Fanny Hill (review)

Sex and the Single Woman

Oh, stop your tittering. All you know is that Fanny Hill is that naughty bawdy 18th-century novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] that got its author, John Cleland, into so much trouble so long ago, and has since become a byword for the evils of censorship and the necessity of freedom of expression. But if you’re looking for something pornographic in this BBC adaptation of the novel, forget it, mister. You might just get a lesson in female backbone and autonomy, though. That’s a pretty shocking lesson from 250 years ago, seeing as how we’ve barely learned it today.
Sure, innocent, innocent orphan Fanny Hill (delightful newcomer Rebecca Night), “fresh from the country” to London in the mid 1700s, gets taken advantage of… as does many a young woman today, what with so many of us still thinking it’s “proper” to keep the female of the species as ignorant of her own biology for as long as possible. Tricked by a supposed friend into the clutches of Mrs. Brown (Alison Steadman: Topsy-Turvy, Pride and Prejudice), who runs a brothel for “respectable” so-called gentlemen, she quickly learns what’s expected of her, and — no dummy she — how to make the most of it in a world in which few options exist for a woman on her own. Gosh, it’s practically a satire on women’s limited options, this Fanny Hill (and perhaps Cleland’s was, too): when the only way to comfort and security, for 18th-century Fanny, is through a man, is there really any difference between prostitution and marriage?

Ah, but there is a difference, as this Fanny — written for the small screen by the oft-acclaimed Andrew Davies (Brideshead Revisited, Sense & Sensibility) — points out, and that difference is love. Fanny falls for handsome and honorable Charles Standing (Alex Robertson: Wide Sargasso Sea), even before she “falls” in the house of Mrs. Brown. (Well, Charles’s honorableness is debatable, since he does show up as a patron of Mrs. Brown’s… but once he meets Fanny, he’ll have no other.) They run away together, and she gives herself to him — this time, as this very frank production makes clear, knowing full well what she’s in for — and then they’re separated, and so begins her adventures as a free and independent woman left to make her own way in a world that is not ready to deal with free and independent women.

“There’s no point in being euphemistic,” says director James Hawes (Doctor Who) in one of the bonus making-of featurettes, “The Subject of Nudity.” (Extras, on a DVD from Acorn Media? Hoorah, and about time, too.) And there is nothing euphemistic here: this Fanny Hill ain’t rated X, but it’s not for the kiddies, either. They’re not kidding when they use Cleland’s original title as their subtitle: these “memoirs of a woman of pleasure” make no bones about the kind of pleasure involved. Which is quite refreshing, actually, when that’s another thing that even our sex-drenched pop culture can’t seem to quite cope with yet: women are sexual creatures too, sometimes even quite apart from men. “I believe that God made our bodies to give us pleasure,” Fanny tells us in her framing narration, which makes it very plain that she knows wherefrom she speaks. The whole production — two episodes spread across two hours, which aired originally on BBC4 and is made available to American audiences for the first time with this DVD — is a veritable celebration, and a sweetly romantic one at that, of sex and love, and of sex as a fundamental part of life separate from love sometimes, too.

Deal with it, all you card-carrying members of the Anti-Sex League.

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