Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

I promise I will not say “bodice-ripper”, but I will say that Fanny Hill is like the morality play Nietzsche might have written.

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

Director: Jason Hawes
Cast: Alison Steadman, Philip Jackson, Samantha Bond, Hugo Speer, Rebecca Night
Distributor: acorn media
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: BBC
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2008-10-28

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.