Read Fanny Hill, the 18th-Century Erotic Novel That Went to the Supreme Court in the 20th Century


In a recent inter­view with lit­er­ary his­to­ri­an Loren Glass about the achieve­ments of taboo-bust­ing pub­lish­er Grove Press, I won­dered whether any­one grow­ing up today could con­ceive of a book caus­ing a pub­lic scan­dal, let alone a tri­al that reach­es the Supreme Court. Grove had the high­est-pro­file of its sev­er­al legal skir­mish­es after pub­lish­ing Hen­ry Miller’s Trop­ic of Can­cer in 1961. Two years lat­er, G.P. Put­nam Sons would  drop their own lit­er­ary bomb­shell in the form of Mem­oirs of a Woman of Plea­sure, bet­ter known by the name of the pro­tag­o­nist there ref­er­enced, Fan­ny Hill, who, orphaned at fif­teen, throws her­self into a career in “prof­it by pleas­ing.” Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in 1748 by John Cle­land, a for­mer British East India Com­pa­ny employ­ee locked up in debtors’ prison, the book broke new ground by offer­ing almost noth­ing but a string of elab­o­rate­ly craft­ed (and, tech­ni­cal­ly, “vul­gar” lan­guage-free) sex scenes.

“A par­tial list of the book’s adven­tures includes an orgy, sex between women, mas­tur­ba­tion, masochism, cross-dress­ing, and a detailed sodomy scene that is one of only two known explic­it depic­tions of male same-sex ardor in the lan­guage before the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry,” writes the Boston Globe’s Ruth Gra­ham in an arti­cle on the 50th anniver­sary of the Fan­ny Hill-vin­di­cat­ing ver­dict. “The book still has the capac­i­ty to shock. As [assis­tant attor­ney gen­er­al William I.] Cowin not­ed in front of the Supreme Court, after the first 10 pages of the nov­el, ‘all but 32 have sex­u­al themes.’ But Fan­ny Hill would not have sur­vived so long if it were mere­ly scan­dalous in 18th-cen­tu­ry terms: It remains rev­o­lu­tion­ary today because, as Eng­lish crit­ic Peter Quen­nell wrote in the intro­duc­tion to the 1963 edi­tion, “It treats of plea­sure as the aim and end of exis­tence.” You can find out just what this means by down­load­ing the book free from Project Guten­berg or iTunes, or lis­ten­ing to a free audio ver­sion here. Whether these text-only edi­tions count as work­safe all depends, of course, on the size of your screen and the lit­er­a­cy of your co-work­ers. You can see bawdy illus­tra­tions that appeared in his­tor­i­cal edi­tions here. Note that they are very defin­i­tive­ly NSFW.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

74 Free Banned Books for Banned Books Week

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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