No Fear of Fanny

Marilyn Butler

  • Fanny by Erica Jong
    Granada, 496 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 246 11427 4
  • The Heroine’s Text by Nancy Miller
    Columbia, 185 pp, £10.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 231 04910 2

Erica Jong’s Fanny has had a long gestation. In 1961, as an undergraduate, she was taught by the late Professor James L. Clifford, Johnson’s biographer, who had the admirable policy of inviting his class to imitate an 18th-century author instead of writing yet another academic paper on him. At the time, Ms Jong came up with a mock epic in heroic couplets in the manner of Pope, and a novella in the style of Henry Fielding. After several volumes of poetry and a runaway success with her bawdy modern picaresque, Fear of Flying, she still likes the challenge of the Clifford assignment. Fanny, being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones, is a quaint and belated substitute for the Columbia doctorate on 18th-century literature which Ms Jong abandoned in the mid-1960s.

There is clearly a market for this kind of thing. ‘Another Lady’ and yet another personage have presumably made substantial sums with their pedestrian efforts to complete two of Jane Austen’s unfinished novels, Sanditon and The Watsons. Georgette Heyer, imitating no one in particular, for years kept a faithful following with a series of indistinguishable novels in which very similar characters postured against the romantic backdrop of Regency London. But even Jane Austen’s Regency is not quite so beguiling a fictional world as is the first half of the 18th century, refracted through Pope’s eyes in The Rape of the Lock, or through the novels of Henry Fielding. Erica Jong has the inspired populariser’s intuition for what it is about the period and about its fiction that still makes it, quite simply, more immediately pleasurable than fiction since.

On one level, Fanny represents a most efficient plundering of the early 18th century for engaging incidents. The reader repeatedly finds himself embarking on some adventure still warm with the life of another book. The beautiful heroine begins her adventures not in obscurity, like Cleland’s Fanny Hill, but, like Fielding’s Tom Jones, as the foundling adoptive child of aristocratic parents in a paradisal country house. Seduced by her foster-father Lord Bellars, Fanny takes, like Tom, to the road, whereupon she falls in with witches and is kidnapped by highwaymen. Finding herself for the book’s middle section destitute in London, she makes her living as the perennial ‘virgin’ in a brothel closely modelled on Cleland’s in Fanny Hill. For a while it looks as though the reader’s interest in brothel life will have to be eked out with a supply of famous clients – Hogarth, sketching for ‘The Harlot’s Progress’, and Dean Swift, doing fieldwork for Book Four of Gulliver’s Travels. Swift determines the sexless character of his Houyhnhnms experimentally, when even the beauteous Fanny fails to arouse the interest of a horse in a meadow near Maidenhead. Knowing how repetition palls in these matters, Ms Jong arranges two more expeditions from the brothel, one to visit a criminal friend in Newgate and another, with admitted historical licence, to partake in an orgy in the Medmenham Caves.

By the end of the second Book even Ms Jong’s ingenuity is being taxed. What, frankly, can you do with an 18th-century heroine, other than bed her, wed her or kill her off? Ms Jong opts for two practices of real women of the period, though not of heroines – parturition and piracy. A very good childbed sequence was no doubt assisted by the birth of an infant Jong (which occurred just when her mother was about to need it, between pages 281 and 282), but the medical detail is authentic enough to bear comparison with the well-documented last days of Mary Wollstonecraft. In no time the baby is kidnapped by her deranged wetnurse, and Fanny’s pursuit across the ocean to the New World provides a pretext for colourful digressions about life on shipboard, the slave trade, and the conventions observed by pirates.

Taking to the water produces a sequence one and a half times as long as either of the other two Books, and, it must be confessed, left this reader as anxious to make landfall as (I suspect) the average Atlantic passenger of any period. It must have looked like a good idea, since pirates are romantic figures with curious customs, and 18th-century seafaring has attracted novelists from Defoe and Smollett to Masefield and Forester. There is perfect literary propriety (though no other sort of propriety) in bringing Fanny to the nadir of her fortunes at the point where Tom Jones arrives at his – in her history’s third and last part, where she is exploited sexually by a bestial ship’s captain. The woman pirate Anne Bonny, an arch-aggressor in this aggressively male world, is an appropriate instrument to resolve the plot’s complexities. Even so, salvation seems a long time coming, though, to do Ms Jong justice, no longer than in some of Masefield’s 18th-century yarns. The errant seaman, flogged at the mizzenmast until his back is pulp, has lost over the years what charms he once had.

