Fanny Hill (or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure)
John Cleland
1748

The much censored Fanny Hill is considered by many to be the first example of English prose-pornography, and the first erotica to take the form of the novel. The book came honestly by its criminality – written while author John Cleland was locked up in debtor’s prison, its publication brought new criminal charges, and the novel ranks up there with the works of de Sade as one of the most-frequently banned of books. Indeed, it was only some 200 years after its initial publication – in 1963 – that the full text of Fanny Hill was finally released by a recognized publishing house.

The story of a young woman – a girl, really – who moves to London after the death of her parents and is within a year living and working in a brothel, the Memoirs are constructed as a series of letters written by Fanny later in life. Ostensibly these are explanations of the choices she made and the circumstances in which she found herself; really, they are a series of erotic episodes documenting Fanny’s exposure to pretty much the full gamut of sexual experiences and sexual identities.

The first of a genre, an underground classic, a symbol of the conflict between the law and freedom of speech, and an example of the timelessness of sexual imagination – call it erotica, call it a bawdy tale, call it porn, it’s an important piece of history, and not only the history of literature.

Oh, by the way – if you’re taking the plunge into Fanny Hill, you might as well go all the way and find an illustrated version. Perhaps best-known are those created by Edouard-Henri Avril in the 1880s. Reproductions – and, yes, they are explicit sexual illustrations, so don’t complain to me if you are offended – can be seen here.

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