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.
Trouble had pursued “Fanny Hill” from the start. Its author, John Cleland, and its original publisher had been arrested and jailed immediately after publication, with a bishop denouncing the book as “the lewdest thing I ever saw.” In America, the book was the subject of the country’s first obscenity trial, in 1821, when two Massachusetts men were charged with printing an illustrated version. It circulated in contraband and “collector’s” copies, some of which found impressive American readers: Benjamin Franklin was said to own a copy, and 19th-century presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden had a copy.
But what really made Fanny Hill famous was what followed that Massachusetts decision. The state’s case against the book went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the book was lambasted by one justice as “nothing more than a series of minutely and vividly described sexual episodes”—but where, nonetheless, it was found to enjoy First Amendment protection.
Just 50 years later, it’s almost impossible to imagine a government-sanctioned ban on a piece of literature, or to picture the Supreme Court debating whether adults should be allowed to buy an 18th-century novel, no matter how dirty. The era of mainstream literary censorship is over in America. And in some ways, we have the eccentric, exuberant—and yes, erotic—“Fanny Hill” to thank for it.
John Cleland began writing his novel on something of a dare, when he was not much older than that Massachusetts teenager. As a 19- or 20-year-old working for the British East India Company in what is now Mumbai, a friend challenged him to write a story about a prostitute without using a single obscene word. Challenge accepted, Cleland conjured up a remarkable range of metaphors for genitalia: “flesh brush,” “plenipotentiary instrument,” “master member of the revels,” “maypole,” “store bag of nature’s prime sweets,” “pleasure-thirsty channel,” and on and on.
He made good use of them, too: A partial list of the book’s adventures includes an orgy, sex between women, masturbation, masochism, cross-dressing, and a detailed sodomy scene that is one of only two known explicit depictions of male same-sex ardor in the language before the end of the 19th century. (The sodomitical passage, which Cleland’s 2012 biographer Hal Gladfelder calls “one of the most remarkable scenes in all of 18th-century literature,” disappeared from the published text until the 1980s.)
By 1748, Cleland was in debtors prison back in England, so when a publisher named Ralph Griffiths solicited an expanded version of his boyish experiment, he agreed. Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” often claimed as the first novel in English, had been published in 1740, and Cleland’s new novel aped its tropes. But where virtuous Pamela resists her aggressor, Fanny succumbs to experience with gleeful abandon.
The book’s publication caused Cleland to serve a brief jail sentence for obscenity, and after his release, he quickly issued a shorter, bowdlerized version. It flopped. The original continued to circulate underground, and it earned a grudging critical respect for the vigor of its writing: Fanny often matches her metaphors for sex to the occupations of her lovers, for example. Anticipating the debates of the 20th century, a 1762 guide to living British authors called it the “best executed and the most picturesque of any Work of the Kind,” though it also allowed that the book had been “justly censured by Men of rigid Morals.”
For the next 200 years, “Fanny Hill” circulated quite freely in both England and America, although always in pirate editions. It was translated into French early on, and was often accompanied by crude illustrations. As early as 1786, a master printer in Worcester sought to purchase a copy from an English seller, and there are early 19th-century records of copies for sale in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Boston. By the mid-19th century, according to the introduction to one modern edition, there were 20 different editions in English. In America, prosecutions dropped off after the Civil War. The book became the kind of thing passed between boys in schoolyards and housed on high shelves in private libraries. But despite its popularity, no mainstream publisher would dare to touch it.
It wasn’t until June 1963 that the publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons finally decided to publish it in America. Theirs was the first commercial edition of “Fanny Hill” since 1749. The time was right: Grove Press had recently published “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and had reaped the publicity that came from pushing the envelope of racy mainstream literature. The book’s first print run was an ambitious 30,000 copies. “They knew exactly what they were getting into,” Gladfelder, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, said. Publishers Weekly noted before the release that “the stage would seem to be set for quite a publishing furor.”
Indeed it was. “Fanny Hill” was briefly banned in New York, until a judge there ruled it had merit as “an historical novel of literary value.” Within a short time, the book would also be banned in London, New Jersey, and Illinois. Soon after publication, the Obscene Literature Control Commission in Massachusetts made its recommendation for a ban, too. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke (later a senator) acted on the commission’s recommendation, and eventually a 27-year-old assistant attorney general named William I. Cowin was assigned the case, which would be tried civilly against the book itself, with the aim of declaring it obscene and therefore unprotected by the First Amendment. “I don’t think anybody was totally enthusiastic about this,” Cowin, now a retired judge, recalled recently. (Cowin says he doesn’t recall the story about the teenage boy and his scandalized mother triggering the case, but confirms the commission regularly responded to complaints from the public.) “But it was a state agency that recommended we proceed, and we were reluctant to say no.”
