Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2012

Fanny Hill, by John Cleland

The true name of Fanny Hill, the most explicit work one might have read in the 18th century, is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. John Cleland's tale, first published while he was in debtors' prison in 1748, is told through two long letters from a reformed and reflective Francis Hill, the eponymous harlot who is swept into London's "whirl of loose pleasures" after being orphaned as a young country girl. There's sex, love, voyeurism and, of course, tea. During Cleland's time, the notorious novel was banned and printed underground, while the author and publishers were arrested; a bishop even blamed the "vile" thing for two earthquakes. Two centuries later, the enduringly scandalous Memoirs was put on trial in America when the state of Massachusetts deemed it obscene and sought to suppress it. (The effort failed.) In an introduction to the 1963 printing that led to the trial, literary historian Peter Quennell wrote: "It treats of pleasure as the aim and end of existence ... but never stoops to an unbecoming word." Fanny Hill is proof that the art of racy writing has been, and will forever be, all about the euphemisms.