Detail from Bronzino's 'An Allegory with Venus and Cupid' c.1545


A beautiful virgin, new to the idea of sex, is led secretively into a wardrobe by a highly seductive girl a few years her senior. In the wall is a peep-hole, through which the pair watch a prostitute named Polly enjoying ferocious sex with a well-endowed, muscular Italian man. Excited by what they see, the two girls begin to masturbate – first themselves, and then each other.

Does this sound like the beginning of an atrocious 1970s porn film? I wouldn’t know, of course, never having used the internet for anything but writing careful, inoffensive prose and reading about the healing power of God.  As a lascivious plebeian, however, you’re probably familiar with this sort of debauchery. But get this: it’s a summary of a scene from the 1748 novel Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by all-round rebel John Cleland, an Englishman who flunked his education, lived in constant financial debt and was eventually imprisoned because of the novel’s extreme sexual explicitness, which was blamed for “corrupting the King’s subjects”, many of whom read it while it was circulated in secret.

Fanny Hill tells the story of a country girl who finds herself thrown into the sexual world when the death of her parents forces her to relocate to seedy 18th century London. Cleland’s rich prose puts unimaginative smut such as 50 Shades of Grey to shame. The novel’s world is one of ‘fleshy orbs’, ‘hard, firm, rising hillocks’, ‘plenteous effusion[s] of white liquid’, and ‘the sweet seat of the most exquisite sensation’. It even contains its fair share of BDSM (take that, E.L. James).

I read Fanny Hill in preparation to study it in the colourfully titled English class ‘Prostitutes, Pornographers and Inverts: Sex in the Long Nineteenth Century’. I made the flawed decision to read it on my daily commute, which really helped me perfect the art of hiding reading material from curious tube passengers. The skill of it is holding the book vertically in front of your face, so that onlookers can see the front cover of the novel (presumably admiring your capacity to read a Penguin Classic at 8.30 in the morning) but can’t catch a glimpse of the pages inside it, which are held so close to your face that your nose is almost stroking them. You’ll avoid embarrassment as long as they don’t find out you’re lingering on a sentence describing ‘the stiff intersertion between the yielding divided lips of the wound now open for life’.

Awkward public transport aside, Fanny Hill is a novel well worth reading. It helped to dispel my inaccurate misconceptions about the supposed prudishness of centuries gone by, entertaining and strangely seducing me in the process. It’s sex scenes are relentless, but never boring, and what was once seen as nothing but pornography has, through time, become something beautiful and worthy of the literary canon, if only for how alien its language appears by today’s standards. Fortunately, you no longer need to be privy to the secrets of Cleland’s literary circle to get hold of a copy. You’ll find Fanny Hill in your local bookshop, clothed modestly in the standard Penguin Classics cover – although what you’ll find inside is anything but modest.


Featured image: detail from Bronzino’s ‘An Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ c.1545