50 pages 1 hour read

John Cleland

Fanny Hill

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1748

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Summary and Study Guide


Fanny Hill or, The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is an erotic novel by John Cleland, an 18th-century British author known for his eroticism. The novel was originally published in installments in 1748 and 1749, and Cleland was arrested in 1749 for obscene content in Fanny Hill. Fanny Hill is one of the most banned books in the history of the English language largely due to its pornographic nature, though the novel does not use any profanity or explicit terms for sexual organs or acts. In many ways, Fanny Hill is a response to more conventional conduct novels, in which exposure to vice or sexuality is used as a means to entice readers while maintaining an overarching sense of morality. The novel was published again in 1963 in England and the United States, leading to temporary bans on the book in both countries. Though the original work did not contain illustrations, many subsequent printings have included illustrations that explicitly depict the sex acts in the novel. The novel has been adapted into numerous films, plays, musicals, and other novelizations depicting alternate character points of view. Fanny Hill explores themes of The Critique of Societal Hypocrisy Regarding Sexuality, Women’s Economic Dependence on Men, and The Tension Between Desire and Morality.

This guide uses the 2010 Kindle edition of the text, using page numbers from the Digireads.com 2010 edition.

Content Warning: This work includes depictions of physical abuse, sexual assault, and offensive and outdated language regarding women, gay men, and sexual interests, replicated in this guide only in direct quotes of the source material.

Plot Summary

The novel is framed as two letters from Fanny to an acquaintance in which she describes her youth as a sex worker. Fanny grew up in Liverpool. When her parents die, she is accompanied to London by Esther Davis, a family friend. In London, Esther abandons Fanny. Fanny meets Mrs. Brown in an employment office, and Mrs. Brown offers her a role as her assistant. Fanny accepts, returning to Mrs. Brown’s home. The other women in the house make it clear that Mrs. Brown operates a brothel. Phoebe, one of the women in the house, arouses Fanny with sex acts, encouraging her to watch the other women having sex as well. Mrs. Brown makes a deal with a man named Mr. Crofts for Fanny’s virginity, but Fanny succeeds in fending off Mr. Crofts’s attempts to have sex with her.

One night, Fanny meets Charles in the garden of Mrs. Brown’s home, and the two fall in love. Charles tells Fanny to run away from Mrs. Brown and move in with him, to which Fanny agrees. Fanny becomes Charles’s lover, and the two have sex. Fanny notes the pain and pleasure of losing her virginity. She becomes even more enamored with Charles. Bringing a lawyer to Mrs. Brown’s, Charles resolves any obligations Fanny had to Mrs. Brown. Charles and Fanny move into the home of Mrs. Jones, who extorts the couple for additional money at any opportunity. Charles and Fanny live happily together for 11 months, at which time Fanny discovers she is pregnant.

Charles is dependent on his grandmother for money, and his father, jealous of Charles’s wealth, sends him to the South Seas. Fanny, upon discovering Charles’s disappearance, loses her pregnancy. Mrs. Jones takes advantage of Fanny’s vulnerability and signs a contract with Mr. H to keep Fanny as a lover and pay Fanny’s bills. Fanny, saddened by Charles’s disappearance, moves into an apartment rented by Mr. H and becomes his lover. After seeing Mr. H have sex with one of the maids, Fanny decides to have sex with Mr. H’s messenger, Will, and the two have an affair for some time. When Mr. H discovers the affair, he expels Will and Fanny, agreeing to let Fanny keep all her gifts and some extra money when she reveals that she saw Mr. H have sex with the maid.

Fanny finds Mrs. Cole, who operates a brothel, and becomes a new member of Mrs. Cole’s home. At Mrs. Cole’s, Fanny meets Louisa, Emily, and Harriet, who are all sex workers around Fanny’s age. Louisa tells Fanny that she has always been sexually active, recounting how she lost her virginity at 13. Emily’s story is similar to Fanny’s: She left home as a teenager, meeting a man on the road with whom she maintained a sexual relationship for a while. Harriet, however, was sexually assaulted by a man with whom she had a brief affair. After each of these instances, the women explain that they began working as sex workers in Mrs. Cole’s home. As an initiation to Mrs. Cole’s home, she invites four men to the house, and Fanny, Louisa, Emily, and Harriet take turns having sex with their partners in front of each other.

Fanny works exclusively with one partner for a while, but he leaves her for another woman in Ireland, while Harriet leaves Mrs. Cole’s home to live with her own partner. Emily leaves shortly after to move back in with her parents. Mrs. Cole designs a scheme to sell Fanny’s pretend virginity to Mr. Norbert, who then keeps Fanny for some months before dying in Bath on vacation. On one occasion, Fanny engages in bondage play with Mr. Barville, though she comments that she is not interested in repeating the experience. Fanny’s recollections include spying on two gay men having sex, which she finds offensive. On another occasion, Fanny and Louisa conspire to sexually assault a flower salesman with an intellectual disability, which they find amusing.

After Louisa leaves Mrs. Cole’s home for a man, Mrs. Cole decides to retire and move to the country. Fanny has 800 pounds to her name, and she resolves to visit her hometown. On the way, Fanny meets an older, wealthy man, and she becomes his lover until his death shortly after, at which time Fanny inherits his fortune. With her wealth, Fanny plans to find Charles. She meets him by chance at an inn. The two are still in love, and they decide to get married, ending Fanny’s story with a lesson on finding pleasure in virtue.