Posted: 10/24/2008


Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure


by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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She was called a “coquettish little cockteaser,” the girl from Lanchester of humble beginnings who ended up seeing a part of the world that she hadn’t seem prepared for at first.

Fanny Hill was looking to make a change in her life and basically caught the first thing smoking to the next town. She ran away from familiar, albeit sad, surroundings into the big town of London, unsuspectingly into the hands of a Madame who ran a brothel.

What she thought was a cleaning job was really her introduction into being a lady of the evening. Her indoctrination consisted of her sleeping and getting cozy with another woman in the house; and then she partied with the other new prostitutes and men who’d come to negotiate for sexual favors.

This seems like so much, all at once, but Fanny remembers it with such dignity and grace, you feel for her in Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

Rebecca Night in the title role is such a beautiful woman; it’s a pity her life took such bad turns, as she sought out her piece of the pie. Of course, Fanny was only trying to better herself when she went gallivanting along on her own. One of the first men to whom Fanny is introduced at the brothel is an old, disgusting looking guy, even though he was very wealthy. Fanny was forced to keep him company, but she flat out refused, calling him an ugly, old man. Little did she know that he would come back to haunt her.

After a while of living in the house and attending parties set up by the Madame, Fanny makes acquaintance with a nice guy, with whom she decided on a whim one night to escape. The young man came from good stock; his father was rich. He and Fanny frolic and rumble in the bedroom incessantly, never wanting to come up for air. Fanny’s been freed in some many ways! But soon her beau has run out of the money with which he had to go off cavorting, and he must go back home to seek his father’s assistance with finances—well to beg for more money!

Lo and behold, as he takes Fanny into the house and tells his father that this is the woman who’s going to become his wife, his father questions his first encounter with Fanny at the brothel. The father is the ugly, old man with whom Fanny refused to have sex. The old man banishes his son from his home and warns him that any money he thought he’d inherit will not be his, as long as he decides to take up with Fanny.

After a time, he and Fanny are both dirt poor. And for revenge, the man’s father has him sent off to war, with Fanny languishing, anticipating his return, and not knowing that he’s off fighting. She goes about her life and eventually has to start selling her body again. And right when she thinks there’s nothing for which to live, a man who she’s first met at the brothel comes to her rescue, and the two of them go off into the sunset together.

Now, this is a great from “rags-to-riches,” “street-girl-to wealthy-woman” or “whore to sophisticate”—you get the idea—story. Fanny is such a sensitive, naïve young girl at first, and she basically blossomed—with the help of the Madame—into a stylish woman.

Sex to Fanny, on one hand, is something that she seems to have stumbled upon; but, on the other hand, it gave her the independence and security that she needed; since she was initially on her own in a strange town, where she was trusting folks who turned around to stab her in the back.

Writer Andrew Davies really takes on the “frank sensuality” of Britain’s first erotic novel—John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748). Cleland wrote “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” in 1748 while in debtor’s prison in London. The novel was subsequently banned for more than 200 years, because of its sexual content, and it earned Cleland a jail sentence for “corrupting the King’s subjects.” It is reportedly considered the first modern “erotic novel” in English, was first published in the United States in 1821 and was also banned for obscenity until the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case Memoirs vs. Massachusetts.

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is “a bawdy romp,” and the movie and the era are so mesmerizing that I watched the DVD late one night, yearning to know the outcome for the poor girl, with no family, but lots of ambition!

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is available October 28 on DVD from the Acorn Media Group.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a veteran public relations and journalism professional and former journalism professor. She’s publicist for her daughter, Hip-Hop artist Psalm One. A native Chicago South Sider, Elaine was a recent University of Maryland Bio Ethics, Health Disparities & Clinical Trials Fellow and winner of a Black Press Messenger Award.

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