Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

By definition, prostitution is the act of having sex with someone in exchange for money. Prostitution is sometimes considered a social sin, however other people still contend that it is a legitimate vocation that belongs in the public sphere. In actuality, prostitution has existed for as long as there have been men. The prostitution described in Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) is done so in a way that is “”stark, naked reality”” (3) without the usual social formality that surrounds prostitution narratives. One of the evils of prostitution that emerges from Cleland’s Memoirs is rape. Fanny’s first sexual encounter is near rape (21-22). This suggests that Fanny was not psychologically prepared for her duties as a sexual object. Her early encounters in prostitution thus expose her to unwarranted physical and psychological pain as they leave her quite frightened (23).
Pornography is another evil depicted by Cleland in his Memoirs. Exposure to pornography brainwashes Fanny into becoming a sexual object. Her sexual desires become more ardent as she watches Miss Phoebe makes out with some of her clients. In the end, she is held captive watching Polly and Phoebe and bids goodbye all her fears of having sex with a man for her fears “…changed into such ardent desires, such ungovernable longings…” (36).
Prostitution also breeds infidelity. Fanny is unable to remain chaste as Mr. H’s kept woman. Mr. H finds her making out with Will one early morning; at a time she did not expect him home. (94) In her words, Fanny indicates she is unable to resist this urge for sex with Will (“For my part, a wanton toy had just taken me”, 94). It would appear that prostitution made it impossible for Fanny to learn the boundaries of social etiquette, and this costs her the status of being Mr. H’s woman. (99)
However, it seems that Cleland’s objective was to merely depict prostitution in a pornographic sense without much focus on evils associated with prostitution. Fanny, the main character in the Memoirs, appears untouched by her encounters. Perhaps it is the writer’s way of demonstrating that prostitution has been, is and shall be.
Indeed, one could say that Cleland uses Fanny’s transformation to demonstrate that prostitution has no evils. It is just what it is. Fanny begins her prostitute’s life at Mother Brown’s Brothel, changes through the time, she finds love and moves to Mrs. Jones rooming house before she is jilted. From the numerous instances of exploitation, abuse and disappointments, Fanny learns her lessons, and continues her transformation at Mr. H**’s apartment before she is caught with Will and her life takes a new turn. At her final abode in Mrs. Cole’s lodgings, Fanny is a transformed “young gentle-woman whose husband was gone to sea (…) bounded (…) strictly within the rules of decency and discretion. (188). Fanny emerges unharmed through all these experiences, as is their love with Charles. This suggests that Cleland’s stance is that prostitution has had no effect on Fanny.
Is Fanny a Victim or Has She Chosen Her Profession?
From the way Fanny narrates her story, one can surmise that Fanny did not choose her profession; rather, her profession chose her. In some instances in the novel, Fanny demonstrates that she abhors her profession. She refers to her narration as being about “scandalous stages of my life” (3) and “the loose part of my life, wrote with the same liberty that I led it.” (3) She refers to her first would-be client as “the monster” (19) and “the brute”. Clearly, the negative tone of her narration suggests that Fanny did not choose the life she led. Her tone does suggest that she detested it.
Fanny is manipulated into a life of prostitution. Unfortunately, she is easy to manipulate given her background, her naivety and lack of instruction in the ways of the world. In her own words, her “…foundation in virtue was no other than a total ignorance of vice, and the shy timidity general to our sex.” (4) It is no wonder then that when the Esther Davis crosses her path, Fanny looks up to her as a role model.
Fanny’s description of her choice to leave for London as one that “has ruined more adventurers…than ever it made or advanced” suggests that she looks back at her profession as a wrong choice (5). Fanny’s choice is really no choice at all as she gropes at the only option available as offered by Esther Davis. This is leaving her, after the death of both her parents, with no one to look out for her, at the age of fifteen. She is too young and too naïve to understand the implications of her decision to go to London. Indeed, as she opts to leave for London, the nature of the service presented to her is merely a “notion” that she barely understood but that she takes up more because of her curiosity about London than because she understands what she is getting herself into. Her naivety is further confirmed when she misconstrues Miss Phoebe’s sexual advances to be “nothing but pure kindness” (13).
Thus, in light of her naivety, inadequate training in virtue, and lack of experience, one can surmise that Fanny’s choice of profession is not deliberate. She did not choose her profession. Her profession is the result of a conspiracy of circumstances. Indeed, one conclusion from reading the memoirs is that Fanny’s “scandalous life” as she calls it (3) is attributable to her failure to appreciate the restrictions of social decorum, and she is not to blame for this failure. She is a victim.

Cleland, John. Fanny Hill, Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

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