Fanny Hill – The Most Famous Banned Book in Britain

Patricia Grimshaw
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Some books are still banned today for their content, even if that content seeks to make a point, open a mind, or bring to light the oppression of a group or person.

One book that was banned in recent years from a reading list of Royal Holloway, University of London (originally a ladies’ institution) lest it should offend its students, was John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, originally published in 1748. And it was originally banned in 1749.

Cleland wrote the book while in a debtor’s prison in 1748. It was published in two instalments in November 1748 and February 1749.

Title page of Fanny Hill under original title Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749. One of earliest editions.

The original title of the book was Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, although it has also been published as On the Life of Fanny Hill, or the Career of a Woman of Pleasure, as well as simply Fanny Hill. The title itself is a play on words for the Anglicization of the Latin term mons veneris, or the Mound of Venus.

In fact, the entire book relies on euphemisms to bring across its erotic content instead of explicit language. There are no words that would be considered “dirty,” nor are there any that are scientifically unambiguous, and the book is considered to be the first work of “pornographic prose” written in English.

The author and one of the publishers were arrested and charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects” in November 1749. When Cleland renounced his novel, it was officially removed from shelves. However, like most contraband, that did not stop it from finding its way into the hands of some people. Pirated editions became popular, and it became an underground bestseller, despite Cleland’s wishes that the book be “buried and forgot.”

Cover of an American edition of Fanny Hill.

The book continued to be banned in the U.K. and U.S. until the 1960s (it was banned in Singapore until 2015), but it was still controversial, even when the ban was lifted.

According to Gareth Powell, the then-joint managing director of Mayflower Books, which published the 1960s version, the authorities of the time were no more ready to receive Fanny Hill than they had been in the 18th century: “They called it the Swinging 60s but clearly erotic literature like this was viewed as too obscene to be seen by the masses half a century ago,” he told the BBC. “These days, after the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s probably viewed as rather tame. It demonstrates how much times have changed.”

The heroine of the book, Fanny, is, as the title explains, a sex worker who is quite successful. Fanny, originally from Lancashire, moves to London when, at the age of 14, her parents die of smallpox, leaving her penniless. While looking for domestic work, she is lured into a brothel. One customer, Charles, encourages her to escape but circumstances dictate that she can’t; he is also her first lover.

The book is in the first person and divided into two long letters (volumes I and II of the book) written by Fanny to an unnamed acquaintance who we only know as “Madam.” Prevailed upon by this “Madam” to do so, Fanny recalls her life in London through her various encounters, her wealthy clients, and her daily life, with “start naked truth.” Some parts of the letters describe other characters and their lives and not Fanny directly.

Eventually Fanny retires from her life of prostitution and takes a wealthy, elderly lover who dies and leaves her a fortune. Soon after, she is reunited with Charles, who insists on marrying her.

A copy of the book, dating from sometime around 1880, is due to go on sale on January 22, 2019 at Hansons Auctioneers in Derbyshire, England. The copy was found by Jim Spencer, the auction house’s expert on antiquarian books.

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In it, Spencer also found a newspaper clipping from the 1960s that mentioned police raids at a company that published thousands of copies of Fanny Hill. It is expected that, due to the unique nature of the book, it will be highly sought after, despite the modest estimate put on it by the auction house.