Fanny Hill, by John Cleland, and Candide, by Voltaire

Pornography meets philosophy today, in two novels both named after their protagonists.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Fanny Hill:

Alas! it was enough I knew his pleasure to submit joyfully to him, whatever pain I foresaw it would cost me.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Candide:

Enfin, tandis que les deux rois faisaient chanter des Te Deum, chacun dans son camp, il prit le parti d’aller raisonner ailleurs des effets et des causes. Il passa par-dessus des tas de morts et de mourants, et gagna d’abord un village voisin ; il était en cendres : c’était un village abare que les Bulgares avaient brûlé, selon les lois du droit public. Ici des vieillards criblés de coups regardaient mourir leurs femmes égorgées, qui tenaient leurs enfants à leurs mamelles sanglantes ; là des filles éventrées après avoir assouvi les besoins naturels de quelques héros, rendaient les derniers soupirs ; d’autres à demi brûlées criaient qu’on achevât de leur donner la mort. Des cervelles étaient répandues sur la terre à côté de bras et de jambes coupés. At length—whilst, on the orders of the two kings, the Te Deum was being sung in both camps—he decided to go and continue his meditations on the nature of cause and effect in some other part of the world. Passing over heaps of dead and dying, he came to a neighbouring village. It was in ashes, having been an Abarian village and therefore burnt, in accordance with the laws of war, by the Bulgarians. Old men mangled by bayonets watched their wives dying with gashes in their throats, clasping their children to their blood-stained breasts. Amongst the dying were girls who had been used to satisfy a number of heroes' natural needs, and had afterwards been disembowelled. Other women, half burnt alive, begged to be put out of their pain. The ground was covered with brains, arms and legs.

My various unread piles happened to throw these two books up simultaneously, which gave a fortuitously appropriate paired reading. Fanny Hill, published in 1748, is a novel ostensibly about sex which brings in some philosophical reflections. Candide, published in 1759, is a novel about philosophy in which the protagonists' sex lives are strongly reflected. Both are mercifully short. Both are by men (at least ostensibly, though I have to say I suspect an anonymous female hand assisting John Cleland).

The purpose of the two books is very different of course. Candide is satirical; we are not meant to take the adventures of the title character, or his lover Cunégonde or their teacher Professor Pangloss, as reportage of what could happen to real people, though of course they go to real places and experience real events. (My edition also includes the sequel, which is not generally thought to be by Voltaire and takes the characters to new but less well realised adventures in Turkey, Persia, and Denmark.) The point of Candide is to challenge complacency on the part of the reader, both in terms of assuming that society in general gets things right and in terms of presuming that there is an easy philosophical fix.

Fanny Hill is supposedly realistic – she doesn't leave London, but has plenty of adventures while there (meanwhile her first lover is banished to the South Seas). We are meant to take it as more or less documentary of what actually went on in the sex trade in mid-18th century London (probably not all that different from the sex trade before or since). It is of course meant to be very titllating, though I must say that the language used is a lot less explicit than you can find on Archive of Our Own without looking too far. Where Candide varies the geographical setting, Fanny Hill varies the sexual activity.

Both are Bildungsromane, but actually I think Fanny has the more interesting and convincing character arc. Candide has grown up a bit by the end of the book; Fanny has grown up a lot, and has moved from complete dependence to almost complete independence. She was also new to me (I had read Candide many years ago) and I enjoyed her adventures more. You can get Candide here and Fanny Hill here.

Fanny Hill was my top unread book acquired in 2015. Next on that pile is A Sunless Sea, by Anne Perry. Candide was top of my list of books that I had previously read but not reviewed online. Next on that pile is The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame.

One thought on “Fanny Hill, by John Cleland, and Candide, by Voltaire

  1. I loved Reading In The Dark but apparently I’d entirely forgotten that its setting is NI. I must re-read it.

    Colin Bateman would definitely be top of my list but closely followed by Joan Lingard. I guess the Kevin and Sadie books are not currently as popular as they were in the 80s if she doesn’t make an appearance here. (Either that or people don’t catalogue their YA material as much.)

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