Class and gender chiefly governed British society in the eighteenth century and the opportunities for a woman to achieve social and financial security were scarce. In this society men of the upper class governed the female identity. This patriarchal climate stipulated that “a respectable woman was nothing but the potential mother of children” (Blease 7). In the context of eighteenth century British society, this prescribed duty implied marriage first and was shortly followed by procreation and duties relating to family life. Although marriage and maternity provided the only socially acceptable path for women during this time, some women turned to prostitution as an alternate means of subsistence. However, in eighteenth century society, where sexuality, especially female sexuality, was repressed, prostitution as a line of work was largely taboo. Thus, marriage during this time provided the only respectable means for a woman to achieve a comfortable and virtuous life. In addition, amidst a socially stratified society, marriage also served an alternate purpose as a potential means by which a woman could elevate her social situation. These social politics, combined with the sexual inequality that characterised eighteenth century British society, are manifested throughout the literature of the time. Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded, embraces the notion that marriage is the only acceptable path for his heroine. However in Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, John Cleland provides the antithesis of Richardson’s novel by depicting pleasure as his heroine’s ultimate source of freedom throughout the account of her life as a prostitute. Both Richardson and Cleland approach marriage within their respective works in radically different ways as each text provides its author with a vehicle to comment on the function of marriage amidst eighteenth century British society. Pamela and Fanny Hill reconcile the differences in their fundamental structure through their portrayal of marriage not as the only available option, but the only acceptable option for their heroine. The disparate depictions between the lives of Cleland and Richardson’s heroines throughout their respective texts serve to assert that marriage is not the only available option for their heroines. Throughout the first volume of Pamela, Richardson’s heroine continually deflects the sexual advances of her master claiming that she “would rather lose [her] life than [her] honesty” (Richardson). Conversely, Cleland’s heroine, Fanny Hill, devotes the bulk of her memoir to the graphic recollection of her sexual encounters as a prostitute. Although inherently different in plot, the heroines of these two texts share a common origin as poor, lower class country girls. The similar and somewhat ambiguous upbringings of Pamela and Fanny create an innate comparison between the two characters and their lifestyles. Cleland manipulates this parallel and portrays Fanny as the antithesis to Richardson’s heroine. Throughout both texts, the authors interrogate the institution of marriage as a complex issue intricately connected with social class and sexual inequality. Many critics have labelled Samuel Richardson as “puritanical, meaning little more than that he had a rigid moral code” (Morton 242). Richardson’s Puritan principles manifest themselves throughout the novel through Pamela’s repeated denial of Mr B’s designs on her. Pamela abides by a strict moral code throughout the text claiming “how easy a choice poverty and honesty is, rather than plenty and wickedness” (Richardson). This resolve to cling to her virtue is not only for her own spiritual protection, but also for the safeguarding of her person. Her refusal to become “mistress of [Mr B’s] person and fortune, as much as if the foolish ceremony had passed” is governed as much by her moral compass as it is by her instinct for self-preservation as a woman of a low social class (Richardson). Although Mr B offers his entire estate to Pamela if she will agree to be kept as his mistress, without the legal contract of a marriage to secure this position, Pamela would be robbed of her precious virtue and risk complete social ruin were Mr B to turn her out. Pamela equates being kept mistress to slavery and confides in her parents claiming that she “would rather be obliged to wear rags, and live upon rye-bread and water, as I used to do, than to be a harlot to the greatest man in the world” (Richardson). As a lower class servant-girl, becoming a mistress to a powerful aristocratic gentleman had the potential to “invite [Pamela’s] ruin” (Richardson). Thus, the only options available to Pamela that would not guarantee her ruin were to cling to her virtue or solidify her position through marriage. While Pamela’s upstanding virtue provides the model behaviour for young ladies of the time, Cleland’s heroine sustains herself through the socially unacceptable act of prostitution. Although Fanny Hill is a pornographic novel intended to arouse its male readership, Cleland’s text is essentially anti-Pamelist in its account of Fanny’s life. Richardson offers his heroine multiple opportunities to flee the unwelcome advances of Mr B from Mr William’s proposal of marriage to Mr B’s offer to take Pamela as his mistress, both of which she refuses. Fanny, on the other hand, is forced out of poverty into the line of sex work. She relinquishes her hold on virtue, telling the reader that “our virtues and our vices