BANNED MEDIA MONTH #5: Fanny Hill, by John Cleland (1748)

Type of Media: Novel

Humans have been writing smut for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks had the Satyricon (among others), Renaissance Italy had The Decameron (among others), and we have Fifty Shades of Grey (among sooooooo many others). Pick a time and place in the history of Western civilization, and you can rest assured that at least one person was writing filthy stories as poetry or prose. So when the modern novel, with its grounded and realistic storytelling, began to take root in 18th century England, it didn't take long for erotic literature to take its first stride into the new form.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, more commonly known as Fanny Hill, is the result of that first stride. Its story follows teenaged girl Fanny, who leaves her country village and travels to London when both of her parents die. Looking for work as a maid, she is taken in by a madam who schemes to sell her virginity, and while living in the madam's brothel experiences a sexual awakening. Fanny's life over the next three years is a whirlwind of discovery, lust, and prostitution as she falls in love, works as a kept mistress for various men, and ultimately finds her fortune.

Cleland's writing style is definitely the highlight of Fanny Hill, as his talent for crafting metaphors is combined with a tendency to report on every detail of every character's body. This results in sexual encounters being a mix of bawdy action and hilariously over-the-top descriptions of body parts, particularly male genitalia. Fanny details her fascination with the "red-headed champion", the "engine of love-assaults", and a "stiff staring truncheon" so sizable she claims you could play a game of dice on it. Cleland isn't necessarily a great writer, as his sentences tend to run until they've lost their original intent, but he's surprisingly accessible given how old his style is, and he knows how to make a reader laugh. 

What hasn't aged well is the politics of the book. In some ways Fanny Hill is quite progressive. The mere fact that most of the women in the book have sex, enjoy it, and aren't met with weird cosmic repercussions is a step forward coming from an age where, in fiction, sexuality is treated as a sign of villainy and leads to punishment. However, the women seem to enjoy sex no matter the circumstances. Men forcing themselves on women is treated as a bit uncouth but ultimately okay, rather than as a serious crime. Also, one scene has Fanny spy two men having sex, which causes her to panic and try to gather a mob to chase them down. Cleland implies at the end of the novel that he intended Fanny Hill to be an exploration of mixing virtue and vice, but some of his virtues are outmoded for our current culture.

Maybe it's because his main characters were virtuous for their time that Cleland got off so lightly when he was charged with corrupting the English people. He served far more jail time for reneging on debts than he did for writing Fanny Hill. However, the novel continued to be a legal bother for anyone who wanted to print and sell it. It circulated underground in England, and later in the US when it was classified as obscene in a Massachusetts court case. People who distributed Fanny Hill were labeled by the state as evil-minded, wanting to debauch the populace and fill their heads with unnatural lust. It wasn't until the 1960s, over two hundred years after it was written, that it was legal to distribute copies of Fanny Hill in America and the UK.

So, if you're the kind of person who reads erotic lit, take advantage of your relatively new freedom and check out Fanny Hill. If the archaic morals don't put you off too much, reading through vintage porn can be a fun and unique experience. At the very least, you're bound to pick up a few euphemisms for dongs.