A Woman of Many Pleasures: “Sapphic” Desire in ‘Fanny Hill’

March 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

Works Cited

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.

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