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Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

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The hypocrisy of sex: Will it never end?

Published in 1748, Fanny Hill provides a historical perspective on the hypocrisy hidden in our carnal obsessions. It is one of the most banned books in history and, believe it or not, 169 years after it was first banned, it has been banned again. In a 2017 article in the Guardian, the Royal Holloway, University of London, announced it “banned” the novel Fanny Hill out of a supposed fear of causing offense to students. Will we ever emerge from our sexual hypocrisy, ever embrace the psychology and physiology of our natural, phallic desires? Fuck! We say it all the time. Do it all the time. And yet, some among us refuse to deal with the wonderful reality of how we got here, why were here, and the only reason we might endure long enough to fulfill our evolutionary purpose. Sex. This book has endured the hypocrisy and should be enshrined in the pantheon of erotic literature. Certainly, it should be a must-read in your to-read pile of erotic literature.

Fanny Hill is a delightful romp through metaphorical sex literature. Author John Cleland once said, that he could write a sexually exciting story of “a woman of pleasure” without using a single “foul” word.” He did. The writing is pornography in prose and it has been said that “the book’s language and its protagonist’s character are it’s greatest virtues.” In the nineteenth century, Cleland’s honest but “forbidden” imagination was illustrated by the famous erotic artist, Édouard-Henri Avril and published and sold to small, elite groups who indulged in art’s attempt to open the kimono on erotic literature.

The beauty in Fanny Hill is in the writing of the “stark naked truth” about life and sex. It renders asunder the Christian curtain trying to hide our human needs, and it shares every aspect of sexuality in people’s lives. It’s euphemistic language flows in rhythmic cascades, baring natural desires with wit, whimsy and honesty. The book’s title, Fanny Hill is the anglicisation of the Latin, mons veneris, the mound of Venus (some scholars disagree with this interpretation) and exotic words like “Nethermouth” refer to the vagina. The “flaming point of this weapon of pleasure” is a wonderful oxymoron for a woman’s depiction of the power of the penis.

“Fanny sees the phallus as the object of terror and of delight.” – David McCracken

Édouard-Henri Avril’s illustration, Les charmes de Fanny exposés was done for Fanny Hill more than a hundred years after it was first published. Back then, erotic books were printed mainly for collectors and as real as Paul Avril’s (pseudonym) art was, it’s Cleland’s writing that has stood the test of time – and the test of men and women’s insatiable appetite for honest sexuality.

What we hide from the most, we often need the most.

Over the ensuing centuries, there have been numerous scholarly interpretations of Fanny Hill, most through a female, coming-of-age prism, from adolescent innocence to adult experience and then life’s wiser denouement.

Édouard-Henri Avril

The book is written as two letters from Fanny to someone named, ‘Madam,” and the narrative covers everything from the loss of virginity and nymphomania to sadomasochism and homosexuality. However, even though it writes about male, anal intercourse, it does not condone homosexuality rather it reflects the facade of cultural norms and morality of the 18th century.

The openness and honesty of Fanny’s perspective is sometimes attributed to her young immersion in sexual encounters, thereby, having “little time to reflect on the shame and regret that she feels for leading a life of adultery.” Her life of prostitution and adultery are not only about her sexual education but the education of Cleland’s 18th century readers, and today, her story continues to educated and enlighten. Regardless the root causes of her life-experience, the outcomes the story captures are refreshing.

Not until the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s, when so many banned books found freedom (i.e., Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita) did Fanny Hill emerge as  “recommended reading.” We’d say, if you’re at all interested in sex education through the genre of erotic romance, then this book should be in your to-read pile.

“The young Italian (still in his shirt) stood gazing and transported at the sight of beauties that might have fir’d a dying hermit; his eager eyes devour’d her, as she shifted attitudes at his discretion: neither were his hands excluded their share of the high feast, but wander’d, on the hunt of pleasure, over every part and inch of her body, so qualified to afford the most exquisite sense of it.”

Édouard-Henri Avril


Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in stories, we would never forget it.” Nowhere is storytelling more important then in trying to breach the hypocrisy surrounding our sexual reality, and Fanny Hill’s stories weave vivid and indelible realities that we not only won’t forget, we will imitate and espouse. Fanny herself may not be “priceless” but she’s timeless, and although George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television (shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits)”  are never used in this 18th century frolic through her life, it is a graphic as any novel today. And a helluva lot better than most. As Gertrude Stein said, “Literature – creative literature – unconcerned with sex, is inconceivable.”

In Cleland’s day he was charged with “corrupting the king’s subjects” but today we should raise him to the status of “Master,” and put his book on the required reading list of anyone interested in sex. For those who aren’t – interested in sex – perhaps they would prefer to retreat to another of the renowned, banned books, the Bible.

Fanny Hill: Buy it, read it and put it on your bookshelf for when you want wonderful storytelling that is textured, descriptive, lyrical, seductive and … fucking honest.

In the mean time, his red-headed champion, that has so lately fled the pit, quell’d and abash’d, was now recover’d to the top of his condition, perk’d and crested up between Polly’s thighs, who was not wanting, on her part, to coax and deep it in good humour, stroking it, with her head down, and received even its velvet tip between the lips of not its proper mouth: whether she did this out of any particular pleasure, or whether it was to render it more glib and easy of entrance, I could not tell; but it had such an effect, that the young gentleman seem’d by his eyes, that sparkled with more excited lustre, and his inflamed countenance, to receive increase of pleasure. He got up, and taking Polly in his arms, embraced her, and said something too softly for me to hear, leading her withal to the foot of the couch, and taking delight to slap her thighs and posteriors with that stiff sinew of his, which hit them with a spring that he gave it with his hand, and made them resound again, but hurt her about as much as he meant to hurt her, for she seemed to have as frolic a taste as himself. But guess my surprise, when I saw the lazy young rogue lie down on his back, and gently pull down Polly upon him, who giving way to his humour, straddled, and with her hands conducted her blind favourite to the right place; and following her impulse, ran directly upon the flaming point of this weapon of pleasure, which she stak’d herself upon, up pierc’d and infix’d to the extremest hair-breadth of it: thus she sat on him a few instants, enjoying and relishing her situation, whilst he toyed with her provoking breasts.

Every adventurous couple and sexually curious single should have Fanny Hill as bedside reading.

Buy the book at the Love & Sexcess Bookstore or other retailers.

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