Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. Those who think we should speak of the past only to condemn it, but still want to rescue Jane Austen from the dustbin of history, have a bit of a dilemma on their hands. Click here for the first in the series.
Where I'm from, "fanny" means a derriere, as in "get your little fanny over here." But I've read that it's also a slang term for lady parts. I wanted to confirm this, then I got embarrassed when I thought about my Google search history, so I stopped. Then I found a useful book called The Lover's Tongue, which says "fanny" “emerged around 1928, and is now a familiar, albeit quaint, euphemism for the buttocks. The word fanny might have been inspired by John Cleland’s 1749 erotic novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the protagonist of which, Fanny Hill, is frequently exposing her bottom.”
Author Mark Morton adds: "Fanny has also been used to refer to the female genitals which might make a connection to Fanny Hill even more feasible.” So there you go.
Anyway, there are many slang names for lady parts, that’s for sure. And the derriere is undeniably an important part of female charms and is particularly in vogue today, it seems.
The question is, when we think of Fanny Price, are we supposed to think about lady parts? And when we think about lady parts, are supposed to think about prostitutes? And when we think of prostitutes, are we supposed to reflect that, after all, marriage is pretty much like prostitution? And are we intended to go on and realize that Mansfield Park "rigorously links prostitution to courtship and courtship to corruption in the culture at large"? Because, look at how Fanny's brother William got promoted to lieutenant...
In Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions, Subversive Laughter, Embodied History, scholar Jillian Heydt-Stevenson argues Austen intended for her readers to follow this ramshackle train of thought...
- The name “Fanny” suggests lady parts and prostitution and "Price" suggests prostitution.
- “Fanny” shares her name with Fanny Hill, a prostitute and protagonist of a famous book which is still read today.
- Two 1751 essays by Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of Austen’s favourite authors, bear similarities to Mansfield Park. These essays tell the story of a girl whose older relative and guardian is a sexual predator.
- A riddle referenced in Emma includes the name “Fanny,” which makes us think of prostitutes, which makes us, etc…
- Fanny's brother William is the beneficiary of Henry Crawford's intervention on his behalf, a promotion tied to power and sex. The corrupt system of patronage in the Royal Navy is but one aspect of "the way the patriarchal system objectifies both men and women" and "both Fanny and William become negotiable commodities..."
“[Fanny’s] very name signifies prostitution: the price of the body, a fact that seems to link her etymologically to the infamous Fanny Hill, the heroine of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749), familiarly referred to as Fanny Hill, the narrative that helped codify the name Fanny as slang for female genitalia… I am not suggesting that by including the name Fanny, a common enough appelation, Austen alludes to the Memoirs.”
On the other hand, Heydt-Stevenson confidently asserts that the last name Price “signifies prostitution," as though no other allusion to “price” could possibly occur to mind, as though the only thing people purchase with money is other people’s bodies. Why, for example, would genteel readers not think of the King James Version of Proverbs 31:10?
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her.
Fanny’s virtue, in fact, is one reason Henry Crawford wants to marry her; she is “well principled and religious." “I could so wholly and absolutely confide in her [he tells his sister], and that is what I want.” “Confide” means “trust.”
If Austen intended symbolism by the name "Price," maybe she means that Sir Thomas and Edmund discover her true value at the end of the book. Sir Thomas by then is "Sick of ambitious and mercenary connexions, prizing more and more the sterling good of principle and temper..." Look at the words Austen uses: "prize" "sterling"...
“Frances” and its diminutive “Fanny,” were "common enough" in the past, but not so common today (see the chart above). There was the well-known real-life Frances Burney, aka Madame D’Arblay, the author. The poet John Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne. Jane Austen had a sister-in-law named Fanny, of whom she was very fond. Mr. and Mrs. Blood, the parents of Mary Wollstonecraft's best friend, saw no problem with naming her Fanny.
Still, there's no denying that Fanny Murray was one of the most famous courtesans of the 18th century and maybe she inspired the creation of Fanny Hill, the protagonist of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Her own life was the subject of a 1759 memoir. But if “Fanny” inevitably brought lady parts and prostitution to the readers’ minds, as Heydt-Stevenson suggests, it is difficult to understand why so many authors chose the name for their singularly virtuous and virginal characters. Fanny Hill the prostitute is just one of dozens of fictional Fannies. There are Fannies in novels, plays, and poems. There are fatherless Fannies, faithful Fannies, friendless Fannies.
If you asked any well-read person today to name books in which the main character is named “Fanny,” The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure might well come to mind. It might be true today that the name "Fanny" is suggestive, but in Austen’s time, there were plenty of fictional Fannies who were as pure as the driven snow. Except for Fanny Price, Fanny Hill, and a few others--like Fanny Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility--these other fictional Fannies have largely been forgotten. The following examples will also illustrate attitudes toward chastity, marriage, and prostitution in the novels of the time, which is the larger topic I’m exploring here.
