(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Imagine combining elements of Moll Flanders, Pamela, Tom Jones, and Fanny Hill with a dash of Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and the Farther Adventures of Isadora Wing and the result would be something like Erica Jong’s Fanny. Sprawling, preachy, sexist, and adventure-ridden, it is everything anyone would ever want to poke fun at in eighteenth century fiction. Jong devotes plenty of attention to the intricacies of plot and eventual revelations about character (Henry Fielding); the novel has some good sizzling pornography (Cleland); it weaves in a generous amount of tendentious, moralizing, first-person epistolary prose (Samuel Richardson); and lastly, there is no lack of adventure both in the streets of London and out on the open sea (Daniel Defoe). For those readers who appreciate such touches as Fielding’s dining metaphor—a book is a feast, its introduction a bill of fare—Fanny is nicely gratifying. It neglects very few of the literary conventions which characterize eighteenth century British fiction.

Being a parody, however, Fanny is not really an imitation of the Augustan novel. Jong makes it plain in the Afterword to her book that her intent has not been to imitate the genre so much as to capture its flavor and that where concessions have been required, she has sacrificed fidelity to the eighteenth century for her reader’s convenience. That choice is wisely made. Fanny feels like an Augustan novel despite its concessions. While it is perhaps too parodic and flawed by other authorial deficiencies, the fact is that Jong has done her homework. Matters of diction, style, and theme are carefully manipulated so as to give the book an eighteenth century quality. At the same time it is a book about the Augustan age as well as ostensibly by an Augustan writer, so those readers without a background knowledge of the age will delight in learning about its living conditions, attitudes, and literary topoi.

The dominant fictional influence in Fanny is clearly Henry Fielding, as one might expect. In describing Fanny’s adventures as a “true history,” in emphasizing plot (notably the foundling who is cast onto life’s highway, later to return a true-born child), in writing a picaresque novel complete with episodic adventures and inner tales, in developing a thematic conflict between idealism and practicality, and in a number of other ways, Jong draws upon the richness of Fielding’s fiction.

In its narrative posture and ethical positions, however, the novel draws less upon Fielding than upon Richardson. Fanny writes in something like an epistolary style. The chapters are not, strictly speaking, “letters” to her daughter, Belinda, in the same manner that Pamela’s are to her parents; rather, they are a series of Fielding-like prose chapters complete with descriptive headings. Nevertheless, Fanny’s obsessive moralizing, her impulse to instruct Belinda by telling the truth—however obscene or ribald it may be—is reminiscent of Richardson. Jong capably parodies the feature of Richardson’s prose which so irritated Fielding: its prurience masquerading as moral instruction. Just as Pamela’s graphic accounts of her seduction get juicier the more she can pontificate upon them, so Fanny prepares the reader for each racy sexual adventure by pleading the strict ethic of truthfulness.

The other major literary influence is Defoe. Fanny is a version of Moll Flanders, the cunning, capable whore who lives in a sexist age by exploiting her sexuality. The problem here is that Jong’s parodic tone is inappropriate, for where Defoe was successful in pointing up the dismal treatment of women in his age, Jong can only try to be serious despite a tone that works against her. Defoe wrote a novel in which Moll’s victimization was to be taken seriously. True, Moll Flanders is heavy with irony that qualifies the heroine’s character, but, in the end, it enriches what she has to say about her femininity. Jong tries to effect the same result but the pronounced parody of the work simply defeats her. Fanny, for example, will inevitably follow some plot occurrence with a feminist observation—perhaps by relating the status of women to that of African slaves. Readers are expected to be amused by the wackiness and hyperbolism of her comments, since they are often zany, but at the same time they are expected to honor the underlying message that women were then, and are still, “slaves” to men. The tactic fails completely. Jong is neither funny nor serious. Certainly, she is not thematically ambiguous in the gratifying way Defoe’s...

(The entire section is 1920 words.)