All Woman

Michael Mason

  • ‘Men’: A Documentary by Anna Ford
    Weidenfeld, 196 pp, £10.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 297 78468 4
  • Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, edited by Peter Sabor
    Oxford, 256 pp, £1.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 19 281634 9

One may ask of Ms Ford’s book, rather as Alice asks of the White Knight’s poem: ‘What is it called?’ The title on the jacket is ‘Men’; the title on the title-page is Men. The jacket is the part of a book where publishers most candidly make known their views. Publishing contracts specifically reserve to the publisher the right to determine its appearance, unilaterally if necessary. Everything about the jacket of ‘Men’ or Men suggests that what Weidenfeld and Nicolson favour about this book – that is, what they find commercially promising – is its author rather than her text. It is not just that Ms Ford is given great emphasis in the bled-off photograph of her that fills the back cover: the jacket strives to personalise the text inside, implying it to be interesting only, or chiefly, because of who wrote it. The background is pure white, the lettering scarlet and black. Not the expected livery for a book subtitled ‘A Documentary’ (but, as it happens, exactly the jacket colours of a recent mass-paperback humorous compilation by a woman about men). That subtitle does make its way onto the jacket (insofar as authors compose titles, there is a limit to the publisher’s power to drive the appearance of a book and its content apart). But the MEN above it dominates in letters more than six times taller – and then those inverted commas are sneaked in to discredit further the suggestion of objectivity or factuality which the subtitle might regrettably have carried. The reduction of Anna Ford to the thinking man’s Jackie Collins is complete.

This is to state an undoubted unfairness to the intentions of the author, in the presentation of her book. On Ms Ford’s account, its germ is her undergraduate study of social anthropology. There is a fair show of primary research behind it: taped interviews with 120 men. The vocabulary is, intermittently, academic. It would be satisfying to be able to report that beneath the publishing vulgarities lay a solid, intriguing report on a theme in our society. Unhappily, the injustice that the publishers have done is to Ms Ford’s wishes, not to her performance. There are intellectual vulgarities in this book to match the publishing ones.

I am not thinking of the failures of academic rigour, which are plain to see and, to my mind, not an important flaw. The sample of men interviewed was not statistically random; only a small proportion of their remarks is reported; the results are not quantified beyond ‘some’ and ‘most’. But Ms Ford’s is one of those multiform topics that are only rather artificially subdued to a strict treatment, and can yield much interest even if they are approached in an informal fashion. Mass Observation and Studs Terkel are not vitiated by being relatively miscellaneous and unsystematic. The main quality required in the observer is that he or she should be receptive and fair-minded towards the material in question.

This is a wisdom which Ms Ford recognises, but is almost entirely unable to apply. What above all makes this study a bizarre and, indeed, disagreeable effort is the frequency with which the notion of ‘empathy’ is flourished, and the rarity with which it is exercised. It is ominous that Ms Ford believes the cliché that women are strong on empathy, and men almost devoid of it. Can you have as unsympathetic a view of men as this, and still ‘empathise’ with them? Perhaps, but not if you hold that the male failure of empathy is, specifically, a failure to understand women. Then the boasted female capacity for understanding emotions collapses into egotism, as it has done very blatantly in this self-contradictory paragraph: ‘The world of men’s emotions is a difficult one for a woman to enter or to understand. Because women are used to responding with their feelings and certainly used to talking about them, they have a much greater opportunity to learn about the effect of their behaviour on others, and to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy was not something which men seemed to practise: many of the informants seemed to have no experience of seeing things from another’s point of view.’

For ‘someone else’ and ‘another’ read ‘women’. This book is, in fact, not about men-in-themselves at all, but about men in relation to women. Half the chapters – including most of the long ones, and amounting to about two-thirds of the whole – are exclusively of this sort: with titles such as ‘Men as Husbands’, ‘Man and Modern Woman’. In most of the remainder – ‘Men as Sons’, ‘Men as Fathers’, etc – women are inevitably prominent. There are only three chapters, out of 18, that even attempt to deal with aspects of a man’s life that do not involve women: two chapters on work (which are probably the best in the book, though they are very perfunctory on retirement, for example), and a chapter on homosexuality, which mainly consists of interviews with heterosexuals. Nothing on men’s recreations, intellectual, physical or practical; nothing on their beliefs, except about home, family and women; nothing on male friendships.

