Last updated: June 27, 2019
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Fanny Hill: Against Obscenity

 

“. . . The paths of Vice are sometimes strew’d with roses, but then they are forever infamous for many a thorn, for many a cankerworm: those of Virtue are strew’d with roses purely, and those eternally unfading ones”[P1] (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure)

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Most of the public and the moralists have stated their opinion. “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure[P2] ” otherwise known as “Fanny Hill” is an obscene and immoral material which serves no other purpose but to titillate the imagination. A closer look into the novel, however, would reveal that it should be allowed to circulate freely because it does more to warn readers of vice than simply offer an exciting and erotic pornographic material.

“Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”[P3] , a novel in two parts, is written by John Cleland during his debt imprisonment in the notorious Fleet Prison in 1748 and 1749 respectively, although a few claims that Cleland began writing it as early as 1730 when he was just about 19 or 20 years old (Audiobooks). In the novel,  “Fanny Hill” narrates her rise via prostitution from a poor orphan in the country to a rich, respectable, married woman. [P4] It consists of Fanny’s letters to a friend where she eloquently narrates her adventures mostly in vivid details.

Orphaned at the age of fifteen, Fanny moves to London through the urging of a friend who leaves her to the care of herself. Naïve as she was portrayed, she ends up in a brothel to the care of a certain Mrs. Brown. She eventually meets her first love, Charles, to whom she loses her virginity. Charles takes her away from the brothel as a kept woman but only for a moment before he disappears. Fanny returns to prostitution to another brothel and eventually meets an older, rich man who takes her as a mistress, educates her and teaches her the way of the elite. The man dies, leaving her a handsome inheritance, and she again finds Charles, gets married to him and lives a happy life.

In the care of Mrs. Brown, Fanny learns of her own sexuality as she awakens in the world of prostitution and the pleasures of sex. She learns about same sex relationships and “learns about such relationships by her experience among women at the beginning and by observation of men towards the end of the novel.”(Johnson) [P5]

In this novel, sex is depicted more for its pleasurable accounts and dismisses of the nuisances and unattractiveness of prostitution (Johnson). Her accounts, however, opens the eyes of its readers to the avoided realities of the 18th century bourgeoisie community and of prostitution. It challenges society’s sensibilities by letting them become aware of the tabooed realism that is sex and lust.

Memoirs is an elegantly written literary piece that “features an amazing series of ingenious euphemisms for sexual organs and acts” where Fanny refers to the male member as a “nipple of love,” semen as “my dear love’s liquid emanation of himself,” and the female genitalia as the “soft laboratory of love.”(Johnson). [P6] However, it differs from most pornographic novels of that time in that its detail and coherency of plot accompanies the development of its character who undergoes an education “learning not only survival skills in the underworld of prostitution but also intellectual, emotional, and cultural skills that turn her into a devoted wife and mother, cultured upper-class lady, and sophisticated writer (Johnson).

Widely considered the first erotic novel, “Fanny Hill” was first printed in the United States in 1810, where it met with significant, though largely illicit, demand. William Hayes, an early American publisher of erotic fiction, was said to have approached the annual sales of over $100,000 by the 1870’s, despite (or perhaps because of) significant opposition from federal and state censors. (Kendall 7)

Since a year after its first publication in 1748, Fanny Hill has been receiving criticisms and has been the subject of litigation for being an “obscene” and indecent material. Cleland and his publisher was arrested and charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects.” The book was withdrawn, but as its popularity rose, pirated copies circulated, and despite the release of an expurgated version in 1750, it was nevertheless prosecuted, charges of which were subsequently dropped. Throughout the 19th century, underground copies of the book made it to the United States where it was banned for obscenity in 1821(Wikipedia).

In 1963, the book was published under the title “John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”  by G.B. Putnam. But because it was immediately banned for obscenity, the publisher challenged the ban in court (Wikipedia). Four of the seven Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court conclude that “Fanny Hill” is obscene. (349 Mass. 69, 206 N.E.2d 403) but this case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Suffice to say, although Memoirs is admittedly an erotic literary work, it is not obscene for a number of reasons and should not merit such classification to be banned from circulation.

First, the book has been legally declared not obscene on the basis of decided cases and following the First Amendment. The landmark decision in 1966 ruled in “A Book Named “John Cleland’s “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”” v. Attorney General of Massachusetts” (383 US 413) that “Fanny Hill” is not obscene. The long discussion and arguments laid down by Justice Douglas in his concurring opinion is an amazing justification for this stand.

