Sunday, November 1, 1998

Putting the Hot in HotSync: your guide to romantic literature and sexually oriented references for the PalmPilot


By Craig Froehle and John Swain

Masters and Johnson studied it. Margaret Sanger worried about its consequences. The President's in hot water over it and everyone else has at least one opinion about it. What is it? Sex, of course.

Never being ones to leave any social stones unturned, in a moment of extreme bravery or utter dementia, our stalwart columnists turn the blinding truth of their backlights on sexuality in literature and reference works for the PalmPilot.

Fanny Hill: memoirs of a woman of pleasure

One classic example of human sexuality in literature is the 18th century Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Fanny Hill is John Cleland's (1709-1789) most well known work and has enjoyed enormous popularity since its first publication in 1749. That popularity is more than likely due to its prurient nature and the inevitable publicity derived from the notoriety of its many heavily censored editions. However, Fanny Hill is more than simply a work of erotica. It has rightfully achieved a position in the pantheon of English literature classics.

The stylized text is presented in the form of two lengthy letters from the title character to an unidentified confidant addressed simply as "Madam". Throughout the body of these letters, the reader is given a window into Fanny's life as a London "woman of pleasure". Cleland gives Fanny a pithy, elegant, but matter-of-fact voice with which to describe her circumstances.

What separates Fanny Hill from other erotic literature is two-fold. Between the tales of sexual encounters, Cleland offers readers timeless messages that carry as much relevance today as when first published. Of particular note are the views Fanny offers on virtue and vice in the closing paragraphs. However, not satisfied with simply espousing through his narrator, Cleland also used Fanny Hill as literary parody. By embracing a form of heavily stylized language, Cleland was in fact offering a bit of literary sarcasm addressed to his predecessors, most notably Daniel Defoe (1660-1731).

Fanny Hill has the dubious distinction of being one of a number of books that were officially banned in the United States. In the early 1960's, the Attorney General of Massachusetts brought a civil action of obscenity against the book. Despite the intervention of a publisher, the trial court and eventually the Massachusetts Supreme Court decreed the book obscene and not entitled to the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. On subsequent appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that Fanny Hill did not meet the Roth standard for obscenity, and the classic was again freely available in the United States.