Fanny Hill, John Cleland’s infamous 18th Century novel, spent much of the past 250 years getting passed between sweaty hands under tables. Banned almost immediately upon release, and the subject of countless subsequent obscenity seizures and trials, this faux-memoir is the quintessential erotic tale. But, written while he was in prison for his debts, Cleland’s story about an impoverished country girl who falls into prostitution in order to survive stands today not as a simple bit of dirty girl erotica, but rather as a study of the tangled question of morality in a world that exalts virtue while it thrives on vice.
Fanny Hill relies on what has become the standard porno set up: a poor teenaged Lancashire maid who, through her own vast ignorance (the film prefers words like innocence) is tricked into becoming a prostitute. She swiftly moves from the ridiculously naive “you mean I put that in here?” early days to an eventual worldliness that smacks of insatiability: “Its prodigious size made me shrink again; yet I could not, without pleasure, behold, and even venture to feel, such a length, such a breadth of animated ivory!” And so on.
This kind of journey from untouched innocent girl to touched-everyplace-by-everyone woman is, by now, fairly played out for audiences who’ve grown up on the tropes (if not the actual viewing) of pornography. But, somehow, Fanny’s story – because it has a wit, and thoughtfulness, about it that is generally lost in its progeny – succeeds not only at the titillation, but also at the stimulation, of the real erogenous zone. Which, I’m trying to say, ain’t in the trousers.
At the root, Cleland’s complex morality play is about the dialectic of vice and virtue, and the sticking web that is interwoven between. Fanny is a whore (and she is reminded of this by every John when they want to hurt her feelings) but she isn’t a whore by choice; she is trapped by an economy of sin and lust, but moreover by a patriarchal society which sees no room for an unattached woman. While men are clearly invited to live in the liminal space between vice and virtue – these brothels are visited with a haughty sense of entitlement – those prostitutes, when assertive, are treated as filth. They are degraded, and hated for their licentiousness.
For Fanny, the irony and rub of all of this is that it is inescapably true that there is pleasure in this degradation. There is camaraderie among the women in the brothel, and a certain fellowship. What little we learn of the others strongly suggests that they have all come into the business by similar paths of necessity, privation, and tragedy. There’s no happy hooker here, just moments of wicked delight amid the heartbreak of a difficult life in a trying time.
In the accomplished hands of Andrew Davies, the BBC’s go-to screenwriter for myriad adaptations of classic novels, this complex tale comes impressively to life. Played with sweet abandon by Rebecca Night, Fanny comes across as both the charming little lamb, and the erotic treasure she appears to be to her many admirers. This trick is doubly impressive considering the amount of screen time she must put in while starkly, milkily, naked. Night’s Fanny is brazen even as she is innocent; an emerging talent, to be sure.
She is surrounded by a uniformly solid cast including Samantha Bond, Hugo Spear, and an electrifying Emma Stansfield (as Fanny’s cynical foil Esther), and all are given dialogue that stings with wit and entendres. Worth noting: although the word “fanny” hadn’t yet come to mean “pussy” in British vernacular when Cleland was writing his novel, it sure had by the time Davies took up screenplay duties. Call it a happy accident, but when the brothel madam tells a John to “Be gentle with my little Fanny, sir”, it’s a bit of found fun.
Although marred by tedious (and too frequent) cuts to Fanny writing up her memoirs, and speaking deliberately into the camera – simple narration would have been far more effective in every instance – this decidedly adults-only made-for-TV film is a success. As erotic as it is thoughtful, the production is dense, layered, and gorgeous. To take a significant example, the various orgy scenes are, in a word, complex. As we see a roomful of women and men, some paying, some paid, some wealthy, some poor, we are asked not just to consider the yards of heaving flesh, but also the social dynamics at work. Here, at this moment, amid the dozens of gyrating couples and threesomes, who has the power? Who is in control? By whom is all of this fleeting pleasure being conferred?
Ultimately, Fanny Hill is like the morality play Nietzsche might have written. Darkly, dangerously attractive, vice is also commonplace and acceptable. It’s all in how you choose (or are compelled) to see it. As Fanny discovers in the unfortunately maudlin ending, both vice and virtue have their place. Both can hurt you, both can make you feel good. And, reveling in thrall of both, experiencing them in concert, is a recipe for success.