|Changing times: Rebecca Night as Fanny Hill in the 2007 BBC version|
“Truth! stark, naked truth, is the word; and I will not so much as take the pains to bestow the strip of a gauze wrapper on it, but paint situations such as they actually rose to me in nature, careless of violating those laws of decency that were never made for such unreserved intimacies as ours; and you have too much sense, too much knowledge of the ORIGINALS themselves, to sniff prudishly and out of character at the PICTURES of them.” Fanny Hill
Fanny Hill came into my life my junior year of high school in the form of a well-thumbed paperback passed along by a friend. This must have been the 1963 edition of John Cleland’s epistolary novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, first published in England in 1748 and first banned in 1749. Fanny Hill, as this eponymous masterpiece is popularly called, is often cited as the last truly banned book in America – that is, banned from sale by a government, in this case the state of Massachusetts.
By the mid-1960s U.S. court rulings had gradually opened the gates for literary works once deemed obscene by various censors. In a 1933 landmark case, New York district court Judge John M. Woolsey read Joyce’s Ulysses all the way through and determined that “in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.”
In a 1957 case involving a seller of erotic books, Samuel Roth (no relation to Philip), the U.S. Supreme Court had established a three-part standard for obscenity. To be obscene and therefore ban-worthy in the mid-1960s, a book had to: 1) appeal to prurient interest; 2) be patently offensive; and 3) have no redeeming social value.
When Fanny made it to the big court in 1966, the Supremes overturned its ban. While the justices conceded the book may appeal to prurient interest and be patently offensive, it could not be proven that the novel had no redeeming social value. In other words, Fanny was art, of a sort.
I for one can testify that Fanny did indeed appeal to my prurient interest, which at the time dominated my life. But doesn’t the idea that there could be any consensus about what is patently offensive seem rather quaint nowadays?
The banned books that the America Library Association will be defending during Banned Books Week (coming up September 25) are primarily Young Adult novels with good liberal value systems that some parents, school boards, or principals consider too frank or too humanist or having too many mommies for the tender sensibilities of their young wards. It is illuminating that Fanny Hill doesn’t make the ALA’s list of the top 100 banned books of the last decade, though surely one would look a long time before finding it in any school library, public or private.
Let’s face it. Our culture lost its battle against prurient interest decades back. In fact, the prevalence of prurient interest in public places has robbed Fanny and her ilk of their illicit power.
Still, nearly everybody remembers the dirty books of one’s youth fondly. Kaze has written the saga of his loaned copy of Terry Southern’s satire Candy. A couple months back there was a two-day flurry on Twitter as hundreds answered the question: “Favorite filthy novels of your youth, please? #FILTH .“ Even my own mother was fond of her bodice-ripping romances.
So let’s not be coy. Fanny Hill is unabashed pornography, clearly written by Cleland to titillate, to arouse the sort of thoughts nice people did not admit to having from about 1750 to 1970. I took Fanny home and stashed the book in the secret crevices of my room and read it only late at night when my parents had gone to bed and there was no danger of interruption. But the Supremes were right: despite Cleland’s transparent intent, art enters by the back door.
The novel is the purported true-life story of a good-hearted young orphan of humble parentage from Lancashire who travels to London and takes a position as a servant only to find herself in a brothel. Cleland’s genius is that he presents the most outrageously explicit accounts of the goings-on in a measured 18th-century prose that never comes close to any of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television. Fanny, who ages from 15 to 18 over the course of the novel, is clearly a male fantasy, but Cleland writes her voice with wit and brio.
Fanny can be seen as a female version of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), the impulsive foundling lad whose escapades land him in trouble but whose good heart wins in the end. Cleland seems also to have been aware of Samuel Richardson’s terrifically popular epistolary novel Clarissa Harlowe (1748), a near-endless recounting of Clarissa’s effort to fend off the loss of her virginity.
Fanny is more acted upon than actor, but she has little of the victim about her. No matter how perilous her situations or absurd her couplings or wretched her worldly state, she maintains her innocence. In an age of human trafficking like the present this b
ook is, of course, truly, madly, and deeply politically incorrect.
Here’s an example of the Cleland touch, when young Fanny is first introduced to the pleasures of the body by a young woman whose bed she shares her first night in the brothel:
I lay then all tame and passive as she could wish, whilst her freedom raised no other emotions but those of a strange, and, till then, unfelt pleasure. Every part of me was open and exposed to the licentious courses of her hands, which, like a lambent fire, ran over my whole body, and thaw’d all coldness as they went.
My breasts, if it is not too bold a figure to call so two hard, firm, rising hillocks, that just began to shew themselves, or signify anything to the touch, employ’d and amus’d her hands a-while, till, slipping down lower, over a smooth track, she could just feel the soft silky down that had but a few months before put forth and garnish’d the mount-pleasant of those parts, and promised to spread a grateful shelter over the seat of the most exquisite sensation, and which had been, till that instant, the seat of the most insensible innocence.
We’ll draw a veil on the lambent fire here since Kaze and I resolved a ways back to write a PG blog, though of course Cleland stays with the scene in the fetishizing fashion of pornographers everywhere.
Years later in grad school studying English literature, I read the Freudian lit critic Norman O. Brown who seized on Freud’s memorable description of an infant’s world – “polymorphous perversity” – to describe the literary impulse. (Note: Brown was a wildman in academe at a time when academe loved wildmen.) Well, Fanny is nothing if not polymorphously perverse. The novel chronicles, lovingly and in much detail, scenes of flagellation, voyeurism, deceptive aphrodisiac-dosing, homosexuality, old rich fellows in need of Viagra, orgies, and an idiot boy who turns out to be prodigiously gifted in one particular.
Looking back, I have trouble seeing how Fanny harmed anyone. The novel provided at least as accurate a sex education as I was getting from the guy talk of my peers and from the stark gym-teacher-run health class in which we all worked very hard not to snicker. At a certain age the passion for knowledge of the eternal mysteries that Fanny limns is unquenchable. The glory of Fanny Hill is that Cleland manages to slake the curiosity of adolescents with a lagniappe of High Lit Tradition.