depend too much on our circumstances” (Cleland 46). Fanny acknowledges that her mode of survival will cost her virtue nonetheless she eagerly submits. Her unrepressed attitude toward her sexuality creates a stark contrast with Pamela who repeatedly exclaims that she would rather seek death than the loss of her honesty. As a pornographic piece of literature, Fanny’s memoir “offers a picaresque of bodies and their parts traveling from one encounter to the next” (Haslanger 164). However at the same time, Fanny’s account depicts a woman forced into prostitution who “did not care what became of my wretched body: and wanting life, spirits, or courage to oppose the least struggle, even that of the modesty of my sex, [and] suffered, tamely, whatever the gentleman pleased” (Cleland 46). Under the guise of an erotic novel, Cleland employs Fanny Hill to comment on the social and sexual stratification present in British society. Cleland takes a progressive approach toward sexuality throughout the text. Firstly, in that he acknowledges the sexual desire of his heroine during a time when female sexuality was strictly repressed. Secondly, Cleland suggests that sexual encounters span the void between the social classes. Fanny claims that “the talent of pleasing, with which nature has endowed a handsome person, formed to me the greatest of all merits; compared to which, the vulgar prejudices in favour of titles, dignities, honours, and the like, held a very low rank indeed” (Cleland 61). Thus Cleland asserts that the superfluous titles, etc. that distinguish the classes are neutralised in the context of a sexual encounter, and that identifying with a higher social rank cannot cultivate love, or at least sexual attraction. However, aside from romanticising Fanny’s life as a prostitute, he also illuminates the inequalities between the sexes that exist even in the neutralising realm of sexual encounters. While Fanny and her fellow prostitutes were “branded with the names of guilt and shame,” the men that visited them could do so without detection (Cleland 71). In a world where young women were expected to maintain their innocence until marriage, Pamela’s tireless preservation of her virtue was seen as model behaviour. However, Cleland notes the irony in this requirement which men of status were hardly expected to follow. As Fanny attempts to feign her innocence with one of her lovers, she reflects upon the “innocence which the men so ardently require in us, for no other end than to feast themselves with the pleasure of destroying it” (Cleland 98).While both texts utilise their heroine’s situation to comment on social and sexual politics that plagued British society at the time, they employ the marriage of their respective heroines to communicate their differing opinions on the options available to the eighteenth century woman. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela’s persistent safeguarding of her virtue is eventually rewarded in the mutually beneficial marriage between herself and Mr B. Pamela’s virtue elevates her husband morally, while their marriage grants her stability as well as access to upper class society. Richardson presents marriage as Pamela’s only respectable option, yet he allows her to marry the man she loves, rather than the most suitable and convenient choice. Fanny Hill, on the other hand, boasts a basic comedic structure to its narrative. The novel ends with Fanny’s marriage to her first love, Charles, which Fanny herself recognises as being “out of character” (Cleland 139). Cleland incorporates Fanny’s marriage to maintain a contrast with Pamela so that ““Fanny Hill’s anti-Pamelism…lies most importantly in its commentary on the very form of the marriage plot” (Haslanger 183). In Pamela, Richardson suggests that “marriage rewards virtue and repairs, or even erases, harm” (Haslanger 183). Pamela’s marriage is a central turning point in the novel as Pamela leaves behind her old life as a lower class servant and assumes her new position as the wife of an upper class man. However, Fanny’s marriage merely serves to provide the novel with a comedic ending. Although both plots include a marriage, the “marriage in Pamela does the same thing as pleasure in Fanny Hill: both perform conversions of discord into concord, injury into the impossibility thereof” (Haslanger 183). Richardson’s work, asserts that marriage is the only socially acceptable end for his heroine. While Cleland’s pornographic text acknowledges that prostitution is not deemed socially acceptable, he argues that the pleasure Fanny derives from her sexual encounters can provide her with the same social and sexual neutralisation that Pamela achieves through her marriage. Nevertheless, both novels acknowledge marriage as an integral part of eighteenth century society that can be achieved through a variety of means, but provides the only socially acceptable path to security for the female heroine. ReferencesBlease, W. L. (1971). The emancipation of English women. New York, B. Blom.Cleland, J. (2004). Fanny Hill: memoirs of a woman of pleasure. Ware, Wordsworth Editions.Haslanger, A. (2011) What Happens When Pornography Ends in Marriage: The Uniformity of Pleasure in Fanny Hill. English Literary History, 78 (1), p.163-188.Morton, D. (1971) Theme and Structure in “Pamela”. Studies in the Novel, 3 (3), p.242-257. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/29531465.Richardson, S. (1958). Pamela: or, Virtue rewarded. New York, Norton.