“Memoirs” was not declared obscene on the basis of interpretations on the First Amendment where the Constitution forbids abridgment of “freedom of speech, or of the press.” In the words of Justice Douglas, “I base my vote to reverse on my view that the First Amendment does not permit the censorship of expression not brigaded with illegal action. But even applying the prevailing view of the Roth test, reversal is compelled by this record, which makes clear that “Fanny Hill” is not “obscene”(emphasis supplied). The prosecution made virtually no effort to prove that this book is “utterly without redeeming social importance” (Douglas qtd. in 383 US 413) . The defense, on the other hand, introduced considerable and impressive testimony to the effect that this was a work of literary, historical, and social importance” (383 US 427). Furthermore, he states that “censorship is the most notorious form of abridgment. It substitutes majority rule where minority tastes or viewpoints were to be tolerated” (383 US 413).

Second, the book speaks of the true meaning and nature of freedom, morality, and humanity. More than presenting erotic images and magnifying on sexual desires, “Memoirs” opens the eyes and minds of it readers to a variety of truths pervasively avoided by society. It does more than appeal to the prurient interests of the readers, but offers a redeeming social value. Moralists and religious people have continuously rejected and despised this novel for its immorality. It is interesting to note, the dissection that Justice Douglas has made in inquiring into the value of this novel in his concurring opinion in the Massachusetts case. To raise his points, he juxtaposed “Memoirs” with the book “Sin, Sex and Self-Control” written by a certain Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and annexed his analysis to his opinion. [P7]

Dr. Peale, in Justice Douglas’ analysis, says that he recognizes that one cannot live by illusion. To Dr. Peale, as society has evolved, it appeared that what first appeared to be disaster was really opportunity, and concludes that our society should welcome the fact that the old external authorities have fallen. Dr. Peale believes that individuals must be coerced into certain patterns of behaviors.  He continues that in a challenged society that was then, “individuals would be disciplined by self-control rather than being motivated by external compunction.” Dr. Peale recommends that as “society could and would corrupt the individual…the only sure defense was a strong super-ego or conscience.” [P8] (Peale qtd. in 383 US 413)

From his analysis of Dr. Peale’s book, Justice Douglas raised counter arguments to prove and dignify the value of “Memoirs”. He dealt with the same issues, although not in a manner as subtle as that in Dr. Peale’s. “Fanny Hill”, according to Justice Douglas, is a moral piece of literature in a form of allegory describing that evil, may, in reality, demonstrate characteristics of love and concern. To him, how interesting is it how a woman can find warmth and understanding and the meaning of love and faithfulness in the midst of a debased society (383 US 413). [P9]

Fanny Hill may have not practiced self-control, but was able to appreciate the value of self-expression and tried to understand her clients as persons, and accepted herself for who she was. Self-expression, then, is “more human than self-control”, and Justice Douglas saw that “Cleland dares to suggest that, in a situation which society calls immoral and debased, a genuine love and respect for life and for people, as human beings, can develop” (Douglas qtd. in 383 US 413).

Justice Douglas noted that the reason why people become accustomed to say that “Memoirs” is obscene is because people have been so used to “prejudging what is ethical and what is not such that people accept as good may be nothing less than evil because it harms people” (Douglas qtd. in 383 US 413).

“Memoirs”, he continued, describes meaningful relationships and is a more valuable literature because it does not tell the readers how to behave, rather, it tells them to understand themselves and the nature of love and understanding in relation to other people. The “Peale  approach” to life, according to him, “breeds contentment but results in conformity, rigid behavior, and a lack of understanding”. Cleland’s approach, on the other hand, “teaches us to be alive and sensitive to life” thus; we learn to choose what we want. He notes that “if society is to collapse, it will not be because they read Fanny Hill, but because people have refused to understand what society is”, and the reason why “decadence in society is to arise is not because people lacked the ability to distinguish between morality and immorality, but because the opportunity for self-expression been so controlled or strangled that the society or the person becomes a robot” (Douglas qtd. in 383 US 413).

“Memoirs”, in essence teaches us to understand ourselves and our society and prompts us to respect ourselves. As Justice Douglas puts it, ““Fanny Hill” represents the allocentric viewpoint which posits the possibility for man to raise his sights, stretch his imagination, cultivate his sensitiveness as well as deepen and broaden his perspectives” (Douglas qtd. in 383 US 413). He continues by saying that “in a day when people are overly sensitive in drawing lines between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, as well as the true and the false, it seems to me (383 US 413, p441) that there is great irony in the availability of a book such as “Fanny Hill””.  In effect,  “Memoirs” has opened society’s eyes to what prostitution is, a subject that is well known taboo at that time.

