Fanny Hill

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, is a novel by John Cleland. Written in 1748 while Cleland was in debtor's prison in London, it is considered the first modern "erotic novel" in English, and has become a byword for the battle of censorship of erotica.

Publishing history

The novel was published in two instalments, firstly on November 21 1748 and February of 1749. Initially, there was no governmental reaction to the novel, and it was only in November 1749, a year after the first installment was published, that Cleland and his publisher were arrested and charged with "corrupting the King's subjects." In court, Cleland renounced the novel and it was officially withdrawn. However, as the book became popular, pirate editions appeared. In particular, an episode was interpolated into the book depicting homosexuality between men, which Fanny observes through a chink in the wall. Cleland published an expurgated version of the book in March 1750, but was nevertheless prosecuted for that, too, although the charges were subsequently dropped. Some historians, such as J. H. Plumb, have hypothesised that the prosecution was actually caused by the pirate edition containing the "sodomy" scene.

In the 19th century, copies of the book were sold "underground," and the book eventually made its way to the United States where, in 1821, it was banned for obscenity.

In 1963, G. B. Putnam published the book under the title '''''John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure''''' which also was immediately banned for obscenity. The publisher challenged the ban in court.

In a landmark decision in 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Memoirs v. Massachusetts that the banned novel did not meet the Roth standard for obscenity.

In 1973, the Miller Test came into effect, and as a result the ban on the novel was lifted because although it appeals to the prurient interest and at points is patently offensive, the work taken as a whole does not lack literary or artistic value.

Erica Jong's 1980 novel Fanny purports to tell the story from Fanny's point of view, with Cleland as a character she complains fictionalized her life.


The book concerns the eponymous character, who begins as a poor country girl of 15 who is forced by poverty to leave her village home and go to town. There, she is tricked into working in a brothel, but before losing her virginity there, escapes with a man named Charles with whom she has fallen in love. After several months of living together, Charles is sent out of the country unexpectedly by his father, and Fanny is forced to take up a succession of new lovers to survive.

What is remarkable and innovative about the novel is that Cleland's writing style is witty, learned, and full of Classical asides. Also, Fanny herself does not, like or Moll Flanders, repent. She has no remorse for her education in sex, although she does realize that she is being exploited. Further, Fanny acts as a picara: as a prostitute she shows the wealthy men of the peerage at their most base and private. Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe had written about women forced into compromised situations before, and they had hinted graphically enough that the subversive and erotic context was present, but neither made their heroines women of pleasure. Neither of them imputed to their women any joy in their situation, whereas Cleland does.


''...and now, disengag'd from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ'd, it must have belong'd to a young giant. Its prodigious size made me shrink again; yet I could not, without pleasure, behold, and even ventur'd to feel, such a length, such a breadth of animated ivory! perfectly well turn'd and fashion'd, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root, through the jetty sprigs of which the fair skin shew'd as in a fine evening you may have remark'd the clear light ether through the branchwork of distant trees over-topping the summit of a hill: then the broad and blueish-casted incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins, altogether compos'd the most striking assemblage of figure and colours in nature. In short, it stood an object of terror and delight.

''But what was yet more surprising, the owner of this natural curiosity, through the want of occasions in the strictness of his home-breeding, and the little time he had been in town not having afforded him one, was hitherto an absolute stranger, in practice at least, to the use of all that manhood he was so nobly stock'd with; and it now fell to my lot to stand his first trial of it, if I could resolve to run the risks of its disproportion to that tender part of me, which such an oversiz'd machine was very fit to lay in ruins.

Film adaptations

Because of the book's notoriety (and public domain status), numerous film adaptations have been produced. Some of them are:

References in popular culture

In a portrait that appears in the first volume of Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fanny Hill is depicted as a member of the 18th Century version of the League, which also includes The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Pimpernel's wife Marguerite Blakeney, Captain Clegg, Natty Bumppo and Lemuel Gulliver. She is not featured in a portrait of the 18th century League in the film version, which only includes the male members. Moore's third installment of the series, '''', features the adventures of Fanny Hill in a much more prominent light.

The novel is also mentioned in Tom Lehrer's song "Smut".

A tongue-in-cheek reference to "Fanny Hill" appears in the 1968 David Niven, Lola Albright film The Impossible Years. In one scene the younger daughter of Niven's character is seen reading Fanny Hill, whereas his older daughter, Linda, has apparently graduated from Cleland's sensationalism and is seen reading Sartre instead.

In the 1968 version of Yours, Mine, and Ours, Henry Fonda's character, Frank Beardsley, refers to "Fanny Hill" when giving some fatherly advice to his stepdaughter. Her boyfriend is pressuring her for sex and Frank says boys tried the same thing when he was her age. When she tries to tell him that things are different now he observes, "I don't know, they wrote 'Fanny Hill' in 1742 [sic] and they haven't found anything new since."

The 2006-07 Broadway musical, Grey Gardens has a comedic reference to Fanny Hill in the first act. Young Edith Bouvier Beale (aka 'little Edie') has just been confronted about a rumor of promiscuity that her mother, Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale (aka 'Big Edie') told her fiance. Little Edie was allegedly engaged to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. in 1941 until he discovered that Little Edie may have been sexually acquainted with other men before him. Little Edie implores Joe Kennedy not to break off the engagement and to wait for her father to come home and rectify the situation, vouching for her reputation. The musical line that Little Edie sings in reference to Fanny Hill is: "While the other girls were reading Fanny Hill/ I was reading De - Toc - que - ville"

External links

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This article is based on "Fanny Hill" from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia ( It is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licencse. In the Wikipedia you can find a list of the authors by visiting the following address: