Libido: Naked Brunch: The Roots of Western Pornography
The Roots of Western Pornography

Part 3
England Bites Back With Fanny Hill
By Marianna Beck, Ph.D.

The English viewed the anti-clericalism of French libertine literature as a political threat, believing that exposing a population to blasphemous works would inevitably encourage political insurrection. The English feared the French for both their radical politics and their literature: France, after all, produced books like L’Ecole des Filles and, later, Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangeureuses (1782) -- a manual of seduction.

One of the major reasons Fanny Hill acquired a bad name for itself was mainly because of the illustrations that could be found in later underground editions. Editions like this one which is about 1775.
By 1748, however, the British had their own erotic classic to contend with: John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, later known as Fanny Hill, which is among the most frequently reprinted, translated and illustrated of all English novels in history. (It has only been legally available in the U.S. since 1963 and in England since 1970.) Cleland was no doubt very much influenced by the French libertine novels that had found their way into England. Based on the adventures of its eponymous character, Fanny Hill is a wonderful window into the sexual mores and social customs of 18th-century life.

Cleland quit school early, went to India as a foot soldier and rose up through the ranks of the East India Company. When he returned to England and his fortunes declined, Cleland found himself in debtors’ prison. He is thought to have revised and rewritten a draft of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure while still in jail. Some scholars think Cleland wrote Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure as a way to get out of debtors’ prison, but the consensus is that he began an early draft of the novel sometime in the 1730s.

When the book first appeared in 1748-49, Cleland and his publisher experienced little trouble -- despite the fact that the Bishop of London blamed it for two minor London earthquakes and wanted to have the book prosecuted, calling it "a vile Book, which is an open insult upon Religion and good manners, and a reproach to the Honour of government and the Law of the Country."

Within several months, however, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Cleland and his publisher, partly as a result of the above letter but more likely because Cleland had produced an anonymously written pamphlet critical of the government. They were released shortly after their arrest and Cleland proceeded to rewrite Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, reducing it by one-third and omitting the sexually explicit portions, including one gay male scene that had resulted in enormous criticism, and renamed it Fanny Hill. This cleaned-up version of Fanny Hill resulted in Cleland’s arrest again, but no legal action appears to have been taken.

Cleland’s book is a wonderful window into 18th century life: its sexual mores and social customs.

Oddly enough, Cleland might even have profited from the experience. After being arraigned before the Privy Council, he secured a benefactor: a certain John Earl Granville stepped forward and arranged for Cleland to receive a small annual pension in return for not penning any more bawdy works (but more likely to ensure that Cleland wrote articles in favor of the government). His publisher continued selling the expurgated version, but pirated editions of the longer, more explicit version were much more in demand all over Europe, and the book enjoyed a vigorous underground existence for decades, even centuries.

In many ways, John Cleland’s work was a celebration of human sexuality and a reaction against the severe morality imposed by both religion and society. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is structured in the form of a series of first-person letters addressed to an unnamed "Madam," wherein Fanny sets out to confess all the "scandalous stages of my life." But rather than portraying her adventures negatively (as might be expected by this confessional track), she instead delights in titillating and arousing the reader.

What made Cleland’s work revolutionary -- and therefore dangerous in his time -- were his sex-positive attitudes and characterizations. At a time when novels were filled with characters who, when they morally transgressed, almost always suffered dire consequences, Cleland’s heroine, Fanny, settles into middle-class respectability after a life of sexual adventure. In Memoirs, both women and men feel sexual desire: an anarchistic message at a time when "virtuous" women were supposed to be repelled by such thoughts.

Cleland’s use of language is also unusual for an erotic novel, since he employs no obscene or objectionable words. While he may have broken societal taboos with his novel, he clearly avoided breaking linguistic ones and in doing so became the master of the sexual metaphor. One rumor has it that Cleland may have written Memoirs to prove that he could produce a book about sex without including an offending word. Thus, in circumventing colloquial terms like "cunt" and "prick," Cleland came up with wonderful euphemisms: over 50 metaphors for penis, such as "master member of the revels," "instrument of pleasure," "picklock," and, oddly, "nipple of love." For vagina, he invented "soft laboratory of love," "pleasure-thirsty channel," "embowered bottom cavity," and "abyss of joy."

Unfortunately, Cleland never made any money from the publication of Memoirs or from any of the pirated editions. Although he went on to write other novels, including a Fanny Hill sequel, Memoirs of a Coxcomb, he failed to gain much literary attention. He died in 1789.

Many of the "licentious" materials coming in from France highlighted England’s anxiety over the consequences of politically subversive literature.
Prosecutions against pornography were largely haphazard in England during the 18th century, although the publication of pornography was judicially declared to be an offense of common law. As noted, Memoirs was successfully driven underground without any legal prosecution and, generally speaking, there seems to have been little government interference in regard to publications described as bawdy or licentious. The main exception, of course, was if sexual activity found itself mixed in with politics and/or blasphemy.

Although the major campaigns against obscenity didn’t start taking shape until the beginning of the 19th century, it was clear that the winds of tolerance were shifting as the 18th century ended. One of the more perceptible changes occurred in 1787, when King George III issued a proclamation against vice, exhorting the public to "suppress all loose and licentious prints, books, and publications dispensing poison to the minds of the young and the unwary, and to punish publishers and vendors thereof."

Many of these "licentious" materials were coming in from France and highlighting England’s angst over the consequences of politically subversive literature. France was on the brink of revolution, and its preoccupation with "immoral" and "blasphemous" libertine materials was, in the English view, fanning the flames of political insurrection.

Part 1: I modi
Part 2: The French Enlightenment Takes on Sex

Coming in February, The French Revolution and the spread of politically motivated pornography.

For information on reprinting this series for classroom use, please contact us at [email protected], or phone 800-495-1988