westminster School at fourteen for reasons that were not financial, but too scandalous to record, never married or was even rumoured to be associated with a woman, and was exceptionally close to Thomas Cannon, most famous as the author of Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d, the earliest known English-language public defence of sodomy between men. In later life the two had a bitter falling out and were never reconciled. Even within his own lifetime, Cleland was remarked upon as being a “supposed sodomite.”
A man can, of course, defend same-sex attraction without being queer himself, but I love to think that Cleland was quite deliberately and cleverly playing with his audience, tricking two and a half centuries of men into reading erotica about male bodies, and teaching them a lesson about their preconceived notions while he was at it. Fanny is a prostitute who never suffers for her chosen profession, and Cleland’s readers were, until very recently, dabbling in forbidden smut. Both within the novel and without, Cleland reiterated the point that nobody has the right to judge the sexual conduct of others.
Balls Up charity donation: as most of you know, when I released Balls Up I pledged 10% of the first three months’ profits to Orchid, a male-specific cancer charity. Well Balls Up is three months old today, and I’m pleased to announce I’ve been able to make a donation in the sum of £300 (approximately $460). Thank you to everyone who bought a copy, shared a link, and helped make this contribution!
Born on this day: Sylvester (1947-1988, American) disco and soul singer/songwriter.
Died on this day: Ronald Magill (1920-2007, English), actor best known for his role as Amos Brearly in long-running soap opera Emmerdale Farm.