Derby: Thomas Richardson, [c.1830]. Early edition. Original printed wraps stitched at spine, measuring 184 x 105mm and collating ,4-24: complete including folding colored frontis. A pleasing copy of this delicate work, with gentle wear along spine and some minor offsetting to recto of frontis and title. An early edition of a pamphlet printed in several small runs between 1800-1840, and seemingly the only edition to include the attractive folding frontis; fewer than 10 copies of this edition are listed in OCLC.
Fanny Bilson presented young women of the early 19th century with the story of a girl who leaves her clergyman father to work in a city milliner's, only to be continually under threat of -- and continually resist -- the aggressive advances of wealthy men and the complicity of women who would serve as bawds. Fanny's story would have been a familiar one: It participates in the genre of the seduction novel (such as Pamela or Clarissa, in which a hapless girl in service escapes assault from an elite man) as well as bearing the hallmarks of the wildly popular scandalous memoir (through which famous courtesans like Teresia Constantia Muilman, Mary Robinson, and Harriette Wilson narrated their entrance into the sex trade). Both of these genres were particularly widespread; but while the seduction novel offered girls some education in identifying and dodging the dangers men posed, the scandalous memoir showed how some women victimized in such attacks managed to create glamorous, economically independent lives. Indeed, London's "Great Impures" caused great anxiety as celebrity coverage of their fashion choices and public appearances, and the grandeur of their lives outside traditional marriage structures, offered working class girls a fantasy of what life could be.
By the printing of this edition, however, cultural attitudes were shifting. More conservative Regency views toward sexuality had taken hold; and the courtesans who were once glorified now faced increasing political backlash for how they wielded their influence. Fanny Bilson served as part of this shift. Each step of her story, Fanny faces a situation represented in the scandalous memoirs -- she comes from a religious family, she takes a job in service, she is surrounded by women who would be happy to profit from her sexual coercion, and she confronts wealthier men who aim to take advantage of her. And yet, unlike the courtesans, Fanny's resistance protects her from violence and leads ultimately to a marriage above her station. Fanny Bilson, with its fantasy of feminine virtue being its own protection, in some ways lays blame on those women of the scandalous memoir who apparently didn't resist hard enough; and it poses for young women reading that rather than fantasize about a courtesan's life, they should aim for the traditional course of wife-and-motherhood with the very men who threaten them. (Item #5081)