Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure could be the anthem novel for the early twentieth-century movement inspired by Filippo Marinetti except Cleland’s work predates Futurism by nearly two centuries.
Taken out of historical context, Cleland and Marinetti seem contemporaries in their metaphysical treatment of pleasure and pain. Futurists, in their romanticization of war and the machine, emphasize above all else their idea of the male as superior. Cleland too utilizes the tropes of war and the machine to marginalize women. By sexualizing war and the machine Cleland anticipates the philosophical trend that the Futurists embrace two hundred years later.
Although Fanny Hill predates the Industrial Revolution — by just a hair — in which machinery is more critically held against the human body, the rise of the machine and its implications are shown clearly. Cleland ascribes the male phallus to “that wonderful machine […] the instrument from which I [Fanny] was to expect that supreme pleasure.” In doing so, he responds to the growing cultural issue of industrialization, searching for a way to integrate the machine into human experience by personifying it and making it a limb of human interaction, just as the Futurists later attempt. And like the Futurists, he easily equates the machine with power. When Cleland allows the male phallus to become a machine, he endows the male sex with superhuman power.
Futurism responds to pertinent cultural issues that have evolved since the eighteenth-century. While striving the locate human nature against the ever-changing nature of the machine, some modern interpretations arise. Marinetti is concerned with the materialistic attributes of the machine: the marketability of the machine. In the correlation between the human and industry, the human too becomes marketable. Cleland describes male genitalia as “that enormous machine,” showing that the human is marketable. The incredible penis is made into a selling point. In Fanny Hill, the male sex becomes the popular consumable good. Fanny is only fully a woman once she realizes this: “I laid me down on the bed, stretched myself out, joining and ardently wishing, and requiring any means to divert or allay the rekindled rage and tumult of my desires, which all pointed strongly to their pole: man.” Futurism too ascribes a masculine sexuality to the straight, cold, metallic protrusions of the modern machine.
Politically, the Futurists marry fascism with aesthetics as they celebrate gross machinery and the machine’s relationship with war. Despite the political differences between the 18th and 20th centuries, Cleland uses the trope of war in a similar way. The act of sex is always described in Fanny Hill by its brutality. The “imminent attack” of intercourse results from the vengeance of “that terrible weapon” or “unmerciful machine,” in which the female is always left with a “mortal wound.” Two hundred years later, the Futurists celebrate the materialism of machinery and the violence it brings in the same way that Cleland celebrates the violence that intercourse brings via the mechanical penis. Like Cleland, the Futurists feed the binary relationship between men and women, emphasizing the more powerful role of men. Faith in machines allows the Futurists to reject death, giving them a superhuman power. They can easily, from this point, reject women, which they do without remorse. The feminine to the Futurist is weak. As Peter Nichols argues, “the Futurist strives to abolish a culture of romantic love in an aesthetics of deliberate brutality.” Women are seen by Futurists to represent the soft and permeable which, held against the iron nature they ascribe to the male sex, places women in a position of constant inadequacy.
Cleland anticipates, too, this Futuristic form of gendering. The Futurists build on Freud’s theory of penis envy in which women are in an unconscious state of constant feelings of inadequacy due to a lack of phallus. Freud’s psychological theory supports the Futurist’s binary of male over female. However Cleland, who predates Freud by almost a century, utilizes the theory of penis envy to support Fanny’s feelings of sexual inadequacy. Once encountering the “tender hostilities” brought about by the “weapon of pleasure,” Fanny is quick to ascertain the difference between men and women; “For my part, I now pin’d for more solid food, and promised tacitly to myself that I would not be put off much longer with this foolery from woman to woman.” She immediately recognizes that a woman lacks the same thing that the Futurists — and Freud — believe a woman lacks: brutal machinery. In her narrative, Fanny describes her own genitalia against the machinery of her male counterparts. Her vagina is “flat,” “blank,” a “warm and insufficient orifice” and her desires are always “merely animal,” all adjectives which Cleland employs as proof that women are lacking an essential piece of their humanity by lacking a penis.
For all the ways that the Futurists uphold Cleland’s ideals of the sexes in Fanny Hill, Cleland does split from the Futurists in one key part of Fanny’s narration. Only when the discovery of the female sex is new as it is to Will, the young letter carrier with the “maypole of so enormous a standard,” does there seems to be vagina envy. In the first virginal encounter between Fanny and Will there is a sense of awe at a woman’s sexuality. After several impersonal “attacks” Will, overcome with “natural curiosity,” must see Fanny’s vagina: “Novelty ever makes the strongest impressions, and in pleasures, especially; no wonder, then, that he was swallowed up in rapturesof admiration of things so interesting by their nature, and now seen and handled for the first time. On my part, I was richly overpaid for the pleasure I gave him, in that of examining the power of those objects thus abandon’d to him, naked and free to his loosest wish, over the artless, natural stripling.” In this passage and this passage alone is there any reference made to Fanny’s “power” or the fact that she possesses something that men don’t. “Those objects thus abandon’d to him” are never again mentioned in Cleland’s text as a point of envy as they surely seem here. Something must be said for how Fanny’s genitalia is represented here, as it goes against all other representation. Will’s naivete is probably the factor in Cleland’s description of the young man’s amazement. Later in the same paragraph Fanny describes her vagina as “that soft pleasure-conduit,” again using language about her own genitalia never employed before or again. That language thus ends after she “thrusts a guinea into his [Will’s] hands.” A new critical stance suggests itself.
Perhaps Cleland is subtly implying that the suppression of a woman’s power in society arises from the act of prostituting that power. After Fanny pays Will for his services the vagina envy dissipates and all genitalia recovers its initial value in the text. That Will has the largest penis of all other men isn’t a slight symbol. He should, if the Futuristic similarities remain intact, never feel vagina envy with a penis like that. Will is the only one who actually views the vagina, taking time to see it. All other intercourse is conducted in a gross disregard for Fanny’s sexuality. Fanny consciously pawns off her own power by slipping the guinea into Will’s hand, reducing her role in the love affair to where she has been accustomed. This small section of the text removes Fanny Hill from the Futurists, although everything before and after it returns Cleland’s text to the sphere. Fanny Hill can stand to criticize Futurism by subtly implying a lack of education. The misogyny of the Futurists may be attributed to their miseducation of never taking time of observe the genitalia of a woman. If seeing is believing, as I think it is for our modern sensibilities, then the Futurists miss what Will seems to know instinctively. Lifting the petticoats over Fanny’s head and blindly performing sex becomes an insufficient mode of discerning the true powers of the female sex. Since Cleland judges “true” manhood by penile power, Will is perhaps representing the truest of men. The Futurists, and every other man in Fanny Hill stand to learn a few lessons from a man who takes time to study “that delicate glutton, my nethermouth” and what the vagina has to say about female power.