Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland (commonly known as "Fanny Hill"). Specifically, it will answer the question, "is Fanny Hill an unrepentant woman or a contrite woman? It will draw parallels between another fallen woman in "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders," by Daniel Defoe. Fanny Hill was a highly controversial and compelling novel about a prostitute, written when prostitution was certainly not an everyday topic of conversation. The book was the first to be banned in the United States. Today, it seems tame compared to our modern day versions of sex, but it still tells a compelling story of how women were forced to survive at a time in history when they had little other method of supporting themselves.
Fanny Hill" was a highly controversial and compelling novel, first published in 1749, and called the first pornographic novel by some reviewers. "The first full-length English novel explicitly and overtly engaged in arousing sexual desire in the reader is John Cleland's 'Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure' (1748-49), popularly if somewhat inaccurately known by the title of its later expurgation, 'Fanny Hill'" (Nussbaum 18). Written in 1722, "Moll Flanders" is also the story of a young woman forced to become a mistress by her circumstances. Each woman has little choice in her predicament, as there were few other options open to young women who were orphaned or left on their own. Each woman also views her predicament differently, but Fanny is ultimately unrepentant for her life style, while Moll is repentant and is used as a symbol of Puritanical reform by Defoe.
Both books are the literary products of eighteenth century England, and the two women who tell their stories in these books reflect the life and social behavior of the time in a manner the average history book cannot. While the impressions of their surroundings are colored by their own distinctly different emotional natures and the picture they describe is limited by the boundaries of their own direct experience, both women reflect in their narratives a concern for what was considered proper and virtuous conduct at that time. They also both reflect the general tendency of that period toward a belief in the basic goodness of man. Moll reforms to illustrate both her goodness and her remorse at the wrongs of her previous life. Fanny decries vice at the end of her narrative because her life is ending on a happy note, and all of her sacrifices have led her to happiness. Both of these women have committed less than virtuous deeds, but both are redeemed at the end of their novels because it is clear they are good and decent women, who did what they did in order to survive.
Although the age was one of relative prosperity and stability in which people were generally free to pursue pleasure and luxurious living, it was not without difficulties and hardships for certain classes of people, especially women on their own. It is precisely their position as women without money adrift in a world where money and sexuality were highly prized that creates and molds their life styles and their perceptions of these life styles.
Moll Flanders' circumstances are more difficult than Fanny's, and this tends to make her story more varied and wide ranging. Ultimately, her life creates a more resourceful and independent woman. Fanny's story is extremely limited next to Moll's. It is repetitive almost to the point of boredom, a situation she herself admits and does her best to rectify, as in the opening of her second letter:
imagined... that you would have been cloy'd and tired with uniformity of adventures and expressions, inseparable from a subject of this sort, whose... groundwork being, in the nature of things, eternally one and the same, whatever variety of forms and modes the situations are susceptible of, there is no escaping a repetition of near the same images, the same figures, the same expressions... that the words JOYS, ARDOURS, TRANSPORTS, EXTASIES... flatten and lose much of their due spirit and energy by the frequency they... recur with, in a narrative of which that PRACTICE professedly composes the whole basis (Cleland 91).
And again in her description of one of her trysts at a young gentleman's country home: "but, as the circumstances did not admit of much variation. I shall spare you the description" (Cleland 171). Her experience was perhaps limited by the ease with which she moved from one situation to another without ever being too much on her own or ever having to try something different. However, the limitation of this experience to the purely sexual sphere of life does not make her account of her life any less interesting than Moll's nor her attitudes and insights all the less irrelevant to a student of eighteenth century history. In fact, her ribald life style is quite different from Moll's, but both novels clearly relate the seamier side of the eighteenth century in England and the United States, which most accounts rarely even touch. As such, they are compelling social histories which delve into the sexuality of a century.
While both women are endowed with a frankness and candor with regard to "telling it like it is," Moll has a reluctance to go into the details of the lovemaking scenes. At one point, she modestly notes, "but then he went further with me than decency permits me to mention" (Defoe Chapter 2). Fanny never feels the need to edit her experiences, which in fact would reduce her story to practically nothing, had she shared Moll's reserve. Beyond the difference in the authors' tastes and purposes in writing, the women's divergent points-of-view on this mater could be accounted for by the preoccupation in their lives.
Moll, continuously bombarded by abrupt changes in her life that carried her both to heights above and depths below Fanny's relatively stable standard of living, as well as to the insecurities of a whole new environment in America, had ever new impressions made upon her imagination, ever new demands made upon her resourcefulness. While she obviously had her share of sexual escapades, she was not limited to this physicality, and hence her talent for observation, insight, and narration focused on a broader world and had no need to dwell on the particulars of any one situation to the exclusion of all else. Instead, she often dwells on her financial circumstances, which are often much more dire than Fanny's. One critic notes about Moll,
The disarming frankness of Moll Flanders disinfects her doings of all obscenity. At the age of forty-two she is abandoned by the man whose mistress she had become, and she proceeds as usual to take stock of her financial position. She has about £500 in cash, some plate, and a good deal of clothes and linen (Sutherland 239).
Fanny's situation was quite to the contrary. Being practically imprisoned by her circumstances in either a brothel or a kept apartment, her talent for expression was severely limited in its choice of subject matter. Thus, it was necessary for her to become preoccupied with and interested in the detailed descriptions of the sexual life of human beings in all its ramifications. Nevertheless, in relating experiences that are basically repetitive, she does not fail to give her own observations and opinions on the behavior of that time.
Even though Moll closes the door where Fanny opens it yet wider, they both reflect on a feeling of the period concerning "genre," or behaving and thus writing in accordance with what was considered good taste and decorum. Unfortunately, the two women, in different circumstances, must behave indecorously. Moll is reduced to thievery when she is left penniless at an age when she can no longer use her charms to catch and hold a man.
Moll Flanders, on the other hand, is always searching for some security in marriage from the poverty which seems to threaten her life. When she is left destitute at the age of forty-eight, without the charms which made her a successful Wife and mistress, a fear of necessity and poverty drives her to steal to preserve her life. As her money diminishes in the three years she lives alone after her husband's death, Moll sees before her the terrors of starvation (Novak 78).
On the other hand, Fanny's life, although much more promiscuous, takes on an air of decorum and decency even in a house of ill repute. According to Fanny, Mrs. Cole's house "breath'd an air of decency, modesty and order" (Cleland 93). She continues,
In short, this was the safest, politest, and, at the same time, the most thorough house of accommodation in town; everything being conducted so that decency made no intrenchment [sic] upon the most libertine pleasures, in the practice of which too, the choice familiars of the house had found the secret so rare and difficult, of reconciling even al the refinements of taste and delicacy with the most…