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Readers hoping for another Fanny Hill are guaranteed to be disappointed by this first modern printing of Cleland's second novel (1766): the bawdy-minded but innocently worded adventures, all picaresquely predictable, of courtesan Maria Brown. Maria recalls her middle-class, ""Romish"" upbringing: ""I was made to believe that my salvation in a great measure depended upon my kissing a piece of wood in the shape of a cross."" (Such anti-clerical remarks provide the few really lively moments throughout.) She tells how her father's death put her on the marriage market, how she was drugged and robbed of ""woman's most precious jewel"" by a treacherous fiance, how she was left near-penniless by a foul aunt, how her illegitimate child died three days after its birth. The stage is then set--after a mini-tirade on the sexual double standard and a hapless stint as a lady's companion in France--for Maria to slip into woman-of-pleasuring. Her new landlady, you see, turns out to be ""one of the most celebrated bawds"" of Paris. And Maria is soon entertaining a judge (""I shall draw a veil over the latter part of this scene, lest it should be as distrustful to the reader as it was to me""), learning the miserable ""science"" of whoredom, railing against her patrons, switching to free-lance courtesan work, and becoming a well-kept ""Opera girl."" She even, back in London, indulges in ""Sapphic passion"" for an audience of old gents. (""I must acknowledge I did not rightly understand the nature of their enjoyment. But me-thought ten guineas were easily earned, without any corporeal risk, and without being surfeited with the nauseating embraces of doting impotence."") But finally, of course, she reforms and marries a nice tradesman--who understands ""the many snares that were constantly thrown out for her by the profligate and abandoned of the male sex. . . ."" Curiously feminist in tone, then, in some of its preachments; otherwise, however, of little interest--literary, historical, or prurient.

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 1981
Publisher: St. Martin's