IN 1748, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure shocked and thrilled England, selling thousands of copies while roundly excoriated by moral authorities. Fanny Hill is a first-person retelling of a young woman’s journey from naïve country-bred prostitute to happily married woman of independent means. In its lurid, eroticized depictions of sexual violence, it lays bare the connections between economic conditions and misogyny.
Some 50 years later, Jane Austen penned the manuscript of Pride and Prejudice. Initially rejected, it was resoundingly successful on its appearance in 1813, and the novel remains an enduring classic, earning equal parts reverence and ire for its supposed vindication of the power of love over social limitations. In more recent times, Austen’s most popular novel has spawned several popular film and TV adaptations, including Andrew Davies’s ever-popular miniseries. All are decidedly romantic films for a decidedly romantic audience.
But when considered alongside how contemporary economic conditions influenced the gender relations that structured Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice emerges not as a vindication of romantic love, but rather as a sober vision of how money and access to labor thoroughly circumscribed women’s lives, including their understanding of desire. Taken together, the tales of Fanny Hill and the Bennet sisters resonate across different social strata, rendering a far bleaker picture of the Bennet sisters’ need to marry than is often granted in popular reception of the novel. To modern readers and adaptation viewers, Pride and Prejudice resonates as a testament to “true love,” culminating in the happy ending of marriage. But can we separate true love from the enduring economic and social necessity of marriage, or the subordinated role of women within this dynamic? Would Mr. Darcy still appeal as a romantic hero if his love for Elizabeth did not elevate her both economically and socially, thus also proving her value and desirability as a woman? And what role does romantic love play in a world where women are dependent on men for survival, for social status, and for belonging?
Fanny Hill opens with the heroine’s discussion of her background as the only surviving child of poor but honest parents in Lancashire. Left destitute, Fanny travels with a friend to London in hopes of securing a domestic position. Here she learns of the limited options available to a young, beautiful, and virtuous maiden such as herself — namely, that she take a domestic service position in order to meet and marry a gentleman of means who elevates her social position. Indeed, this is a dynamic that persisted well into the 20th century, where for many women, entering the workforce was a means to secure a more secure and lucrative position — that of a wife. Fanny visits the “intelligence office,” an employment office for domestic servants, and after being snubbed by the proprietress, catches the eye of Mrs. Brown. In an aside, Fanny explains that the proprietress and Mrs. Brown have an arrangement in which the proprietress funnels suitable girls to Mrs. Brown for a fee, underlining the value of such young girls as commodities in London’s erotic marketplace.
Fanny is brought to Mrs. Brown’s brothel, where, after she is “initiated” into sexual pleasure by a fellow prostitute, Phoebe, she is briefly pampered and richly dressed, “decking out the victim for sacrifice,” as Fanny later recollects. It is decided that Mrs. Brown will arrange to sell her virginity, which she imagines will fetch a high price. She introduces Fanny to “an elderly gentleman,” Mr. Crofts, who immediately glues his lips to hers. Fanny describes him as
rather past threescore, short and ill made, with a yellow cadaverous hue […] and a breath like a jakes [privy or outhouse] […] he was so blind to his own staring deformities, as to think himself born for pleasing […] in consequence of which idea he had lavished great sums on such wretches as could gain upon themselves pretend to love his person, whilst to those [who could not] dissemble the horror it inspired, he behaved even brutally.
This is the man who later that evening, for 50 guineas upfront, will “attempt” Fanny’s virginity; he will pay a hundred more if he “triumph[s] over [her] virginity.”
Phoebe and Mrs. Brown cajole Fanny into accepting this suitor, impressing upon her that “he would make my fortune if I would be a good girl and not stand in my own light […] that I should trust his honour […] that I should be made for ever, and have a chariot to go abroad in.” Despite her protests, Fanny finds herself shut into a tea-room with this man, and told by Mrs. Brown to “entertain” him. In short, the women impress upon her that her obedience and humility will ensure her everlasting fortune and comfort. Mr. Crofts attempts to rape her but is unsuccessful and ejaculates in his pants, roundly abusing her instead. Fanny reflects,
Yet, plain as Mrs. Brown’s views were now come out, I had not the heart, or spirit to open my eyes on them: still I could not part with my dependence on that beldam; so much did I think myself hers soul and body […] and chose to wait the worst at her hands sooner than being turn’d out to starve in the streets …
There were thousands of Fannys in 18th-century London: one in five young women and girls were prostitutes, many fleeing poverty from rural areas. For unmarried girls without a father or brother to support them, the options remaining were wage labor, prostitution, or the debtor’s prison, also known as “the poorhouse.” Opportunities for women to take on wage labor were restricted mainly to service positions, and wherever they might find employment, they earned lower wages than men. The pool of impoverished women seeking service positions far outnumbered the positions available, creating an environment and marketplace in which wages were often insufficient to support the high costs of living in London. This was likely an intended outcome of the land enclosures in the rural areas, where land was increasingly privatized and consolidated into the hands of the capitalists, whose economic growth relied on a large, precarious, and easily exploitable workforce. For women who could not secure “legitimate” employment, prostitution was the only viable alternative to the debtors’ prison where, confronted by overcrowding, disease, and frequent violence of all kinds, those owing debts were worked to the death, unless they succumbed to sickness and starvation first.
