The linguistic inventiveness of FANNY HILL’s pornography

Old illustration by John Cleland, two women engaging in sexual activities with each other.

By John Cleland [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


If anyone tries to tell you that John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is a highbrow literary classic, don’t believe them. This 18th-century novel, one of the first major English-language pornographic novels, is pure smut. There’s minimal time spent between sex scenes, which feel increasingly repetitive as the book goes on: difficulty of initial penetration, check. Quickening toward an explosive mutual climax, check. An immediate round two: check and check.

As well, the character development, such as it is, occurs generally through the lens of sex. Characters become less naïve or more emotional in ways that are primarily libidinal. Despite being presented by some critics as a Bildungsroman where the education is sexual in nature rather than formal, Fanny Hill feels less like a character study enlivened with a few tastefully erotic scenes, and more like a celebration of sex peppered with some glimpses into personality. 

The book’s linguistic pleasures, like all else about it, are anatomically driven. And these linguistic pleasures abound. Words as prosaic as “vagina” or “penis” are nowhere to be found. Instead, a penis is a “mighty machine” or a “plenipotentiary instrument.” The latter shows the kinds of etymological fascinations the novel holds: a modern-day political referent used to denote not the power of a representative or commission, but genital authority. Not to be left out from the anatomical party, the novel describes a strapping young man’s testicles as “that storebag of nature’s prime sweets, which is so pleasingly attached to its conduit pipe from which we receive them.”

A vagina, meanwhile, can be variously a “sweet intersection,” “luscious mouth of nature,” “cloven spot,” or “tender opening.” Pubic hair is “downy springmoss”, labia “two close hedges, delicately soft and pouting.” Buttocks are called “interposing hillocks,” while descriptions of breasts are disappointingly muted in comparison: “all-delicious twin orbs.” Semen is enthusiastically termed a “balsamic injection” or “sweetly soothing balmy titillation.”

This linguistic ingenuity appears to stem in part from constraint. (Literal constraint also defined the experience of writing the novel, which Cleland finished while in debtor’s prison.) With the literary intention to avoid medical or blue terminology, the novel’s language achieves a kind of grace through exploring the possibilities of what can and can’t be said. Just as the young protagonist is feverishly getting her eyes opened simultaneously with her legs, Fanny Hill feels like the work of an author joyfully testing the boundaries of how to write about coitus.

Because the novel has become canonized as an important piece of Georgian pornography, it can be tempting to embrace its language as artistry while dismissing the work of modern-day authors who may well be Cleland’s heir. Consider Morrissey, for instance, the most recent winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The scene that led to this honor is a frenzy of prepositions and positions:

“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”

And the following comes from Fanny’s encounter with a sailor while on her way home from an unsatisfying session with a sexually incompetent client:

“I took part of it in, but still things did not jee to his thorough liking: changing then in a trice his system of battery, he leads me to the table and with a master hand lays my head down on the edge of it, and, with the other canting up my petticoats and shift, bares my naked posteriors to his blind and furious guide; it forces its way between them, and I feeling pretty sensibly that it was not going by the right door, and knocking desperately at the wrong one, I told him of it:—‘Pooh!’ says he, ‘my dear, any port in a storm.’”

(The sailor does however immediately attempt to correct his mistake.)

This isn’t entirely a fair comparison. Cleland is mainly interested in exuberant, idealized eroticism; Morrissey in the ungainly, all-too-real type. But both have achieved fresh means of visualizing what would otherwise be very familiar body parts and scenes. “Bulbous salutation” is a jarringly novel coinage for the male genitals, yes. But so is “blind and furious guide.”

Both scenes, which use run-on sentences to portray the hot flush of action, are also funny in their depictions of penile misdirection. This kind of humor ought to disqualify a text from the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. If a work isn’t reaching for soaring romanticism, or is doing so but is tempering this with levity, it’s hard to consider this bad writing. The sex is awkward, yes, but the award is meant to highlight bad prose, not bad sex. Many people appear to confuse the two.

While a modern-day stance perhaps makes Fanny Hill’s terminology seem more delightfully clever in its archaism, a modern sensibility also makes it easier to enjoy the linguistic than the erotic pleasures of the book. The repellent sexual politics of parts of this book are perhaps unsurprising, given its age. However, it should be noted that some examples of this politics are in evidence in much more recent novels. For instance, a young female who falls in love with her rapist appears not just in Fanny Hill, but also in work by Gabriel García Márquez. That this isn’t considered rape in Fanny Hill, but actually the beginning of a sweet love story, differentiates the crudeness of Fanny Hill’s anecdote from later versions of the trope that display a more nuanced understanding of consent.

Another episode likely to trouble readers from a more enlightened time is Fanny’s revulsion and persecution of two men engaged in sodomy, whereas her own sexual experience with a woman is treated as a tender, enjoyable affair. The logical disconnect occurs to none of the characters.

As with its plot, then, Fanny Hill’s politics is less savory than its language. This language, though, is frequently glorious.


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