It is, of course, simply a fallacy that women are any less guilty than men of regarding the opposite sex egocentrically and instrumentally (though Ms Ford should have had the intelligence not to commit the offence herself when she is apparently so alert to it). One need only look at the agony columns in women’s magazines, where women display their capacities for expressing and feeling emotion, with their dead formulas about husbands, children and homes – or, for that matter, reflect on the exquisitely sinister title of a popular women’s radio programme, You and Yours – to see how offensive is Ms Ford’s accusation that ‘most husbands seemed to view their wives from afar with good-natured benevolence, dwelling on their role as wives and mothers, companions and supporters, household organisers and child minders, rather than on their qualities as individuals.’ What she is observing most of the time in this book is not the attitudes and behaviour of men, but family life in our culture. The quotation-marks on the jacket are, after all, deserved.

John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, generally known to the world as Fanny Hill, bases itself on a female sharing of emotions – more fictitiously, but not more factitiously, than ‘Men’. Each of the two sections of the book, which were published some four months apart in 1748 and 1749, is a letter from Fanny to an unnamed female correspondent. The format is not just mechanical. For one thing, it permits Cleland to raise, through the natural self-commentary of Fanny the letter-writer, questions that are quite serious about the style of his book. As is well-known, Fanny Hill represents a new kind of pornographic prose fiction in England: obscene in what is described, but not obscene in the vocabulary used. Cleland does not even resort to those literal terms for sexual organs and acts which are decorous (terms which were anyway scarcer and less familiar before the advent of sexual medicine), but works almost entirely with figurative usages. Fanny explicitly defends the result: ‘At the same time, allow me to place you here an excuse I am conscious of owing you, for having perhaps too much affected the figurative style; though surely it can pass no where more allowably than in a subject which is so properly the province of poetry, nay! is poetry itself, pregnant with every flower of imagination, and loving metaphors, even were not the natural expressions, for respects of fashion and sound necessarily forbid it.’

This might be mere rationalisation. Cleland had one good but purely technical reason for a figurative vocabulary, which is that it permits much more variation of terminology than can be achieved with the stock of literal sexual words: and another of Fanny’s anxieties as an author is that a subject ‘eternally one and the same’ will produce ‘a repetition of near the same images, the same figures, the same expressions’. But I am inclined to think that Fanny’s very noble view of sex in the previous quotation (‘a subject which is ... poetry itself, pregnant with every flower of imagination’) corresponds to Cleland’s: in other words, that Cleland was as serious a partisan of sexual epicureanism as he represents his heroine to be.

Moreover, Cleland may be intelligently confronting an obvious objection (and one that is often implied in critical remarks about Fanny Hill) to the possibility of using pornography to communicate anything worthwhile about sex: namely, that in pornography sex is always implausibly good – that it is, in short, a fantasy of sex. The pro-pornography response is to point out that fantasy is very important in the mechanism of human sexual arousal and satisfaction. What, other than this, can Cleland have in mind in speaking of sex as ‘pregnant with every flower of imagination, and loving metaphors’? (The witty transferring here of sexual terms to the literary domain is, incidentally, the converse of one of Cleland’s main techniques for varying sexual description by figurative usage: transferring terms from the context of a sexual act – usually from the character and circumstances of the male party – to the act itself.) Fanny Hill is a brilliantly vivid and inventive, even experimental piece of prose. In recent years certain commentators have also realised that it has much more intellectual meat to it than its reputation would imply. This excellent edition, with notes, bibliography and an illuminating introduction, is the first to reflect the novel’s new standing.

Strong, candid feeling as between women is one of the striking motifs in Fanny Hill’s main sequence: the sequence in Mrs Cole’s brothel, where Fanny is most thoroughly a ‘woman of pleasure’, living with no thought but that of giving and receiving as much sexual gratification as she can (although she does not join Mrs Cole’s extraordinary establishment until the second volume she has hitherto had intercourse with only three men). The bond between Fanny and her duenna is intimate and intense. Fanny feels drawn to her by ‘one of those unaccountable invincible simpathies, that nevertheless form the strongest links, especially of female friendship’. Unknown to the clients though known to Fanny, Mrs Cole spites on all her copulations. But there is no physical contact between the two, and Mrs Cole is, in part, a woman with a disinterested commitment to sexual licence: ‘never woman delighted more in encouraging a brisk circulation of the trade, for the sake of the trade itself.’ In the early phase of Fanny’s association with her, the brothel’s clients are all members of a libertine club, a ‘secret institution’ or ‘society’ with ‘rules’ and ‘principles’, bent on restoring ‘the liberty of the golden age, and its simplicity of pleasures’. Here there is possibly a direct link from Fanny’s philosophy of sexual pleasure to Cleland’s ideological context, since a Scottish club dedicated to the revival of phallus worship, the Beggar’s Benison Society, reports in its minutes of 1737 that ‘Fanny Hill was read.’

