American readers may wonder what the fuss is about, but in Britain ‘fanny’ is a slang term not for one’s ‘ass’, but for one’s more intimate parts (if female). Cleland’s erotic classic - of 1748 - poses some problems both for arbiters of taste and for lexicographers. Did Cleland invent the word 'fanny' (the lexicographer Eric Partridge certainly thought so), or was he drawing on a usage that already existed? The first printed citation explicitly giving ‘fanny’ as a slang term is more than a hundred years later, so this gives no clue.
It may help to know that Fanny Hill was not originally Fanny Hill at all. The book was originally entitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and it was only in the later eighteenth century that the title was usurped by Fanny herself. ‘Hill’ is a pun - on the mons veneris or ‘mount’ of Venus. This rather supports the idea that the whole name – ‘Fanny Hill’ – was a sort of double pun. The fact that it originally did not appear in the title is also suggestive: Cleland was at pains to mollify the censor (he wrote most of the book while in the Fleet Gaol for debt, and after the book was published went back to prison, this time for obscenity) and deployed a whole vocabulary of euphemism and euphuism for the female genitals, including ‘the rose-lipped ouverture’, ‘the treasure of love’, ‘the pleasure-thirsty channel’ and ‘the etcetera’ – and for the male, ‘the pleasure pivot’, ‘the flesh brush’, ‘love’s true arrow’ and ‘the plenipotentiary instrument’.
The book exists today in a rather schizophrenic form. For the no-frills paperback reprint market it is Fanny Hill. For the ‘classics’ market, with scholarly introductions and notes, it is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Fanny is both saucy harlot and demimondaine. We are left to ourselves to decide whether Cleland’s novel is an unpretentious slice of porn or a canonical eighteenth-century novel alongside Tom Jones and Humphrey Clinker.
Cleland, John: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (introduction and notes by Peter Sabor, 1985)
Epstein, William Henry: John Cleland: Images of a Life (1975)
Green, Jonathon: ‘Dating Slang on “Historical Principles”’, Revue d’Études Françaises, No. 11 (2006)