Banned ‘pornographic prose’ up for sale

Image copyright Hansons Auctioneers
Image caption Fanny Hill has attracted controversy since it was first published in 1748

A 19th Century copy of a work described as “the most famous banned book in the country” is to be sold at auction.

Fanny Hill, by John Cleland, was first published in 1748 and has been described as the first example of “pornographic prose” in English.

The work was still banned in the UK up to the 1960s, but a copy dating from about 1880 was found by antiquarian book expert Jim Spencer.

It will be sold at Hansons Auctioneers in Etwall, Derbyshire, on 22 January.

Image copyright Hansons Auctioneers
Image caption A copy of the book dating from the 19th Century was found by John Spencer while he was cataloguing a box of cigarette cards

Fanny Hill – also known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure – tells the story of a young woman from Lancashire who moves to London and becomes a prostitute.

Instantly notorious, it led to Cleland being summoned by the Privy Council and the book being banned for its perceived licentiousness.

Fanny Hill: ‘Rising hillocks’ and other saucy passages

  • “Every part of me was open and exposed to the licentious courses of her hands, which, like a lambent fire, ran over my whole body, and thawed all coldness as they went.”
  • “My breasts, if it is not too bold a figure to call so two hard, firm, rising hillocks, that just began to shew themselves, or signify anything to the touch, employed and amused her hands awhile…”
  • “Her legs still kept the ground; and now, with the tenderest attention not to shock or alarm her too suddenly, he, by degrees, rather stole than rolled up her petticoats…”
  • “My gentleman had now put on his clothes and recomposed himself, when giving me a kiss, and placing me by him, he sat himself down as gingerly as possible, with one side off the cushion, which was too sore for him to bear resting any part of his weight on.”

The novel was also banned in a number of other countries, with Singapore only lifting it in 2015.

Mr Spencer found a newspaper cutting from the 1960s detailing how about 20,000 copies of the book had been seized by police, with Scotland Yard warning booksellers they risked prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 if they sold it.

Image copyright Hansons Auctioneers
Image caption A 300-year-old Georgian sex manual, once banned for its shocking content, sold for £3,100 – 30 times its estimate – in 2018

Gareth Powell, then joint managing director of Mayflower Books, which was publishing the new version, had said Fanny Hill was “the most famous banned book in the country” and the public were “ready for it”.

“Clearly, it was still banned in the UK in the 1960s,” said Mr Spencer.

“They called it the Swinging 60s but clearly erotic literature like this was viewed as too obscene to be seen by the masses half a century ago.

“These days, after the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s probably viewed as rather tame. It demonstrates just how much times have changed.”

Image copyright ShotAway
Image caption Caroline Quentin starred in a stage adaptation of Fanny Hill in 2015

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