Published in two volumes in 1748 and 1749 while its author, John Cleland (1709–1789), was in debtor's prison, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure—commonly known simply as Fanny Hill—is widely considered one of the first and most famous erotic novels in English. Roundly condemned in public and denounced by the Church of England, it was avidly consumed in private and led a long and often surreptitious afterlife in the literary underground, surviving primarily in editions published by small presses trafficking in erotica. In the spring of 1963, however, the U.S. publisher G. P. Putnam's Sons released the first modern commercial edition of Memoirs and was immediately prosecuted on charges of obscenity. After a series of protracted trials, the publisher was cleared in March 1966 in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case—"Memoirs" v. Massachusetts—wherein it was determined that the novel appealed to prurient interest and was patently offensive but retained some "redeeming social value." Memoirs continued to be banned in Cleland's native England until the 1970s.
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure chronicles the sexual education of Fanny Hill, a country-bred orphan of unflagging spirit who is absorbed into the sex trade immediately upon her arrival in London at the age of fifteen. Taken in by a kindly older woman named Mrs. Brown, Fanny unsuspectingly finds herself living in a brothel and is hastily initiated into an erotic life by a fellow prostitute, whose caresses awaken new ecstatic feelings in the heroine: "I was transported, confused, and out of myself … my heated and alarmed sense were in a tumult that robb'd me of all liberty of thought." Eager to pursue these novel sensations, Fanny willfully engages in a succession of sexual encounters that read like a compendium of early modern erotic practices (voyeurism, masturbation, lesbianism, group sex, hair and glove fetishes, sadomasochism, etc.), the novel unfolding like a pornographic bildungsroman. In the hermetic environment of Cleland's brothel, however, Fanny is hardly being instructed in the ways of the world, but rather in the connoisseurship of sexual pleasure. The narrative ends with Fanny back in the arms of her first and most idealized male lover, Charles, and improbably concludes by promoting "the delicate charms of VIRTUE" and the rewards of marriage. That Fanny designates this rather belated admonition a "tail-piece of morality" suggests the winking nature of Cleland's narrative style.
It is precisely such verbal dexterity and cheekiness, aside from its exhaustive depictions of a range of sexual acts, that earned the novel its reputation. According to his acquaintance James Boswell, Cleland set out to write an erotic novel "without resorting to the coarseness of L'Ecole des Filles, which has quite plain words." The result is a narrative that produces a spectacular array of metaphors and equivalences for the genitalia, a procession of ample "machines," "may-poles," "theatres," and "pleasure-bowers" designed to mask the body part but never its action. Indeed, the novel is ever aware of its parody of "literary" discourse, frequently lavishing sexual acts with mock-epic significance and mimicking best-selling novels of sexual decorum such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740). Surprisingly, Fanny even apologizes for the tedium of her descriptions midway through the novel, recognizing that one might grow "cloyed and tired with the uniformity of adventures and expressions," wherein even the words themselves "flatten, and lose much of their due spirit and energy." Cleland's obvious interest in the semantic power and promiscuity of erotic discourse led him subsequently to compose The Dictionary of Love (1753) for "young people, and especially of the fair sex, whose mistakes are the most dangerous" and, later in his career, a series of etymological treatises on the generative potential in language.
Although Fanny's narrative is broken into two long letters addressed to an unnamed woman, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is most often read by critics as a straight male fantasy of female sexuality. Fanny frequently lapses into panegyric when describing the "sublime" male organ, and her rendering of the female form is often highly aestheticized. Moreover, Fanny's narrative is almost entirely devoid of anxiety over unwanted pregnancy or disease, thus freeing her to explore her sexual impulses with impunity. Similarly, so as to carefully manage the erotic affect generated by the text, Cleland has his heroine go to outlandish measures to spy on two men making love. Fanny is appalled by what she watches, deeming such behavior "criminal," although she "had the patience to see it to an end, purely that I might gather more facts." Wishing to have the men arrested, Fanny stumbles in her haste to rouse the house, and knocks herself unconscious, conveniently allowing the lovers to escape. Cleland's meticulous handling of Fanny's attraction and repulsion here suggests his careful calibration of the volume's sexual mores. What makes the novel compelling for contemporary scholarly work on sexuality is its spirited attempts to valorize "pleasure" in an age that preached moderation: its self-imposed linguistic strictures and indebtedness to sentimentalism make it a provocative case study in the consolidation of bourgeois sexuality.
Cleland himself denounced the volume as "a Book I disdain to defend, and wish, from my Soul, buried and forgot," and shortly after its publication he offered the public a heavily expurgated version that sought to repackage the novel as a didactic narrative. He also published a less randy novel, Memoirs of a Coxcomb (1751), in an attempt to capitalize on the scandal that he claimed to regret. Together the two works sold but a small fraction of what Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure went on to sell illicitly, and both went quickly out of print.
Braudy, Leo. 1970. "Fanny Hill and Materialism." Eighteenth-Century Studies 4(1): 21-40.
Cleland, John. 1753. The Dictionary of Love. London: R. Griffiths.
Cleland, John. 1968. The Way to Things by Words, and to Words by Things. Menston, UK: Scholar Press. (Orig. pub. 1766.)
Cleland, John. 1999. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, ed. Peter Sabor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Orig. pub. 1748–1749.)
Cleland, John. 2005. Memoirs of a Coxcomb, ed. Hal Gladfelder. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press. (Orig. pub. 1751.)
Levin, Kate. 1998. "'The Meanness of Writing for a Bookseller': John Cleland's Fanny on the Market." Journal of Narrative Technique 28(3): 329-349.
Markley, Robert. 1984. "Language, Power, and Sexuality in Cleland's Fanny Hill." Philological Quarterly 63(3): 343-356.
Rembar, Charles. 1968. The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill. New York: Random House.
Sabor, Peter. 2000. "From Sexual Liberation to Gender Trouble: Reading Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure from the 1960s to the 1990s." Eighteenth-Century Studies 33(4): 561-578.