Still, Ms Jong is generally wonderfully readable, and she is also clever. It’s a pity that her book, which began as required writing, looks unlikely to become required reading in our institutions of learning. Ms Jong puts a severe strain on the good will of other disciples of Augustanism when she launches her plot by imagining the sexual humiliation of Alexander Pope, ‘the Immortal Poet (but Mortal Man)’. ‘He had made fair Headway against my Maidenhead, whilst speaking of God’s great Plan and the Mighty Laws of Nature,’ but Fanny’s virtue is spared, for twenty minutes or so, by Pope’s lamentable performance in bed.

The insult would be gratuitous, if Ms Jong’s great writers were introduced merely for the purpose of name-dropping, or for the perfunctory scene-setting that used to occur in costume films (‘Good morning, Dickens.’ ‘Good morning, Thackeray’). In fact, her relations with them are more interesting than that, and somehow, through all the book’s other preoccupations, she manages to keep in view its status as an imitation. Imitation is, of course, an 18th-century mode. Fanny, who aspires to become a writer, models herself upon Pope and upon Pope’s models, the ancients. There is also good precedent in the mid-century Neo-Classicist Winckelmann for her observation, when reflecting on the style of Swift, that great artists cannot be slavishly copied. Sure enough, Erica Jong creates a fictional vehicle that is never allowed to become dependent on any particular precursor. Fielding is nearest, but Fielding’s admirers could fault her style for one or two Americanisms, some bad verbal jangles, and not much elegance of phrasing. It is, in fact, enough for her purposes that she mimics Fielding’s formal lay-out, and that her prose, with its capitalised nouns and liberal use of apostrophe, approximately evokes the 18th century. Her generation graduated about the time that the literary critics W.J. Bate and Harold Bloom began to meditate on the trials imposed on the modern writer by too much ancestry – the burden of the past, the anxiety of influence, and the artistic necessity of misreading old art in order to make new art. Ms Jong is hell-bent on misreading, and on writing the novel the 18th century did not.

This True History is that of Fanny, who cannot be an imitation of Tom (because he is a man) or of Fanny Hill (a man’s idea of a woman). As she begins to tell her story, Fanny reflects on the problem she faces: that it’s hard to envisage a heroine when there’s no great woman to act as model. Woman, in the hands of male authors, is an embodiment of virtue or an embodiment of vice, so that Fanny seems clearly predestined to figure as the latter. In fact, we think we know her history already because we know her two 18th-century prototypes, Hogarth’s unforgiven whore Moll Hackabout, who is seduced and at last brought to a salutary end, and Cleland’s forgiven whore Fanny Hill, whose ‘sugar’d tale’ ends improbably in middle-class marriage.

Recent feminist criticism has begun to focus on the problem of the 18th-century heroine. In a modish study of French and English novels, The Heroine’s Text, Nancy K. Miller speculates indignantly on the motives of male authors in humiliating their heroines – having them raped, punishing their sexual indulgence, or, equally patronisingly, rewarding them for their sexual abstinence. Ms Jong sets out, more genially, to appropriate the Heroine’s Text for women. After visiting upon Pope some of the accumulated vengefulness of the modern feminist movement, she concentrates on kindlier possibilities, alternative models of heroism, which means in practice that her novel allocates most of the wit and the effectiveness to underdogs. The characters who get things done include a male horse (not the one observed by Swift), a middle-aged witch, a homosexual highwayman, the female pirate, and two black former slaves, one of whom (male again) ranks with Fanny as the novel’s best-educated character. The patriarchs, the peers and the captains are not just ill-intentioned: they have also cunningly been drained of enterprise.

Horatio the black ex-slave is named after his mentor Horace, whom he is fond of quoting in the original Latin. It is the amiable Horace rather than the harsh Juvenal who presides over the book as a comic genius. Another source of inspiration is Rabelais, whose style is evoked in the alphabetical list of synonyms by which the highwayman teaches Fanny the vulgar connotations of her name:

‘It means the Fanny-Fair,’ says Lancelot, ‘the Divine Monosyllable, the Precious Pudendum, the Chearful Cunnus (in Latin, that is, as our Friend Horatio could tell us), an’ in French. l’Autre Chose. O ’tis the Aunt, the Arbor, the Attic, the Bath o’ Birth, the Belle Chose, Best-Worst Part (accordin’ to Dr Donne), the Bit o’ Fish or the Bit o’ Mutton (dependin’ on whether ye are a Meat-Eater or no), the Bottomless Pit, the Bower o’ Bliss, the Brown Madam. ’Tis likewise the Earl o’ Rochestor’s Bull’s Eye, an’ Shakespeare’s Circle (the little o to his great wooden one) ...’

One cheering detail among the novel’s many is the incidental revelation that Lord Bellars and his mistress are maintaining a frank correspondence about their sundry amours. Ms Jong has prepared the ground for a sequel, approximately in the manner of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and there’s no reason why its characters should ever leave dry land.