The material necessity of marriage is often downplayed in popular reception of Pride and Prejudice, though its characters’ quest for true love takes place amid an atmosphere of persistent economic coercion. Between the publication of Cleland’s and Austen’s novels, economic inequality had worsened in England. The Napoleonic Wars, the extravagance of the Prince Regent, and the post-1801 population boom resulted in an extremely stratified society where wealth accumulated from new domestic development as well as the horrific colonization and slavery abroad was obscenely concentrated in the hands of a select few. Though much is made of the Bennets’ relatively strained means in Pride and Prejudice, they are nevertheless among the upper echelons of the British society of their time, even as their position is far outstripped by the Darcys.
The most significant economic circumstance of the novel is of course that of “entail,” a restriction on inheritance across generations by cause of which the Bennet family only has possession of their estate for the duration of Mr. Bennet’s life. Since they have no sons, the estate passes to an odious cousin, Mr. Collins, and the daughters will be left with an annual income of about 50 pounds a year, a sum that would not quite be called destitution, certainly, but which to their minds would certainly be poverty.
When Mr. Collins writes a letter proposing a visit, he assures the family that he intends to make “every possible amends” for the situation. The “amends” Mr. Collins has in mind is of course, marriage, and once he learns that the prettiest of the Bennet sisters is due to be engaged, he fixes on Elizabeth as the object of his generosity. Clearly, he is not sacrificing much; in making this altruistic gesture he gains a pretty young woman who is sworn to obey him in all things and who, by law, he more or less owns (even the meager income Elizabeth would inherit becomes his). Under British law of coverture at the time, the married couple was considered one entity, and that entity was the man: a wife’s property, income, and body belonged to her husband. This arrangement is not so much to the satisfaction of Elizabeth as it is to her mother, desperate to keep Longbourn within the family and avoid what she sees as certain penury. Mrs. Bennet, despite her unflatteringly comic portrayal, is not obsessed with marriage for its own sake; rather, she is concerned with the future security of her daughters, against which their desires for love seem like selfish, youthful trivialities, the result of reading too many novels or seeing too many plays.
Andrew Davies adapted both novels for television, including the resoundingly successful BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (1995) mentioned above, and the somewhat lesser known Fanny Hill (2007). He stages the scene of Fanny’s attempted deflowering somewhat differently than does Cleland’s original, but his adaption of the scene where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth is strictly faithful to Austen’s novel.
Andrew Davies may have intended to stage the scenes so similarly, or it may have been a natural result of the fact that the forces at play being captured are so similar. It’s difficult not to see Mrs. Bennet in the role of madam, especially since both roles are played by the same actress; what is being traded after all is an “unspoilt” girl for money. One trade is of longer duration and all-encompassing with social approval to boot, while the other will be consummated there and then with social disdain — not to mention criminality — heaped upon the “fallen woman,” even if, in the latter case, Mrs. Brown hopes that Fanny will become the kept mistress of Mr. Crofts. Though it is true that the picture we get of Mr. Collins is not so disgusting and that we never see him attempt to rape Elizabeth, girls with no choice but to marry for security would surely have had to attach themselves to equally repulsive specimens, forced to “pretend love to his person.” Further, neither society nor the law recognized marital rape; husbands had a “right” to their wives’ bodies, so there were surely rape scenes similar to that which befalls Fanny being enacted all over England, with the blessings of society, family, and all. Considered this way, it’s hard not to see the same rituals of Fanny being dressed in beautiful clothes to tempt Mr. Crofts and women being dressed for marriage or to attract a suitor similarly — “decking out the victim for sacrifice.” Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Brown both urge their virginal charges to consider their security ahead of their own youthful whims. Ultimately, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s friend who, unmarried at 27, is considered an old maid, marries Mr. Collins in order to secure “a comfortable home.”
Both Fanny and Elizabeth decide early on in their respective novels that they want love — and they ultimately do find love — but what “love” means for both women is dictated by their social roles and circumstances. Before her virginity can be sold off, Fanny runs away from Mrs. Brown’s brothel with a wealthy young man she meets there, living with him in sin briefly before his father has him forcibly shipped to West Indies. After a series of misfortunes and presumably titillating sexual exploits, working in multiple brothels and being “kept” by multiple wealthy patrons, she is turned onto the street after the brothel where she works is raided by the law. She becomes the maid of a rich old man, who leaves her his fortune when he dies. A wealthy woman now in her own right, she is finally reunited with her lover at the end of the novel.
The romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy of course takes up most of Pride and Prejudice, the title of the novel famously reflecting both characters’ disposition and their relationship to each other. Darcy slights Elizabeth at a ball; Elizabeth is contemptuous of his arrogance. Much to Elizabeth’s surprise, Mr. Darcy expresses his love first through a marriage proposal, which as he is careful to point out, is against his better judgment, as it persists in spite of the difference in their social classes and the perceived ill manners of her family. She rejects him soundly.
To this point, Elizabeth’s relationship to Mr. Darcy is marked by her social inferiority, keenly felt by them both — he disdains her for it, and himself for his attraction to her in spite of it, and she disdains him for his arrogance toward her and those of her social class. But a number of developments take place that change her disdain into a sort of self-conscious mortification and awe, and then into love. The change begins when she tours Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate, with her visiting aunt and uncle, believing Darcy to be away. She learns from his servant what a benevolent and kind master he is, and sighing, reflects, “And of this place, I might have been mistress.” Her awe quickly turns to embarrassment when Darcy returns unexpectedly, finding them at Pemberley, and is all charm and generosity toward her aunt and uncle. When she learns of her youngest sister Lydia’s running away with the libertine Wickham, she confesses it to Darcy in tears. She believes that she will never see him again, imagining that he is “congratulating himself on his escape” upon learning of her family’s shame. Far from the initial disdain and contempt she feels for Darcy, Elizabeth is now acutely aware of her lower status. Near the end of the novel, she learns that Darcy has spent thousands of pounds to pay off Wickham’s debts and compel him to marry Lydia, saving both her younger sister, and by proxy her family, from social and economic ruin. Elizabeth is so moved by Darcy’s generosity that she believes she loves him. After Elizabeth and Darcy are engaged, she jokingly tells her sister Jane that she dates her love for him “from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley,” but it is the kind of joke that has the ring of truth.
This is not to mean something so simplistic as Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy for his money, or that her love is feigned. Rather, the conception of romantic love is bound up with being claimed, protected — and in that sense, owned — by a man. The popular interpretation of her growing self-consciousness that she suddenly feels this way because she has grown to love Darcy; but it is actually the reverse. Her previous disdain for Darcy turns to fear that he might actually disdain her, and she is filled with anxiety that he might discover her in an embarrassing position, trespassing on his grand estate like one of the common and vulgar masses. Her love for him grows along with the perceived difference in their social ranks, and that she may be honored with his protection and ownership. As the of idea romantic love as a prerequisite of marriage took hold, giving a distasteful materialism to marrying solely for economic reasons (though doing nothing to actually diminish their importance), the idea of being in love with a man and being elevated by him become, to the heroines of Austen’s novels, one and the same. A woman unmarried is not only a woman financially bereft, but also unloved, and therefore unworthy.
In his landmark documentary Ways of Seeing, Marxist art critic John Berger, says, “Those who are judged not beautiful, are not beautiful. Those who are, are given the prize. The prize is to be owned.” Both Fanny and Elizabeth’s lives, their psyches, are dedicated in search of the prize, their material security depending on it. Both women’s well-being depends on securing a man’s love so that he might keep and provide for her; the richer the man, the better. But the shape love takes in these women’s lives is influenced by their different social conditions. Romantic love is seen as necessary for marriage (in theory, if not practice), and to marry without it — as Mrs. Bennet urges her daughters to do, and as Charlotte Lucas eventually does — now has an air of vulgar materialism, perhaps because it lays bare the transactional nature of marriage, a nature too similar to ones Fanny makes in her life as a prostitute. For Elizabeth — and for many women — this romantic love is wrapped up with the need to be protected, taken care of, owned, by a man to whom a woman must be married for material security, particularly in a capitalist system. For Fanny, however, whose love must be simulated for any man who is a paying customer, it is necessary that she does not actually love. Thus, while Elizabeth’s love can be seen as capitulating to the dominant social order, Fanny’s love defies it, causing her to run away from Mrs. Brown and her schemes for Fanny’s virginity. But even Fanny cannot escape the social reality that the only respectable outcome for a woman is marriage, so she marries her lover, legally sacrificing her fortune and independence to him; he does not truly “love” her unless he makes her his wife. This is not to say we must throw away the ideals of romantic love we get from novels like Fanny Hill and Pride and Prejudice altogether. Rather it is to say that as long as women remain economically disenfranchised, taught to view themselves as in competition with one another for a man’s attention, romantic love will always be haunted by the specter of ownership and the effacement of a woman’s self in view of a man.
Emily Janakiram is a publicist at the New Press. She reads and writes about 18th- and 19th-century literature, feminism, giallo films, and Agatha Christie. Her previous article, “Gossip Girls,” is published on the Verso Books blog. She lives in Brooklyn.