Courtesy of Illiara@DeviantArt
My recent piece for the Huffington Post got me thinking about erotic literature. For those of you who haven’t checked it out, I basically argued the merits of S & M pornography under the overarching theme of the Shades of Grey novels. Through learning more about the books, and their wild popularity, I was inspired to start reading more erotica and I thought I’d share some of my reads with you!
I started with the oldest book on my list, Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, written by John Cleland around 1748 while he was imprisoned in London. One of the most notorious pieces of erotic literature spanning two and a half centuries, Fanny Hill has only been legally distributed in the USA since 1973.
Young Fanny Hill, a rustic girl from the English countryside, travels to London at the age of 15, after both of her parents die. She is immediately taken into a brothel, where she manages to somehow evade sex, though she bears witness to A LOT of it and has a few encounters with her roommate. It’s here that she meets the love of her life, a young nobleman named Charles, with whom she promptly runs away, loses her virginity, and enters into an affair. She lives with him, in an utterly blissful (super-orgasmic) state for three months, until mysteriously disappears, leaving her completely alone, friendless, vulnerable and catatonic with despair.
By her landlady’s design, Fanny is able to maintain her lodging by entering an agreement with a wealthy lord, Mr. H, who keeps her outfitted and furnished in exchange for his sexual satisfaction. With Mr. H, Fanny realizes that sex can be pleasurable without any love between the two parties:
”Yet oh! What an immense difference did I feel between this impression of a pleasure merely animal, and struck out of the collision of the sexes, by a passive bodily effect, from that sweet fury, that rage of active delight which crowns that enjoyments of mutual love passion, where two hearts, tenderly and truly united, club to exalt the joy, and give it a spirit and soul that bids defiance to that end which mere momentary desires generally terminate in, when they die of a surfeit of satisfaction.”
However, after she’s caught having an affair with Mr. H’s well-endowed servant boy, Fanny is cast out in London once again, where she is able to find a place at an upscale brothel run by a Mrs. Cole and patronized by several young, wealthy gentlemen. The brothel and the three other girls working there treated Fanny like family, and “… A defiance of awe, modesty or jealousy were their standing rules…” It is here that Fanny gains most of her sexual experience: participating in an orgy, rape fantasies, fetishes, S & M, and anonymous sex.
In rapid succession, two of the working girls leave the brothel and Mrs. Cole retires, leaving Fanny to live off of her savings. Now 18, she meets a wealthy older gentleman who treats her like a daughter until he dies, leaving her his estate. With this newfound wealth, Fanny tries to track down her long-lost-love, Charles, but can’t. But on a trip to see the retired Mrs. Cole, Fanny randomly finds Charles at an inn, where they of course have lots and lots of sex. Fanny tells Charles about the last 3 years of her life, and the myriad of sexual experience she has gained, he accepts it and they agree to be married.
The Good: If you’re a history nerd like me, or just really enjoy 18th century euphemisms, you’ll love both the flowery language and the historical-cultural insight.
The Bad: Obviously written by a man. The female characters embody everything that would be desirable to a man, leaving them totally unbelievable at times. But the sex is described from the woman’s point of view (and pleasure), which helps balance this out.
The Ugly: This book brings up a lot of sexual themes that are hard to swallow, if you’ll forgive the pun. Among them are: rape, obligation, shame, and a woman’s general helplessness throughout so much of history.
Words of Wisdom: “Our virtues and vices depend too much on our circumstances.”