Let’s start with Fanny Goodwill, the faithful sweetheart of Joseph Andrews in Henry Fielding’s The Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742): In this satirical romp of a novel, Fanny is rescued from a ravisher, rejects a seducer, and comes to her marriage bed as a virgin.
In The Clandestine Marriage (1766), a play by Colman and Garrick, the cynical gold-digging sister's name is Betsey, the heroine's name is Fanny. She marries for love, not money.
The melodramatic tale of Fanny Adams and Lord Whatley was printed under different titles such as Injur’d Innocence, or, Virtue in Distress, aka The Love, Joy, and Distress, of the Beautiful & Virtuous Miss Fanny Adams; That Was Trapan’d in a False Marriage to Lord Whatley, aka Fanny, or The Happy Repentance. A young nobleman falls in love with a beautiful farmer’s daughter. Lord Whatley knows that Fanny would be horrified if he propositioned her. “These are the very people that have virtue, and Adams will not prostitute his own and his daughter’s honour for money; no, I will not wound the heart of a father; how could I presume to make such a proposal?” Lord Whatley's evil friend counsels him to trick Fanny with a false marriage ceremony, which he does, but soon he abandons her and marries an heiress. The writer dwells on the shattering anguish that Fanny and her father feel when they learn they have been deceived and her honour has been ruined. Lord Whatley eventually repents and marries Fanny once he is widowed.
In a similar tale, Lord Linrose in Hermione, or the Orphan Sisters (1791), falls in love with Fanny Williams, a farmer's daughter. Although she loves him, she virtuously repels his advances ("I abhor my Lord's insulting offers and proposals"). He impulsively marries her in a secret wedding. She dies of a broken heart after he grows tired of her.
Fanny Clifton, the heroine of Fanny, a novel, in a series of letters (1786), lives with her late mother's vulgar sister, but since she has a small inheritance, she is not completely helpless and dependent. The rakish Lord Davenant, a Henry Crawford type, falls for her charms. His ardour is further inflamed when they act together in some private theatricals. He bribes a servant to sneak him into Fanny's chamber. She discovers him hiding in her closet and calls the entire household to witness her innocence. But the shock of the affront to her virtue sends her into a fever with convulsions and she nearly dies. Lord Davenant is filled with remorse; thanks to the virtuous example of Fanny he reforms and they eventually marry.
Fatherless Fanny, or, the Little Mendicant (1811). This popular potboiler went through many editions and several revisions. Fanny is a foundling, left at a girl’s boarding school with an unsigned letter and some money. Fanny is helped by her friends at the boarding school and she is sponsored by a kind young nobleman, Lord Ellincort, Christian name Edmund. Her friend marries Lord Ellincort. Fanny grows from being an innocent child to a lovely, virtuous, woman. The husband of another one of her old school friends tries to seduce her but she indignantly repels him: “If the man who was so daring as to declare a passion for me last night, in defiance to decency and morality,” said Fanny, “if he can be found, I think he cannot be treated with more severity than he deserves; or more contempt that I feel for him.” Later, she is abducted and taken away to a remote Irish castle but a kind cottager helps Fanny escape in time. In the end she discovers her true identity and marries the man she loves.
In Fanny Fitz-York, the Heiress of Tremorne (1818), the heroine's spotless reputation is damaged by a scheming villain, a jealous rival, and some unfortunate misunderstandings, but Fanny is utterly chaste and blameless and she ends the novel with love, a title, and fabulous wealth. The villain sneers, “All priestcraft! Marriage is a political institution merely,” but he's the villain. There is a fallen woman in the story and her name is Julia. Her behaviour horrifies the other characters: “could such a female stoop to dishonour... and become the slave of licentiousness? The loss of her honoured parent [from the resulting shock] was only a secondary consideration; for death was a cessation of pain, an annihilation of feeling, and what feeling could be otherwise than pained at a daughter’s dishonour?”
I don’t think Heydt-Stevenson strengthens her thesis by suggesting that the name “Fanny” has sexual connotations. There is too much countervailing evidence that it was just another girl’s name at the time and there were no difficulties around naming a sweet, innocent, and virginal character as “Fanny.” According to Mark Morton, as we've seen, the Fanny/bottom connotation didn't arise until 1928, so Austen couldn't have known of it.
The connotations attached to a name can change over time, as anyone named “Karen” knows.
The fallacy of hypothesizing a connection between Fanny Price and Fanny Cleland without looking at the wider field of literature is one of several logical fallacies in scholarship which I discuss here.
Next post: Was Austen inspired to write Mansfield Park after reading Johnson’s real-life story of a girl who is groomed into prostitution?
I never knew this! “Proverbs 31:10 Verses 10-31 are an acrostic poem, the verses of which begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.”
I discuss Heydt-Stevenson's theory about Fanny Price's chain and cross in Mansfield Park in this earlier post. TLDR: all human relationships are mercenary and women are just objects to be bought and sold.
Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister: the Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen, by Sheila Johnson Kindred, tells the story of Jane Austen's sister-in-law. Imagine raising your children while living on a prison hulk!
Morton, Mark. The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex. United Kingdom, Insomniac Press, 2009.