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  1. Book ImageFanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones

    Erica Jong

    "A rollicking tale...a tour de force."—Newsweek

Q & A with Erica Jong

What led you to set a novel in 18th century England?

I always loved the satire and bawdiness of that period and in fact it became my major in graduate school. I was fascinated by the contrasts of Enlightenment England—lofty philosophy vs. abysmal poverty, democratic ideals vs. the slave trade, the Rights of Man vs the oppression of women. It seemed ripe for satire. In many ways , it predicted our own contradictory world. The eighteenth century gave birth to American democracy. All the hypocrisies of our time are foreshadowed in eighteenth century England. By writing about an eighteenth century wench, I could also write about women today.

Why did you feel the need to imitate eighteenth century diction?

I loved the language of the eighteenth century and the language became part of the story. W. H. Auden says that the poet has to woo not only her own muse but “Dame Philology”. When I did riffs about “Flip-Flaps, Lollipops, Picklocks, and Love-Darts,” I was bewitched by the sound of the eighteenth century words. I wanted this novel to be fun, and the language is a great part of the fun.

In many ways the slaving voyage in Fanny predicts some of the concerns of African American fiction and nonfiction in the 80s and 90s. Were you aware of that?

The love story in Fanny is a triangle between a woman who rejects her subservient role, a Black man born to slavery who is trained as a Latin scholar, and an aristocratic white man who identifies with the poor. Fanny, Horatio, and Lancelot all reject the roles into which they were born. That’s one of the reasons they come together. I am always drawn to transgressive heroes and heroines. All the most interesting people in this novel are revolutionaries.

Some critics have noticed that you gave birth to a daughter in the middle of writing this book. Does that account for the preoccupation with midwifery and childbirth?

I immersed myself in research about childbirth in the eighteenth century to make Fanny’s accouchement realistic. There really was a notorious Dr. Smellie in eighteenth century England and he really did dismember breach babies with fearful instruments. Some of the facts about the history of gynecology are more horrific than any satire could create. My pregnancy brought that history home to me. I was well aware that if I were Fanny’s contemporary, I might not have survived childbirth. The baby would have been imperiled too. Then there was the irony of giving birth to a red-headed baby while impersonating a red-headed heroine. Books do impact lives in more ways than you expect.

The witches in Fanny seem to be worshippers of ancient pagan rites. They see the Deity as female, and they live in a woman-centered world. They are clearly not Satan worshippers. What was your intention here?

I always assumed that pagan worship continued under the cloak of Christianity, as it does even today. I imagined my witches as proto-feminists who initiated Fanny into a sacred cult of female power. But I didn’t want to be boringly doctrinaire about this. I hope Joan and Isobel are also amusing. They bicker like an old married couple. When the thugs appear, we assume that most of the witches are murdered but Isabel makes a comeback later to reveal that she is Fanny’s birth mother. Her survival was important. She passes her hard-won wisdom along to Fanny and Belinda. But she barely escapes the fate of her sister witches. Of all the scenes I’ve ever written, the slaughter of the witches was probably the most upsetting.

Why is the wet-nurse, Pru Feral, such an important character in the book?

The whole plot turns on her kidnapping of Belinda. She kidnaps Belinda because she disapproves of what today we would call Fanny’s “lifestyle.” She represents all those puritanical people who think women must choose between being mothers and being sexual. In the end, she is shown to be a fanatic like Dr. Smellie. Fanny’s survival, on the other hand, depends on her flexibility. She can’t afford fanaticism. Nor can we.

Supposedly the occasion for Fanny writing her autobiography is to tell her daughter the truth about her life after she has been slandered by John Cleland in Memoirs of a Women of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill. Could you expand on that?

Rebellious and unconventional women have always been slandered ,and usually the slander takes the form of being accused of whoredom. Where John Cleland sees only a whore with a heart of gold, I see a complex woman with many thwarted ambitions—to write, to lead revolutions, to nurture her family. I’m really poking fun at the reductive way women’s lives have often been treated in the historical record.

Why have you alternated between writing historical novels and contemporary novels?

I’ve grown fascinated with certain alternate worlds and wanted to set novels in them in order to show the universality of the problems women face. The crux of my concern has been to investigate the ways in which women fulfill all the various parts of their natures in societies that are not very hospitable to their needs.

There were important heroines in the eighteenth century novel, Pamela, Clarissa, to name just two. Why did you feel you had to invent a new one?

Richardson’s heroines are completely trapped in the confines that the eighteenth century created for women. Pamela uses her sexuality as a snare and Clarissa is done in by a rake. Neither one of them has a life beyond that of sex object. Fanny may not always succeed but she certainly has the ambition to be an explorer, adventurer, poet, philosopher. She inhabits a wider universe, and while she doesn’t always overcome the limitations of women in the eighteenth century, at least she has high aspirations.

In some ways, Fanny seems very far from your own life. Is this an illusion or is it true?

One of the fascinating things about setting a story in a different time is that it forces you to look at what parts of your experience are universal, and what part of your experiences are particular to the world in which you grew up. This really stimulates a philosophical perspective. Here is Fanny, trying to be a woman in a world that believes “the proper study of mankind is man.” It’s the world that gave birth to our modern revolutions, yet it oppresses the poor, the Black, the female. How can such a world be the font of all our liberties? Setting a novel in eighteenth century England gave me the opportunity to reflect on these paradoxes. Fanny holds a mirror up to the hypocrisies of our own time.

Why is the eighteenth century important to the history of feminism?

Feminism really begins in the eighteenth century with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. From then on, feminism ebbs and flows, pushing forward in some periods and retrenching in others. We are all heirs to these eighteenth century liberation movements, and in many ways we are still fighting their battles.

Do you think Fanny has anything in common with your most famous novel, Fear of Flying?

They’re both novels about women with literary ambitions, women who are survivors, women who use their humor as a survival tool. They’re both picaresque adventure stories. I’ve always believed that novelists have a kind of ur-plot embedded in their unconscious minds. My ur-plot is clearly picaresque. I also think that both Fanny and Isadora are fighting for the right to be brains as well as bodies, to integrate their lives. This integration still doesn’t come easily for women.

About Erica Jong

Erica Jong is the author of eight novels—including Fear of Flying—six books of poetry, and several works of nonfiction. She lives in New York City and Connecticut.

Books by Erica Jong

  1. Book CoverFanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones

    "A rollicking tale...a tour de force."—NewsweekMore

  2. Book CoverSappho's Leap: A Novel

    "Sappho's Leap delights."—USA TodayMore

  3. Book CoverShylock's Daughter: A Novel of Love in Venice

    "A stirring book of fable and fantasy...outrageously readable."—Fay WeldonMore