Four of these ‘rational pleasurists’ organise Fanny’s ‘ceremonial of initiation’ into the brothel. This takes the form of an ‘open public enjoyment’ designed to ‘see me broke of any taint of reserve or modesty’. The three other prostitutes and Fanny each copulate in turn with one of the men. The rest observe, and voice their congratulations, though the emphasis is almost entirely on the female witnessing of female sexual exposure. The whole event, it should be added, has been preceded by the four girls telling each other their sexual histories.

Like his imaginary sexual ideologues, Cleland seems to find the idea of female shamelessness especially piquant. This implies several things about the place of Fanny Hill historically, in English sexual culture. Clearly, the notion of women – as opposed to men – being completely frank about sex, whether as the basic structural idea of the book, or as its leading theme at this important juncture, would not be erotically interesting unless a greater reticence about sex prevailed, or was expected to prevail, among women in Cleland’s world. Though it is obvious enough that such a taboo existed, one may lose sight of the fact that Fanny Hill violates it in a sustained fashion. The novel is as much an assault on 18th-century sexual attitudes as an expression of them. It was, after all, successfully prosecuted as an obscene work. It is also possible that the book’s continuous emphasis on female sexual gratification is subversive in spirit, and not the register of a general 18th-century, ‘unVictorian’ awareness on these questions.

Indeed for the historian of sexual culture it is perhaps more fruitful to think of the whole period from the mid-18th century, through the 19th, and into our own day, in both its official and its underground aspects, as a continuous episode. Cleland’s proselytising for sexual libertinism, which is surely what Fanny Hill amounts to, indicates that a new primacy is being accorded to sex among the range of human experiences. Sex is suddenly momentous – and we, evidently, continue to grant it an extraordinary status. Our fiction, our biographies, our memoirs, our journalism, high and low, serious and comic, all treat sex as a topic of overriding, peculiar interest. (For example, the chapter on ‘Sex’ is by far the longest in Ms Ford’s ‘Men’, being half as long again as any other: the author does not comment on the fact, and no one would expect her to.) The 19th-century reticence in this area – and this is not to make a glib point about ‘Victorians’ being ‘obsessed about sex’ – also depends on the belief that sex is momentous.

This perception of sex involves identifying and stressing something extreme in sexual experience, and in the modern era we have picked out the orgasm. The Medieval culture of courtly love, for instance, was more impressed by the extreme effect sex produces, in the male, during the courtship phase; sexual consummation is cheerful and entertaining, but would not justify Fanny Hill’s vocabulary of ‘transport’, ‘ecstasy’ and the like. Another important effect in Fanny’s initiation ceremony is that its setting – six young people in an elegant, brilliantly-lit drawing-room watching two others copulating – underlines the power of the orgasm. Each of the girls becomes completely absorbed as she copulates, and reaches a ravishing climax – in Fanny’s case twice, inducing a brief state of ‘trance’.

Sexual dementia receives its most extravagant treatment in Fanny Hill in the episode of Louisa and the idiot. This is certainly one of the most memorable of Cleland’s sexual tableaux, and it can claim a priority over all the others in the sense that the largest penis in the book makes its appearance here. Cleland employs his favourite device of colouring the description with figures of speech derived from the male in question: but the result is different from, say, Fanny’s encounter with a sailor (who tows her into a tavern like a man-of-war, alters course when in danger of sodomising her, and then duly creates much foam, floating and drowning). It is not only that Louisa’s experience takes to its maximum the tendency of all the other accounts of female orgasm (‘she went wholly out of her mind into that favourite part of her body ... and had her motions as little at her command, as the natural himself’), but that this trope is used in reverse for the idiot’s part in the encounter: ‘he seem’d at this juncture greater than himself; his countenance, before so void of meaning, or expression, now grew big with the importance of the act he was upon. In short, it was not now that he was to be play’d the fool with: but what is pleasant enough, I myself was aw’d into a sort of respect for him.’ This is the ‘poetry’ and ‘imagination’ of Fanny Hill at its most intriguing, with an outcome that is ambiguous and ambivalent. What is unmistakable is the signalling of a ‘sort of respect’ for sex which had probably not been recorded before.