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The Boston Globe

Ideas

How ‘Fanny Hill’ stopped the literary censors

50 years ago, a lusty 18th-century heroine made the United States safe for dirty books.

In 1963, according to a report in the Harvard Crimson at the time, a teenage Massachusetts boy spent 95 cents to buy a novel written in the 18th century. That may sound like a benign purchase, even an admirable one. But the book was “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” widely considered the first pornographic novel in English, and the boy’s displeased mother reportedly alerted the state’s Obscene Literature Control Commission. The commission, whose six members included a priest and a high school minister, recommended that the state ban the book outright.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the book’s first commercial printing in America. The kind of censorship it triggered is out of fashion now, but some sympathy for the boy’s mother is warranted: The 1749 novel her son purchased, more commonly referred to by the name of its heroine, Fanny Hill, depicts a broader range of sexual experiences than any available book written before it in English, and, for that matter, than almost any major novel written since. The plot follows a newly orphaned 15-year-old as she makes her way to London, falls in with a madam and some prostitutes, enthusiastically embraces her new career in “profit by pleasing,” and finally marries the man who deflowered her. But the plot is merely a rickety scaffolding for what is essentially a series of explicit sexual encounters that the heroine either gleefully performs—“what floods of bliss! what melting transports!”—or witnesses through a variety of far-fetched spy tactics.

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