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Fanny Hill and the Lions of London

February 8, 2011

Howitt - Lion

Artist's impression of a dog-eating lion in the Tower of London/somewhere else.

“…piquing my childish curiosity with the fine sights that were to be seen in London: the Tombs, the Lions, the King, the Royal Family, the fine Plays and Operas, and, in short, all the diversions which fell within her sphere of life to come at; the detail of all which perfectly turn’d the little head of me.”
The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, John Cleland, 1748


Reading Fanny Hill on the iPhone (because hey, free smut), I came across this early passage in which the 15-year-old Fanny is being tempted to go to London by an unscrupulous girlfriend. But what are these top tourist attractions of mid-18th-century London?

The King and the Royal Family make sense, of course, although to see them Fanny would have had to pop down to the rambling St James’s Palace on Pall Mall, which everyone seems to have agreed was a bit of a scummy residence for a king. (Buckingham House wasn’t sold to the Royal Family until a decade or so after Fanny Hill was published.)

The Lions are a bit more problematic. Obviously, today’s famous lions are the ones in Trafalgar Square, but Nelson didn’t win the battle of Trafalgar until 1805 and Landseer didn’t cast his bronze lions for the square until 1867.

So it’s probably real-life, furry lions that Fanny wants to see. But not in London Zoo, which only popped up in 1828. I reckon the most likely place for Fanny to have seen lions would have been at the Tower of London, where monarchs had long retained a crazy menagerie of any animals they could get back to England without killing in the process. (There was an elephant in there as early as 1245.) For three half-pence, Fanny could have seen lions tigers, bears and hyaenas. And if she didn’t have the cash, Fanny could just have brought along a cat or dog to be chucked into the lion enclosure as a snack, which would have got her in for free. Take that, Groupon! Who needs endless spam email offers when you can use doomed household pets to get into top London attractions?

As for the Tombs, my guess is these are the tombs and memorials of the great and the good in Westminster Abbey. Fanny could have gawped at the likes of Henry III, Milton, Chaucer, Newton and many more. Since many of them were decorated with more or less fanciful statues of the dead, this was like a cheap version of (the yet-to-exist) Madame Tussauds. With added bishops.

That just leaves the fine Plays and Operas. Fanny would have been spoilt for choice here. A trip to Drury Lane could have resulted in seeing the world’s most famous actor David Garrick doing Richard III at the Theatre Royal. She could have even sat on the stage to watch, too – Garrick himself only banned that in the 1760s. But if that was beyond Fanny’s budget, she could have attended an early burlesque show on the cheap instead. Italian opera was new and extremely trendy at the time, too. (When Fanny shags her way to fortune, she gets to visit the opera later.)

There you go – an 18th-century tourist trail around London, courtesy of a fictional prostitute. If you think I’m wrong, tell me below…

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 4:30 pm

    I knew about the menagerie in the Tower but not the free admission of receipt of sacrificial pets! Most droll. I lol’ed. And well done Mr (and Mrs) B. on a damn fine ‘blog’.

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