Thursday, 3 January 2013

Review battle: ladies of the night edition

The two books I'm reviewing today complimented each other in ways I didn't even fully realise they would until after I'd finished the second. The connection I was originally going for, ignorant of all but their blurbs, was prostitutes. The protagonist of the first, after all, is a very successful one, and the action of the second centres around a home for (supposedly) reformed ones. But while the wholly expected pleasure of the first is its unrepentant, unlikely, idiotic naughtiness, its absolute commitment to the propagation of the myth of the happy and gloriously rapacious prostitute, the unexpected joy of the second is how it takes that expectation and kicks it straight in the face.

So, step into the ring Fanny Hill and The Unpierced Heart.

Fanny Hill by John Cleland

This is a novel on my 1001 Books list, and one with a history as eventful as its contents. First published in 1748 while its author languished in debtor's prison, it's been in trouble with the censors ever since. It's got a long and proud tradition of being only available in underground, bootleg editions, and it wasn't until the 1970s that it was available to purchase in legal and unexpurgated form. Essentially, the courts decided that while it was obscene, they'd seen obscener, and that it's also a pretty well-written book whatever its content. And I'd have to agree.

Rest assured: this book is erotica. Of course it is. Approximately half of the words in it are descriptions of genitals, and most of the rest are lavish descriptions of how those genitals are used. But it's also a lot of really charming fun. Fanny herself is a lively, lovely heroine. She's sharp and determined, with a sexuality that's shown in a basically positive light, and her story is an engaging Bildungsroman with naughty bits. You want her to triumph over adversity and masculine wiles, and she does. Cleland's female protagonist isn't just languishing about like Clarissa (a character I hate so much that I swear to god I would set her on fire if I ever came across her in real life), she's getting up and taking control of her own fortunes. Yes, she's doing it by, er, having graphic sex with a lot of men, but this is a woman with ambitions and intelligence, who knows what she wants and gets it.

It's much clearer to me than it usually is why this book deserves a place on the 1001 list.  It's not just a good novel in and of itself, it's a foundational text for a genre which could be broadly defined as Books About Saucy Ladies of the Night, and which still sells today. The Crimson Petal and the White, Memoirs of a Geisha, Tipping the Velvet - they're all Fanny's progeny in one way or another.

Which brings me on to my next point. Yes, I enjoyed Fanny Hill. Yes, some bits of it are sexy. But others are much more problematic. A lot of episodes that are presented as happy fun sex times are, to put it baldly, rapes. Waking a woman up by having sex with her? That would be called rape. Grabbing a woman and forcing her to have sex with you? Yes, that's rape too. Sadly, many people in 2012 still struggle to understand what is rape and what is not (clue: rape is when you have sex with someone without their consent), so it's difficult not to conclude that Cleland, writing 250 years ago, was part of an anti-female culture so horrendous that he should get at least something of a pass. But acknowledging that doesn't make my discomfort with parts of Fanny Hill go away. A lot of this novel is sexploitation. Fanny and her female friends may be engaged in conning their johns out of some serious money, but they do it by allowing themselves to be abused and belittled in ways that are described for the express titillation of the reader.

So while reading Fanny Hill made me realise where a lot of the novels I love have come from, it also made me understand exactly what those more modern books are subverting. Tipping the Velvet, in particular, suddenly made about 100% more sense to me - while it essentially follows Fanny's main plot points (even down to some of the orgies), Waters makes her 'Fanny' a lesbian and gives her and the other characters back actual human emotions - like shame at being publically abused, or anger at being forced into prostitution. It was a huge aha! moment for me - I finally discovered what book Sarah Waters is mad at, and why she's justified in so being.

Actually, since Waters wrote an entire book pastiching Fanny Hill, I suspect she loves it even while she's being mad at it, which is pretty much how I feel myself. There's so much wrong with Fanny Hill's morality, and so many dumb contrivances in its plot, but all the same I also thought it was pretty great. And I'm not going to apologise for either emotion.

3.5 stars

The Unpierced Heart by Katy Darby

Katy, as well as being an author, happens to be my fellow Story Sunday editor over at Litro. When I first joined the team during my MA last year I told our boss Eric that I was writing an essay about Victorian women in public places and he said, "You should meet Katy. She's writing a book. It's about WHORES." "Horses?" I asked, bewildered. "WHORES!" said Eric. "WHOOOOORES."  And that was how I found out about Katy Darby.

Katy and I obviously have a lot of the same mind-furnishings. A pastiche sensation novel set in Victorian Oxford and written as a series of 'discovered' documents by linked narrators? It's like someone wrote the book I didn't know I wanted to read. After all, I grew up in the nerdy, donnish world of Oxford colleges (where the nineteenth century is still playing on repeat), and Wilkie Collins and friends were one of the best discoveries of my teenage years.

Sensation novels are so wonderfully plotted, so exciting (stuff happens! All the time!) and so much fun - but I've got to admit that most of their female characters are horrible. The blonde haired angel with the heart of a devil beating in her bosom, the mimsy little heroine so stupid she can barely spell her name and the smart lady too mannish to be loved are all tropes on constant repeat, and none of them (except maybe the smart woman) even vaguely resemble any real person I have ever met. But while there's nothing to be done with the output of long-dead authors, I'm damn sure (see above) that I want any modern takes on their genre to correct those errors. And Katy, I discovered to my joy about three quarters of the way through The Unpierced Heart, has answered my prayers.

Her anti-heroine Diana seems, at first meeting, to be a vapid, pornographic femme fatale through and through. She makes evil decisions for totally random reasons and ruins the lives of worthy men with callous abandon. First encountered by priggish frame narrator Edward Fraser when he is a Theology undergrad at Cambridge in the early 1880s, Diana's unfaithfulness has already destroyed two of her lovers. So when Fraser meets her again at Oxford, under a new name and with yet another one of his friends within her grasp, he determines to unmask her for the fiend she really is. Can he save his innocent friend, the pathologist Stephen Chapman, from falling prey to Diana's charms? Or will she triumph again?

That's the story that Darby is apparently telling. But, as the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that there's a whole lot more going on here. Without giving the (very satisfactory) twist away, it emerges that Diana has (gasp!) reasons for the things she does. She is actually... a human being! Thoughts go through her brain and emerge as ideas! It's a modern miracle.

Her settings and set-ups may be wholly sensation-novel conventional, but Darby has actually thought about what she's writing and the result is a very intelligent reimagining of all those thoughtless, worn-out sensation tropes. Fanny Hill temporarily seduced me into buying the myth of the willing prostitute, but The Unpierced Heart reminded me that, in reality, they inhabit a grim, dangerous and thankless world where a woman won't magically fall in love with the life she's been forced to lead. Diana comes to Oxford to run a halfway house for Jericho prostitutes (hence the title of the hardback edition of this book, The Whores' Asylum), and although most of said prostitutes are unrepentant, they are also wholly human. They're no better and no worse than the novel's men (and actually much better than its male villain), and that's as it should be. There are misunderstandings and stupid decisions on all sides, and the tricky plot rattles along under the steam of those confusions to produce a fast-paced and intriguing sensation narrative that's nevertheless a lot more emotionally real than the genre it's working from.

I honestly really liked this book. It's very clever, it's well written (with a good ear for the turns of phrase used by novelists from Darby's chosen period), it's set in one of my favourite eras and it's about one of my favourite places. Spot on, essentially. I may have liked Fanny Hill, but this descendant of hers is one that I both like and fully approve of.

4 stars.

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