Massachusetts was historically fond of censorship. It had passed a law forbidding the “filthy, obscene, or profane” as early as 1711, and the strictness of Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, founded in 1878, turned the phrase “banned in Boston” into a badge of honor for purveyors of risqué books and movies. But by the mid-20th century, the boundaries of literary taste were expanding, with or without the approval of state and local governments. The liberalizing culture was affecting the courts, and vice versa. In 1957, the US Supreme Court had narrowed the definition of obscenity by ruling that while the First Amendment does not cover pornography, it covers works of art. Very quickly, the challenge became telling the two apart. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart issued his famous definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
Cowin, the assistant attorney general charged with the task of making the state’s case that “Fanny Hill” was obscene, now says he did not expect to win. He knew it would be hard, if not impossible, to prove a total absence of cultural value—especially considering the “inevitable weight of expert opinion that the publisher would bring to bear.” Sure enough, the Globe reported that the first state trial drew “almost unanimous testimony by literati from Boston and afar” on behalf of the novel’s literary worth. Nonetheless, a Massachusetts judge ruled the book obscene, and the state’s Supreme Judicial Court agreed.
Putnam’s kept appealing, and Memoirs v. Massachusetts made it to the Supreme Court at the end of 1965. It was one of a handful of such cases at the time, and several justices expressed concern that the court was turning into a kind of national censorship board. Chief Justice Earl Warren said that the court didn’t want “to read all the prurient material in the country to determine if it has social value.”
The following spring, the court ruled 6 to 3 that “Fanny Hill” was not obscene. Crucially, Justice William Brennan wrote an opinion clarifying that a work could be obscene only if it were “utterly without redeeming social value”; by virtue of its historical importance and literary merit, he stated, John Cleland’s novel was demonstrably not in this category. In dissenting opinions, Justice Tom Clark weighed in with an opinion on Fanny herself—“nothing but a harlot”—and Justice Byron White disagreed with Brennan’s assertion that literary value precluded obscenity, suggesting that a primary appeal to “prurient interest” made a work obscene even if it could also claim some artistic worth. White worried that obscene material would proliferate “if it has any literary style, if it contains any historical references or language characteristic of a bygone day, or even if it is printed or bound in an interesting way.”
White was right to worry, as it turned out. The “Fanny Hill” ruling essentially meant that if a work of art could claim any social importance at all, it could not be suppressed. The Harvard Crimson, which had followed the case closely, declared that “Fanny Hill is back—to stay.”
After its blessing from the Supreme Court, “Fanny Hill” rapidly acquired popular prestige. Liberated women saw Fanny as a fellow-traveler; Erica Jong wrote an introduction to the book in 1978 celebrating “the sheer healthiness and bounciness of its approach to physical love.” (Two years later she wrote her own pastiche, “Fanny.”) Film versions proliferated, and the emerging field of gay studies embraced the book, too. In 1985, “Fanny Hill” was published as part of the Oxford University Press’s World’s Classics series and the Penguin Classic series, enhanced with proper scholarly introductions and ready for any syllabus. “Those were the official markers that the book had shifted from being an underground obscene work to being an actual historically significant English novel,” Gladfelder said. “It couldn’t be more respectable.”
But the legal victory for “Fanny Hill” did more than just improve the novel’s reputation. Gladfelder calls the obscenity trials of the 1960s some of the key cultural events of the decade. “Some people will think for worse, and others will think for better, but it did sort of open the floodgates,” he said. “It was like a melting iceberg. There was nothing left to justify prosecuting or censoring these books.” Law enforcement around obscenity is now primarily concerned with child pornography, and the only other major restrictions on adult pornography have to do with where it is displayed and advertised. Today, obscenity charges for text-based materials, let alone historic literature, are almost unheard of.
More than 250 years after “Fanny Hill” boosted its author out of debtors prison, the book still has the capacity to shock. As Cowin noted in front of the Supreme Court, after the first 10 pages of the novel, “all but 32 have sexual themes.” But “Fanny Hill” would not have survived so long if it were merely scandalous in 18th-century terms: It remains revolutionary today because, as English critic Peter Quennell wrote in the introduction to the 1963 edition, “It treats of pleasure as the aim and end of existence.” Yes, Fanny issues a perfunctory ode to virtue at end of the novel, but she isn’t punished for her past vices, and we sense she’ll continue to enjoy herself. The man she first loved—and first loved sleeping with—returns to marry her, and he’s rich, too. “Fanny Hill” is a novel narrated by a woman who gets to have it all: sex and love, experience and stability.
Even to Cowin, who accused the book of obscenity in front of the Supreme Court, the case is clearly of another era. “It all seems very odd now, 50 years later, when you can turn on a cable station in your own home and see stuff that’s incredibly explicit,” he said. “The opinion is the government’s got better things to do than telling us what we ought to be reading.”
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.