Fanny Hill (1748)
The erotic novel by John Cleland, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known by its nickname Fanny Hill, scandalized eighteenth-century British society with its descriptions of prostitution, flagellation, and same-sex encounters. In an exchange of letters to her friend, a former prostitute reveals all of the juicy details of her former occupation, much to the chagrin of her friend. Cleland’s epistolary novel, published in 1748, remains one of the most censored books in history, enduring obscenity trials for over two hundred years after its initial publication.
In her letters to her unidentified friend, “Madam,” Fanny Hill reveals her past, describing her participation in a lesbian encounter with another prostitute, an orgy, and a flagellation session. Madam is shocked by much of what Fanny explains, such as witnessing a sexual encounter between two men. Fanny also details her fellow prostitutes’ sexual experiences, revealing a culture where the women encourage and congratulate each other on their skills.
As shocking as it was to its audience, Fanny Hill was a critical work of literature because it rejected the traditional form of the novel. It created a story in which sexual pleasure is not a shameful thing, becoming the first eighteenth-century British novel to do so. Epistolary novels were a popular genre, but sex was a taboo subject. The only mention of sexuality in British literature before the publication of Fanny Hill was in the form of conduct novels, which encouraged women to live honorably and reject the enjoyment of sexuality.
Despite challenging traditional conduct novels of the time, Fanny Hill still has characteristics of the literature of the age. It is a morality tale that extolls the virtues of British society, considering all non-heterosexual unions to be subversive and denouncing them. When Fanny writes to her friend about how she observed two men having sex, she obviously condemns it, using words such as “attack” and “harass” to describe it. The novel focuses on approving heterosexual unions and the importance of love matches, shown by the ending in which Fanny marries one of her first customers.