Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

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 The Penguin edition of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
The Penguin edition of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

The Moment of Truth: Confession in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

Published in mid-eighteenth-century England, suppressed immediately upon its release, and banned within the U.S. until the 1960s, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland offers an illustration of what some historians refer to as “the other Victorians.” The story recounts the exploits of young, virtuous Fanny Hill who, after being orphaned, is seduced into a life of prostitution. The narrative takes the form of a letter written by Fanny at the behest of an unnamed woman. ”I sit down to give you an undeniable proof of my considering your desires as indispensable orders,” Fanny writes in her compliance to confess all about the “scandalous stages of [her] life” (1).

Conforming to this moral imperative, Fanny first provides the mundane details of her biography that are ostensibly added to give her impunity from judgment. Immediately at the start of her letter, Fanny guarantees her ultimate return to the moral order and “the enjoyment of every blessing in the power of love, health, and fortune” (1). Thus reassured that Fanny will marry and make a success of her life, the reader then learns of the untimely death of her parents to small pox—another gesture made to suspend moral judgment of her memoir. Fanny’s station and security is vulnerable within a society that offered “respectable,” bourgeois women few possibilities outside marriage and the home. She takes to the road, leaving her British countryside for the London metropolis. At every turn, the narrative intimates Fanny’s fall from virtue into vice: “I soon came to the resolution of making this launch into the wide world, by repairing to London, in order to seek my fortune, a phrase, which, by the bye, has ruined more adventurers of both sexes, from the country, than every it made or advanced” (3).

While making an honest attempt to find work within the women’s job agency, Fanny meets Mrs. Brown, the beldam of a London brothel. Reflecting on this chance introduction, Fanny writes that “this was a market where Mrs. Brown (my mistress) frequently attended, on the watch for any fresh goods that might offer there, for the use of her customers, and her own profit” (7). It takes Fanny some time to discover Mrs. Brown’s true occupation— much less the occupation for which Fanny is being suited out. As the narrative proceeds, and as Fanny is introduced to “does” such as Phoebe and Polly and “cousins” such as Mr. Crofts and Charles, her confession makes occasional concessions to her plight. This is perhaps most apparent when she speaks to being seduced into the trade or into becoming a “woman of pleasure.” Dressed up in finery and doted upon, Fanny says that Mrs. Brown and Phoebe “made me pleased with my cage, and blind to its wires” (9). However poignantly these statements speak to the subjection of being bound by her profession, they appear merely peripheral to a story of the pleasure and profit of Fanny’s profession … and the remainder of the selection chosen for class essentially sensationalizes Fanny’s circulation in the sex trade.

Reading Between the Lines: Sexuality and Modern Social Institutions

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was printed in between 1748 and 1749, before what it is typically canonized as the Victorian period. Nevertheless, it speaks to the contradictions of Victorian ideologies about sexuality and repression. Theorized by Michel Foucault in response to scholarship that started appearing within the 1960s -- and also coincident with the lift on “Fanny Hill”’s censorship -- the “repressive hypothesis” presumed that society was just beginning to emerge from the “monotonous nights” of the reign of the bourgeoisie. Foucault’s initial response to this commonsense understanding of sexuality is to question the accuracy of its claims: were the Victorians truly repressed? Here, he references the work of Steven Marcus and other historians who were exploring the undercurrents of Victorian ideologies. The fundamental contradiction of the Victorians, Foucault writes in summary of this scholarship, is that they simultaneously “dedicated themselves to speaking of [sex] ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (35). Historian Jeffrey Weeks writes tellingly of this contradiction in ways that signal its relevance for a discussion of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure: "[The Victorian era] has been portrayed as the era when rigid Puritanism allied with moral hypocrisy, verbal and visual delicacy marched arm in arm with a flourishing pornography. The authoritarian paterfamilias presided over the institutionalization of the double standard, while the pedestalised mother and wife depended for her purity on the degradation of the fallen woman” (19). Weeks’ comment suggests that despite seeming exceptional in its explicitness, “Fanny Hill” was actually representative of the period’s preoccupation with sexuality—and in particular the virtuous woman of hearth and home, and the fallen woman forced into the public and prey to scrutiny.

Indeed, in many ways Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure conforms to the conventions of the seduction novel popularized in the British context with Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and later in the U.S. context with The Coquette and Charlotte Temple. Unlike the protagonists of these novels, Fanny isn’t necessarily the subject of shame. This may be suggestive of its earlier date, as bourgeois ideologies around sex and gender were arguably not as fixed in 1749 as they were in the second-half of the eighteenth century. In trying to deconstruct these notions around sex and gender, it helps to recall an earlier construction around women’s sexuality. As Stephanie Coontz writes, "Throughout the Middle Ages women had been considered the lusty sex, more pretty to their passions than men. [...] The beginning of the nineteenth century, however, saw a new emphasis on women's innate sexual purity. The older view that women had to be controlled because they were inherently more passionate and prone to moral and sexual error was replaced by the idea that women were asexual beings" (159).

Implicitly viewing gender and sexuality as social constructions, Foucault’s proposition in The History of Sexuality is that sexuality was a modern invention: it emerged as a discourse within modernity in order to facilitate new operations of power. He argues that rather than reading a text such as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure as either sexually permissive or sexually repressive, one should instead read for an analysis of the discourse around sexuality:

The central issue, then (at least in the first instance), is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, whether one formulates prohibitions or permissions, whether one asserts its importance or denies its effects, or whether one refines the words one uses to designate it; but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. (11)

These questions lead one to read not for sex itself but instead for the talk around sexuality and how it fits into larger social structures and power relations, such as class and race. Posing these questions to Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, one then might read the novel not (only) as a sensational, pornographic novel that subverted the repression of bourgeois sexual norms, with the effect of being censored and prohibited. Instead, one might read for how sexuality in the novel was channeled through social institutions and practices such as marriage and capitalism. After all, Fanny’s occupation as a “woman of pleasure” places her in a site where profit was nevertheless generated by the prohibition on sex outside the private domain of the bourgeois home. As such, asking what institutions prompt a discourse of sexuality and what institutions “store and distribute things that are said” leads one to conclude that Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure actually illustrates how novels and other forms of print culture were one social institution that facilitated new forms of power -- a claim that Nancy Armstrong makes in Desire and Domestic Fiction. By this reading, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is not simply repressive or subversive, and Fanny isn’t merely disempowered or empowered by her profession. Rather, the story opens onto a critique of historic ideologies that had profound material effects on politics and society.

External Links

  • The online text of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure available at [1]
  • Audio files for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure available on Project Gutenberg [2]

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