What is a bright, ambitious and, as it happens, comely and buxom young girl of fifteen to do when both her parents are carried off in quick succession by the pox and she is left without any means of supporting herself? You'll recall young Kate aka Bob being left in a similar situation in the first episode of Blackadder II and failing to heed her father's advice:
Father: I'm sad because, my darling, our poverty has now reached such extremes that I can no longer afford to keep us. I must look to my own dear tiny darling to sustain me in my frail dotage.Well, it turns out Kate's old Dad knew what he was talking about after all. After heading up to London to seek her fortune under the supervision of an older friend, who promptly abandons her, Fanny is taken under the wing of kindly old Mrs. Brown, who it turns out is a serial "rescuer" of young girls, and who provides them with bed and board and expects very little in return except a bit of the old whoring. Fanny is a bit taken aback by this, at least at first, being an innocent country girl, but soon gets the idea after a bit of gentle girl-on-girl action from roommate Phoebe, and a bit of hiding-in-the-cupboard voyeurism.
Kate: But father, surely...
Father: Yes Kate, I want you to become a prostitute.
Just as Fanny's future seems to be mapped out, though, she meets a young man called Charles, sleeping off an excess of drink in Mrs. Brown's kitchen, and after a courtship lasting all of a couple of minutes the pair decide that they are in love and that Charles will take her away from all this and set her up as his mistress. So they slip away and spend the next few weeks living together, during which time Charles relieves Fanny of the tiresome burden of her virginity.
Disaster strikes when Charles is sent overseas at short notice by his father, and Fanny is once again left on her own. But she is a shrewd and resilient girl and soon gets herself set up as the live-in mistress of the wealthy Mr. H, whom she doesn't love but who treats her well enough. All goes well until one day she comes home early and sees Mr. H giving the chamber maid a good seeing-to, whereupon Fanny is roused to take revenge by seducing the delivery boy and is caught in the act by Mr. H.
So Fanny is out on the street again. But her adventures have given her a clear instinct for self-preservation, a head for money-making, and a pretty good idea of where her, hem, hem, talents lie. So it doesn't take long for her to get set up in the house of Mrs. Cole, another smart old madam, and really get to grips with the prostitutional life. And what a life! If she's not participating in eight-way orgies, there's riverside skinny-dipping action, some spicy flagellation and even a bit of through-the-keyhole spying on some hot forbidden penetrative man-on-man action.
But all good things must come to an end, and eventually Mrs. Cole decides she's getting too old for the old whoring game and retires to her little cottage (Dunwhorin, presumably) in the country. Landing on her feet once again, Fanny takes up with a kindly sixtysomething gentleman who just happens to possess a considerable fortune (which he soon makes Fanny the sole beneficiary of) and a dicky heart, leaving Fanny, still barely nineteen, a woman of considerable independent means. So when she meets Charles again, returned from his overseas trip but fallen upon hard times, she's in a position to make him an offer to their mutual benefit. And so to bed.
Fanny Hill is such a cultural and comedy staple that it's hard to know what to expect when reading it. You'll need to know that it was first published in 1749, and allegedly written piecemeal over the preceding 20 years, so there'll be some archaic language to get through. But, as with some other books, the unfamiliarity of the language really isn't much of a burden once you get used to it, and the flowery prose in which the central scenes are rendered can't conceal the utter filth they contain:
Standing then between Harriet's legs, which were supported by her two companions at their widest extension, with one hand he gently disclosed the lips of that luscious mouth of nature, whilst with the other, he stooped his mighty machine to its lure, from the height of his stiff stand-up towards his belly; the lips, kept open by his fingers, received its broad shelving head of coral hue: and when he had nestled it in, he hovered there a little, and the girls then delivered over to his hips the agreeable office of supporting her thighs; and now, as if he meant to spin out his pleasure, and give it the more play for its life, he passed up his instrument so slow that we lost sight of it inch by inch, till at length it was wholly taken into the soft laboratory of love, and the mossy mounts of each fairly met together.Basically the flimsy plot devices, such as they are, just serve as the scaffolding to hold the sex scenes together. It hardly needs saying that this is as rose-tinted a view of the business of prostitution as Pretty Woman or Belle de Jour, probably more so given that the action takes place in the mid-18th century, not exactly prime female-empowerment territory. Apart from anything else the vexed issue of contraception never really arises, except in that it's pretty clear that no barrier methods are being used. Fanny does get pregnant during her brief sojourn of living with Charles (and subsequently miscarries) but how all the rest of the uninhibited unprotected fucking isn't resulting in sprogs popping out everywhere isn't clear. On the plus side the whole notion of unabashed female hunger for, and enjoyment of, sex was a good deal more subversive then than it is now, and Fanny is a very engaging central character who clearly enjoys her job greatly, and not just for its money-making aspects. A bit like The Fermata, analysis beyond just revelling in the joyous filthiness of it all is probably missing the point.
There have been many under-the-counter-in-a-brown-paper-bag film adaptations of Fanny Hill over the years; the BBC did a rather more respectable one back in 2007, which necessarily took a bit more of a soft-focus approach to the sex (thereby, arguably, defeating the object) but which may be of interest to anyone wondering where they'd seen the female flatmate from those BT Infinity adverts before.
One last thing: it's unclear from the various online dictionaries whether Fanny Hill is the inspiration for the use of the word "fanny" to describe (US readers should probably stop reading now to avoid confusion) the female genitalia. It's listed as a possible derivation here; most other dictionaries don't offer any clues. My giant Chambers dictionary is similarly tight-lipped (ooer) on the subject.