Later in the novel, Fanny Hill speaks of the redeeming value of what she has all gone through. This, she explicitly portrays in the passage:

“Thus, at length, I got snug into port, where, in the bosom of virtue, I gather’d the only uncorrupt sweets: where, looking back on the course of vice I had run, and comparing its infamous blandishments with the infinitely superior joys of innocence, I could not help pitying, even in point of taste, those who, immers’d in gross sensuality, are insensible to the so delicate charms of VIRTUE, than which even PLEASURE has not a greater friend, nor than VICE a greater enemy. Thus, temperance makes men lords over those pleasures that intemperance enslaves them to: the one, parent of health, vigour, fertility, cheerfulness, and every other desirable good of life; the other, of diseases, debility, barrenness, self-loathing, with only every evil incident to human nature.” (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure)

Finally, “Memoirs” should not be banned from circulation because even assuming that it is pornographic; there is no concrete relationship established as of yet between pornography and the increase in sexual crimes to benefit the ban of “Memoirs” from the reading public. The early forerunners who have stood that it is not an obscene material have made it clear then. Noting that “the censor is quick to justify his function in terms that are protective of society”, Justice Douglas in the states that “the most frequent justification for censorship is the belief that erotica produce anti-social sexual conduct” (Douglas qtd. in 383 US 413). But until this relationship is proven, “the  First Amendment demands more than a horrible example or two of the perpetrator of a crime of sexual violence, in whose pocket is found a pornographic book, before it allows the Nation to be saddled with a regime of censorship.”( Douglas qtd. in 383 US 413  p433)

A study on the relationship of pornography and the rate of rape conducted among four nations, revealed that the rate of rape cases have decreased in the span of twenty years that pornography was legalized in their regions. Countries studied included Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the United States, where although pornography is not totally legal, liberal application of censorship is being implemented. The study which reviewed the occurrence of rape incidences for 1964 to 1984 showed that there is no concrete causality between pornography and rape (Kutchinsky 53).

According to the study, “the aggregate data on rape and other violent or sexual offences from these four countries where pornography, including aggressive varieties, has become widely and easily available during the period we have dealt with would seem to exclude, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this availability has had any detrimental effects in the form of increased sexual violence” (Kutchinsky 53). [P10] Accordingly, the study suggests that most other research data about pornography and rape finds a weak link between them. Furthermore, the study notes that existing knowledge about the contents, the uses and the users of pornography suggests that pornography does not represent a blueprint for rape, but is essentially an aphrodisiac, that is, food for the sexual fantasy of persons¾mostly males¾who like to masturbate (Kutchinsky 53). This is corroborated by another study on the relationship of internet pornography and rape. The results support a “negative correlation between internet access and rape, and actually underestimates the true substitutability of pornography and rape”(Kendall 17). This study suggested that for potential rapists, pornography is a substitute for rape (Kendall 28) and may be concluded that pornography is not the cause for committing actual rape.

These justifications coupled with proofs support the fact that “Memoirs” is not an obscene material and should be treated as a valuable literature that aids in understanding human nature and society as a whole. Issues concerning the value of “Memoirs” should be left to the discretion and taste of the reading public, but banning it would not be the answer. To suppress reality, is to totally ban the mind from the marketplace of ideas and self expression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

A Book Named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 Concurring Opinion of Justice Douglas. 1966. FindLaw for Legal Professionals. 01 March 2008.  <http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=383&invol=413#f2>

“Fanny Hill.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 2008. Answers.com 1 Mar. 2008. http://www.answers.com/topic/fanny-hill

John Cleland. AudioBooksForFree. 01 March 2008, <http://www.audiobooksforfree.com/ download/anp.asp ?refnum= 1000564&anpval=John%20Cleland>

Johnson, Terrence. “Cleland, John:1709-1789.” An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Ed. Claude J. Summers. 2002.
New England Publishing Associates. 29 February 2008.  <www.glbtq.com/literature/cleland_j.html>

Kendall, Todd. Pornography, Rape and the Internet. 2002. Clemson University, USA. 01 March 2008. <http://www.law.stanford.edu/display/images/dynamic/events_media/Kendall%20cover%20+%20paper.pdf>

Kutchinsky, Berl. Pornogrpahy, Sex Crime and Public Policy. University of Copenhagen, Denmark Australian Institute of Criminology.. 01 March 2008.  <www.aic.gov.au/publications/proceedings/14/kutchinsky.pdf>
[P1]This is taken from the novel itself. Unfortunately, I don’t have the physical copy of the book so I don’t have the exact page number. Kindly insert the page number from your book.Thanks.
[P2]done
[P3]done
[P4]I did not put any quotation because this is statement of fact as I have read in the entirety of the novel.
[P5]Cited, but it is an electronic source so it doesn’t have a page number
[P6]paraphrased and cited.
[P7]There is no citation because this is my personal observation of what Justice Douglas did in his concurring opinion when he reviewed Fanny Hill in the light of Dr. Peale’s book “Sin, Sex and Self Control”.
[P8]This is also found in (383 US 413) qtd. means it was  Peale quoted from (383 US 413).
[P9]Base on what are you saying this? Maybe you could start by saying: According to doc—-, Justice Douglas
[P10]Quoted and cited