Updated: Aug 3
John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, a.k.a Fanny Hill, is without a doubt a highbrow literary classic, but quite different than others in that category. It is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history. While most other books that were banned for obscene content were ultimately acquitted, Fanny Hill is still often regarded as the ‘forbidden book’.
Fanny Hill, is a two-volume pornographic novel written and published by John Cleland in 1748 during his time in debtor’s Prison.
The novel presents an autobiographical letter by a former courtesan named Frances “Fanny” Hill, recounting her earlier life’s amorous and scandalous adventures. The book integrated pornographic scenes in a novelistic form, an undertaking never previously encountered in English literature.
Throughout the book, Frances “Fanny” Hill writes letters to an unknown woman as she justifies her life choices to this person. This account of a young lady’s unconventional path to middle-class respectability is an engaging and lively comic romp through the brothels and boudoirs of Augustan England, with a heroine whose setbacks and adventures never attenuate her humanity and determinations to achieve real happiness and love.
If you ever encounter a secondhand copy of Fanny Hill, chances are the book will open more readily on certain passages than on others (let your imagination run wild here).
John Cleland’s sentences often go past any moderate endpoint. “Wedging [itself] up to the utmost extremity” is one example. Such sentences often catalog their objects thoroughly, leaving little to one’s imagination.
When the complete, uncensored version of the novel was allowed to be published in 1963, it found many supporters who argued that the book serves as an important historical source and conveys laudable ideas, and not simply a filthy book for perverted minds as many tried (and still try) to portray it as.
Fanny Hill has experienced various illustrations by numerous artists throughout the years. With that being said, the French artist Édouard-Henri Avril undoubtedly created the book’s most famous illustrated version. Édouard-Henri Avril gained a name for himself mainly as an illustrator of pornographic and erotic writing, in which he appeared through his pseudonym, Paul Avril. Born on the 21st of March 1849 in Algiers, the illustrator is still considered the father of modern erotic literature today.
In 1908, Avril was requested to illustrate a French edition of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, a.k.a Fanny Hill. This French edition was so successful that twelve illustrations were issued independently in a secret folder to fulfill the demand from a discerning readership.
Unfortunately, Édouard-Henri Avril’s edition of Fanny Hill is extremely difficult to find today, often only encountered in auctions.
Fanny Hill illustrated by Paul-Emile Bécat (1940):