Raunchy story behind Lancashire book Fanny Hill which sparked police raids in the 1960s

The saucy story of a Lancashire girl turned prostitute is one still shrouded in controversy even today.

Friday, 1st February 2019, 1:50 pm
Updated Friday, 1st February 2019, 2:54 pm
An illustration in Fanny Hill, otherwise titled Memoirs Of A Lady Of Pleasure, by John Cleland. Photo by Hansons Auctioneers.

Despite being written in the 18th century, the book is one of the most provocative tales of modern times.

The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, more popularly known as Fanny Hill, was written by John Cleland during his time in prison. It was published in 1748-49 as two long letters detailing Fanny’s life of lust.

Frances Hill, now a rich Englishwoman married with a family, writes to the anonymous ‘Madam’ about the more scandalous details of her youth.

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The copy of Fanny Hill that recently went up for auction at Hansons Auctioneers in Derbyshire. Photo from Hansons Auctioneers.

The tale begins with a history of her adolescence where she lived in poverty in a Lancashire village not far from Liverpool.

Her father was physically unable to work so her mother helped out at a day school. Fanny writes that she is the only surviving child out of her siblings.

After losing her parents to smallpox, Fanny is forced to move to London to look for work, eventually turning to prostitution.

Readers go on a journey from brothel work to marriage – a plot which American critic John Hollander describes as ‘operatic’.

Even though the subject matter is raunchy, the book would have challenged traditional portrayals of women during that time.

Authors would write more about shame and femininity than they would female pleasure.

It explores acts considered deviant in a way that had rarely been seen before. That’s why critics say it is one of the first erotic novels ever written.

But it wasn’t plain sailing for the author, as his creation was banned in 1749.

By this time the book had gained so much popularity that a ban was not enough to stop its circulation.

Pirate copies were sold underground around the globe up until the 19th century.

There was outrage when the text found its way to America, with a court in Massachusetts imposing yet another ban in 1821.

The publisher, Peter Holmes, was convicted for printing a novel described as “lewd and obscene” by the court.

In an appeal to the Massachusetts supreme court, Holmes claimed that the judge, relying only on the prosecution’s description, had not even seen the book. The state Supreme Court wasn’t swayed.

The Chief Justice wrote that Holmes was “a scandalous and evil disposed person” who tried to corrupt the public.

In 1963 an uncensored copy was published by Mayflower Books and, even though attitudes towards sexuality were changing, it was still deemed unsuitable.

82,000 copies of the book were already in the public domain but police managed to seize 171 of them.

The book was finally allowed to be published in the UK during the 1970s with an American edition allowed four years earlier.

The most recent lift on the novel’s ban was in Singapore in 2015.

A copy of the text dating from about 1880 was found by antiquarian book expert Jim Spencer by chance.

The book sold for £360 at auction last week.