Fanny Hill is one of the first erotic novels in the English language, and it’s been causing scandal for over 250 years. The novel was banned in both the U.K. and the U.S. until after World War II, and banned in Singapore until 2015.
Framed as two letters written by Frances “Fanny” Hill to an unnamed “Madam,” the novel recounts the fictional Fanny’s experience as a prostitute starting at age 15. Author John Cleland published the novel as two volumes in 1748 and 1749 under the title Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Since then, it’s been published in many different versions with various titles, including Memoirs of the Life of Fanny Hill, or, the Career of a Woman of Pleasure.
From the beginning, the novel was controversial for its erotic content. Even though the words for sexual anatomy never appear, Cleland’s blush-inducing metaphors (like “nether mouth”) leave little to the imagination. It was likely this aspect of the book, not Fanny’s tender age, that motivated British officials to arrest Cleland and his publisher in 1749 for “corrupting the King’s subjects.”
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Despite Britain’s attempt to suppress the novel, it continued to spread through unofficial, “pirate” versions both at home and in Britain’s American colonies. After the United States declared independence from Britain, Fanny Hill was the subject of one of the new nation’s first obscenity trials when, in 1821, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against two men who had been printing illustrated copies of the book.
But Fanny Hill wouldn’t reach the U.S. Supreme Court until 1965. This time, it was because the publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons had started printing copies of the novel. In the past several years, Grove Press had gained publicity by printing two banned books—Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence and Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller—and getting those bans overturned. Eager to fight a similar public battle, G.P. Putnam’s Sons started selling Fanny Hill in 1963.
As expected, the publisher was charged with obscenity, and it took its case to the highest court in the land. In early 1966, the Supreme Court ruled six to three that Fanny Hill was not obscene and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Previously, the court had ruled that obscene works had to be “utterly without redeeming social value.” Justice William Brennan argued in his majority opinion that Fanny Hill’s historical and literary importance gave it social value. (The dissenting Justice Tom Clark, meanwhile, complained in his opinion that the underage Fanny was “nothing but a harlot.”)
G.P. Putnam’s Sons wasn’t the only publisher with this idea. In the mid-1960s, the British publisher Mayflower Books Ltd. also started printing Fanny Hill in the U.K. The government seized tens of thousands of these books until 1970, when the country lifted its centuries-long ban on the novel. Decades later, the novel still draws prurient interest. In January 2019, a Victorian-era copy of Fanny Hill sold for £360 (or $409), nine times the price that Hansons Auctioneers in Derbyshire estimated it was worth.