The rise of the novel in mainstream 18th century English society, and the potential for complex identity formation through its narrative structure, provided a new medium for pornographic writing and consumption. Intersecting this rise, the word “Sapphic” became a popular descriptor for the same-sex desire of women in the latter half of the century, one of the first identifiers to pre-date the early 19th century categorical term of “lesbian” (Akroyd 143). John Cleland’s 1748 erotic novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, follows Fanny through her scandalous adventures as an English prostitute. As the narrator, Fanny acts as mediator for a series of desiring gazes over multiple types of sexual encounters and pleasurable bodies. This multiplicity, including a graphic depiction of homosexual sex (which was illegal at the time), suggests, as Lisa Moore points out, that Cleland’s novel complicates “the notion of a single, properly English, properly heterosexual reader” (49). Despite the novel’s portrayal of many scandalous sexualities, same-sex female desire remains a site of uncertainty, not as easily categorized as sodomy, anal, or oral pleasure. Beyond the sexual veil, however, this ambiguous representation of Sapphic desire in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure carries the potential for examining and destabilizing many of the naturalized socioeconomic and heteronormative political views of domesticity, female sexual agency, and sodomy in English society at the time.
In the 18th century, a woman’s virtue became tied closely to the domestic interior of the English home, to the extent that female-only spaces were encouraged as to “guarantee English moral purity” from the external threat of deviant sexual behavior based on “the assumption of women’s sexlessness” (Moore 13). In Cleland’s novel, these passionless expectations are parodied as the English domestic space is transformed into Mrs. Brown’s brothel. Through Phoebe Ayres, this fracturing of feminine domestic purity in pornographic fiction betrays the historical reality of Sapphic female relationships in these homosocial interiors. That Fanny’s first sexual encounter is with Phoebe, who adopts the role of friend and sexual teacher, is not surprising considering how English Sapphism “was veiled behind the acceptance of close friendships between women” and “the general communication of warmth and affection were considered to be normal”, a harmless, natural side-effect of female emotionality that garnered little-to-no moral interest from the general public (Ackroyd 77). Even Fanny normalizes Phoebe’s sexual advances at first, believing the gesture to be “nothing but pure kindness” (Cleland 48). Yes, female homosexuality in this scene is viewed as “more easily recuperable, mere ‘preparation’ for heterosexual sex” but there are moments in this scene that complicate that heteronormative assumption (Moore 66). During the encounter, Phoebe declares “Oh! That I were a man for your sake!” (Cleland 49). Because masculinity was synonymous with sexual appetites, her statement suggests she wants something more than limits of a private, romantic friendship. At the time, Sapphism was only punished (and acknowledged) when there were public transgressions, usually cross-dressing women ruining the sanctity of marriage (Ackroyd 141). Despite her confusion, Fanny succumbs to Phoebe’s aggressive advances. She distances herself from this encounter to preserve her heroine-ship through suspended innocence: “I was transported, confused, and out of myself” (Cleland 49). As Fanny feels Phoebe’s breasts and genitalia, she actively maps out Sapphic desire through gender identification, sexing the “sexless” woman. This encounter marks the start of her sexual identity formation through the dislocation of private domestic ideology and affectionate female friendship. Afterwards, Fanny anxiously assures the reader of Phoebe’s heterosexuality (“not that she hated men” but she just had a “secret bias”). This statement, however, does not feel particularly convincing (Cleland 49). Phoebe is “whome all modes and deviances of pleasure were known and familiar” (Cleland 49). Fanny’s attempt to de-gender, and excuse, Phoebe’s sexual preferences—”What pleasure she had found I will not say”—creates an ambiguous cover under which her Sapphic sexuality can operate unregulated (Cleland 50). In her multiplicitous role as comforting friend, tutoress, and sexual partner, Phoebe demonstrates how the fragmented social image of the passionless, domestic English woman can become the site of complex sexual identity formation.
In the second act of the novel, Fanny moves into Mrs. Cole’s brothel. This change of location, with its “air of decency, modesty, and order”, marks Fanny’s upward movement in the English class system to something more bourgeois than her time at Mrs. Brown’s (Cleland 131). As Fanny enters this higher class of prostitution, her new, proper female friends decide to educate her on the types of sexual acts she’s expected to know at this professional level. Fanny’s lack of sexual knowledge makes her the ideal surrogate for the reader’s own desires. Yet, moments of homoeroticism in this scene raise questions unsettle the gaze of the assumed heterosexual male reader. After Louisa finishes her copulation, she “shook her petticoats, and running up to me, gave me a kiss” (Cleland 150). When Harriet takes her turn, “Louisa and Emily took hold of her legs…displayed the greatest parade in nature of female charms” (Cleland 151). More than just pornographic performance, the women actively acknowledge Fanny’s presence in the room and, through these demonstrations, elicit from her a physical response saturated with homoerotic tenderness. Louisa’s kiss evokes the natural custom of the sexually charged female friendship. When she witnesses Harriet and Emily have sex, Fanny expresses delight at their beauty, hugs and praises them afterwards. As Louisa undresses Fanny for her ‘initiation’, she is aroused by this tender gesture, not wanting to “rob them of full view of my whole person”—whether “them” means the women, the male suitors, or both remains uncertain (Cleland 158). This scene subverts the notion that 18th century English women had little-to-no sexual agency through the portrayal of their voracious sexual appetites. Mrs. Cole’s women deliberately perform these acts for their own pleasure. With their inclusion of Fanny as participant, the possibility is raised that the multiplicity of female desire can extend beyond preferences within normative heterosexual sex. Cleland places these women within a sexual precarity between Fanny’s role as erotic narrator for a predominately hetero-male audience and the bodily language of Sapphic desire and female sexual agency which would be unknowable to those very same men outside of those domestic interiors.
