Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure – John Cleland (1748-1750)

As the first book in my Reading Years challenge this was a huge challenge for me to read. The first clue of the content of this book should have been the “what other books have been bought by people who downloaded this book” category on amazon.com. Having decided that there was never enough time for bad reading experiences I made a conscious choice not to read Fifty Shades of Grey and this was one of those other possible purchases. Anyway, finding another book was difficult and I’m a grown up so how hard could it be really?

Well it was pretty hard … no pun intended. Normally a quick reader this book took me ages. I believe I read another 15 books while trying to finish this one. There was a range of reasons why this was not my ‘cup of tea’. I’m a bit prudish when it comes to reading sex scenes. There are those awkward moments reading some of the bizarre sex in Haruki Murakami novels (mostly they make me giggle); there are the beautifully written restrained Edith Wharton ‘sex scenes’ and then there is the laugh out loud ridiculous of the McEwan sex scenes in both Atonement and Chesil Beach. But also it felt ‘pervy’ – knowing this was written by a man wiling his time away in debtors’ prison, it was difficult not to hear the voice of my late mother-in-law talk about the discomfort of hearing an old man reading out erotica in the books for the blind that the Royal Society for the Blind (NZ) used to send her in her last years. When you are reading a badly or awkwardly written sex scene in a book you can skip over it, skim ahead or laugh a little bit. Hard to do that when somebody is reading it out to you or, in the case of this novel, when the whole thing is a series of badly described sex scenes.

John Cleland, the author, faced a range of indecency charges as a result of the publication of this book. It was originally published in two parts – 1748 and 1749 – and it would seem to have been published again as a single expurgated novel in 1750. During his indecency trial he renounced the text and it was officially withdrawn from sale. And as we all know there is no publicity like bad publicity to create a storm amongst the reading population. There was a roaring trade of this novel on the black market both in the UK and in the US. It was only in the 1960s after Lady Chatterly’s Lover and the obscenity trial that surrounded that book failed that a full version of the book was published openly in the United Kingdom.

Given all of that, there is an interesting idea of female sexuality that comes from the book. Fanny (although written by a man) is the subject of most of her encounters. She manages her sexuality and her life. Ultimately, however, it all ends as it should and so any attempt at a redemptive feminist reading is thrown out the window as we realise that the idea of Fanny Hill is penned and consumed by men for their titillation not for the empowerment of women that an open, healthy series of sexual relationships could present.

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