Fanny Hill is synonymous with pornography and obscenity. It was banned in many countries, like Britain and the United States, shortly after it’s publication in 1748. It wasn’t until 1966, when the US Supreme Court read this saucy novel, that the ban was lifted in the United States. Justice William Brennan wrote in his majority opinion that Fanny Hill was not obscene and held historical value, making it protected by our first amendment right to free speech. (Can you picture Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall reading this novel in their chambers?) Fanny Hill, among other books, is still banned in many countries, too many to list here. It is reported that recently a Victorian-era edition of Fanny Hill sold for approximately $409! I bet those prudes who banned the book didn’t see that coming!
The idea of reading a once banned book was appealing to me, and is the main reason why I chose to read it. But then I realized that Fanny Hill joins the ranks of The Lorax, A Light in the Attic, The Giving Tree, The Da Vinci Code, Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pentagon Papers, Nineteen Eight-Four, and American Psycho; all banned books. Some of these books are on my son’s bookcase. Others are read in high school and college. I really didn’t see then harm.
So what’s so bad about this book?
The book opens as a letter from Fanny Hill, who is retelling the “scandalous stages” of her life. At the age of fifteen, Fanny Hill’s parents die of smallpox in a small village outside of Liverpool in Lancashire. After being deposited in London by “friend” Ester Davis, Fanny finds lodging with Mrs. Brown in a brothel. Here she get her first glimpses into the life of a lady of pleasure. Beautiful outfits, luxurious dinners and parties, sleeping in late, and interesting male and female company appear to Fanny as appealing and adventurous. Being a virgin, her value is significant in this market, and her mistresses try to capitalize on. After falling in love with one of her suitors, Fanny tries to marry her love, Charles, and leave her brothel, but his father disapproves and sends him away. Fanny finds herself alone again, but not for long. She is soon taken in by Mr. H and briefly enjoys a life of stability, until she sees him intimate with one of the servants of the house. Out of revenge, Fanny begins an affair with Mr. H’s servant, Will. During their confrontation, Mr. H tells Fanny to be out of the house soon. Fanny discovers that an acquaintance, Mrs. Cole, has a house for women that she could join. In this pleasure-house, Fanny becomes a prostitute for wealthy men. She meets the other girls of the house – Harriet, Louisa, and Emily. Each tell Fanny the story of their first sexual encounter and later participate in an initiating orgy with her and four other men.
During her time in Mrs. Cole’s pleasure house, Fanny encounters a variety of clients and their desires. One such encounter included a whipping severe enough to draw blood. Another involved a pleasant afternoon at an estate with one of the other girls and later a naked pool party. Louisa and Emily attend a drag ball, where one is mistaken for a boy. No matter what the preference, Mrs. Cole’s and her ladies were up for the task of providing the best service possible. However, all good things must come to an end. Harriet falls in love soon after Fanny’s arrival and leaves the house; Emily’s estranged parents locate her and bring her home; Louisa falls in love after an encounter with a disabled young man; Mrs. Cole retires to the countryside. So Fanny finds herself alone again and sets out for a new life in London, but his time with a little money in her purse. She is on a walk one day when she meets a 45-year old man, who appears to be in his 60’s due to poor health. He falls in love with Fanny and he moves her into his estate. He dies soon after, but not before leaving his entire estate to her. Now eighteen, Fanny uses her unexpected and new wealth to find Charles, but is distraught when she finds out he has been missing since his ship wrecked two and a half years ago in the South Seas. She goes to visit Mrs. Cole in the country, but a storm forces Fanny to find lodging, where she runs in to Charles! They reunite, where each discloses what they have been up to for the past three years. Fanny wants to share her small fortune with Charles, but he wants to marry her instead. This is where Fanny letter ends.
John Cleland writes this novel in English prose and never uses profanity or derogatory terms. Instead, Cleland uses clever terms and phrases to describe body parts. For instance, “nethermouth” refers to a vagina, and “weapon of pleasure” is used often for penis. The style of writing does take a little getting used to, it was written in the 1740’s after all, and the sentences are long. Even though I had to re-read some of the sentences because of their length, the storyline flows at a quick pace. There is very little chance for the reader to get bored. Even if there is too much time in between intimate sessions for you, there are light moments of comedy and adventure as Fanny makes her way in London. Even after she leaves Mrs. Cole’s house, Fanny’s desperation to find out what happened to Charles still captivates the reader. Especially after they reunite at an inn!
I recommend reading this book, as well as other banned books. Fanny Hill was banned because of it’s graphic pleasure scenes, but that is what makes our first amendment right so great. I could not imagine living in a country that restricted what I could read just because it goes against the grain of what is considered decent or speaks against a lifestyle. Prostitution is a real way of life, like it or not. At least it turned out to be a happy story for Fanny, as many in this career do not have such happy endings.
Little, Becky. “When the Supreme Court Had To Read an 18th-Century Erotic Novel”. History. January 23, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/fanny-hill-banned-book-supreme-court-case
Wikipedia contributors. (2019, July 4). List of books banned by governments. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:04, July 4, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_books_banned_by_governments&oldid=904753262