While Cleland keeps Fanny’s homoerotic female encounters elusive and undefined, the same cannot be said for the only portrayal of sodomy in the novel, which quickly becomes the text’s most antagonistic moment. As Moore observes, “a certain kind of sexual agency—the female desire that has fueled Fanny’s picturesque progress through the narrative—becomes impossible after the moral moment of homophobia in the novel” (70). This threat of male homosexuality penetrating the private, domestic space underscores a critical dichotomy between the social perception of sodomy and Sapphism in 18th century England. Through the peep-hole, Fanny’s role as naïve, sexually playful narrator becomes one of national, social surveillance. Homosexuality’s threat was in its “instabilities of gender”, “its invisibility”, and “incorporation into everyday life”, therefore it must be outed and examined (Moore 72). Despite her previous homoerotic encounters, Fanny is still shocked by the possibility of this same-sex (effeminate) male interaction: “…and give him such manifest signs of an amorous intention, as made me conclude the other to be a girl in disguise” (Cleland 194). This exclamation of disgust is odd considering just how phallocentric the rest of the novel’s narrative is. What Cleland presents is an utterly English breed of sodomy, one that must be actively studied, rooted out, defined, and exposed to the court of law to preserve a sense of national English masculinity. Fanny’s hypocritical reaction may be surprising to contemporary readers, but this response is not unusual when considering how “there was no legal definition of lesbianism…because under English law no such condition existed…It was a non-event, a nothing…Love without a penis was not love at all” (Ackroyd 77). Sapphism could operate under the guise of social behavior, the privacy of domestic spaces, because it was socially illegitimated, an ambiguous pleasure that could easily tuck itself back into heteronormative convention (as Fanny narratively does in becoming a bourgeois, monogamous wife at the end). Fanny’s moral outrage, in falling out of the tone of the rest of the salacious descriptions of the novel, shows how the English sodomite is “always readily distinguishable from actual men” (Moore 72). Within the privacy of this domestic space, Fanny’s voyeuristic gaze becomes its own kind of intrusion, no longer of pleasure but of heteronormative regulation, as if suddenly reminded of the predominately heterosexual male or perhaps the English woman re-establishing her own authority of domestic virtue.
Operating within that negative space from which the English sodomite has been excised, lies the question(s) of 18th century Sapphic desire: how those kinds of pleasures operate within English heteronormative society, how conventional female gender norms can become destabilized within this little-understood realm of sexual pleasure, and how the domestic privacy of the bourgeois home might open a space for multiple gazes and pornographic pleasures beyond the traditional heterosexual male. The novel’s ambiguous representation of Sapphic desire is precisely that: ambiguous. Fanny’s interactions with Phoebe and Mrs. Cole’s girls raise more questions than answers, and perhaps that is precisely the point. The absence of a clear definition of English Sapphic behavior due to social insignificance provides these women with the space to act on their intimate desires, to gain a sense of sexual agency, while avoiding the same punitive scrutiny as sodomites. Sapphism’s unstable form allows it to adapt to a heteronormative social order, its invisibility integrated (and even normalized to a certain degree in the popular pornographic novel) into social convention as to avoid appearing as a threat to national English identity. The female homosexual discourses Cleland presents are some of the earliest historical threads of female queer desire to follow. The complicated, and at times flawed, homoerotic encounters in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure allow for the better understanding and tracing back of the genealogy of contemporary feminine lesbian identity to a larger 18th century, English socio-historical shift in individual and national, gendered identity formation, pornographic print culture, and the policing of homosexuality. These enigmatic Sapphic narratives set the stage for new developments in the social language and acknowledgement of female queerness to come in later centuries.
Ackroyd, Peter. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day. Chatto & Windus, 27 June 2017.
Cleland, John. Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Penguin Classics, 1985.
Moore, Lisa. Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel. Duke University Press, 1997.