Wednesday, February 06, 2008

John Cleland's Fanny Hill

Sorry for absence. Been busy.

I finished John Cleland's pornographic classic Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) couple nights back. It's a classic, all right, but still I couldn't get to liking it. The book is so wildly overwritten, with purple so prose every Western pulpster would've been flushing in shame (they would've been flushing anyway for the content). But nevertheless, for historical reasons it's a very intriguing novel: written in the first decades of the new form, novel, but still very much un-novel-like, in composition, in drama, in language and in narration. It has several allusions to other works of the same era (it was published in 1749), especially Henry Fielding's pseudonymous mocking of Richardson, Shamela. Some seem to think it's a parody of Daniel Defoe, and there are similarities between Fanny Hill and, say, Moll Flanders, but still I think Defoe wins hands down. Some also seem to think highly of Cleland's style, but that must because it seems now so other-worldly.

The cover on top is a pirated American edition from 1910 and the accompanying illustration is from the Finnish edition from 1969. The illo is by Seppo Polameri, who's been one of the foremost Finnish book illustators. My copy of Fanny Hill is jacketless, so I can't produce that one.

I just have this to say: beware of the written word, especially the old reference works! I first checked a Finnish reference work on writers from the early seventies (MMM: Maailman kirjailijat), thinking it's a reliable source. It said that Cleland was a scholar of languages and a playwright. Okay, I gathered, so he wrote Fanny Hill for quick money. Then I googled and came upon the Wikipedia article, which was rich in detail. And lo and behold! Cleland turned out to be a nutcase who claimed that Celtic is the mother language of all the languages of the Western civilization, and his plays were never produced.


JW said...

I read Fanny Hill soon after I'd turned eighteen as I recall ... interesting but ultimately deeply unsatisfying. I had much more fun reading Erica Jong's Fanny!

Todd Mason said...

I first encountered FANNY HILL in childhood, and have always associated it with tedium. Since it was long into the public domain (assuming FH was ever under copyright) by the beginning of the last century, that old US version wouldn't be a pirated version, Juri...just a reprint.

Juri said...

Umm... actually it was pirated, since it was a forbidden book. Putnam had to fight to get it published as late as 1966. The 1910 edition seems to be the only older edition on-line, could it be possible that the first edition was destroyed, when Cleland and the printer/publisher were put in jail?

Check the Wikipedia article on Cleland, the publication history of the book is very interesting.

Todd Mason said...

Not to be a drag, but "pirated" means stolen...published without permission of the copyright holder. No one would have the copyright to a book that had been, however suppressed, in the public domain for well over a century.

I suspect no one feels the need to scan any older editions, at least not yet, considering how damaging to the copy scanning might be.

Juri said...

Umm.. I guess you're right. What should be the word? "Illegal"?

Todd Mason said...

"Under the counter" or "illegal" or "contraband" all pretty much work in this case, sadly.