Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419
Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure details the sexual adventures of a teenage girl in London. Orphaned at fifteen, Frances Hill, with little skill and education, must find a way to survive. She leaves her village for London and finds employment at Mrs. Brown’s brothel. Fanny believes her new job to be legitimate, but her curiosity and sensuality are aroused when the prostitute with whom she shares a room introduces her to sex. Mrs. Brown then tricks Fanny into “servicing” a client, and the girl is nearly raped. She escapes from the bordello and falls in love with a man named Charles, who is sent to sea by his father before he can provide for Fanny. Once more destitute and alone, Fanny finds work at an upper-class brothel, where she experiences a multitude of sexual acts and discovers that sex for money is not as satisfying as sex for love. Fanny is removed from the bordello by an elderly gentleman, who cares for her, instructs her in the arts and sciences, and, after eight months, dies, leaving her his fortune. Soon after her benefactor’s death, Fanny is reunited with Charles, and the two live happily ever after.
In 1821 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tried to ban Fanny Hill, claiming that it was obscene. Previously ruled obscene in England in 1761, the book did not receive broad acceptance or distribution in the newly formed United States. However, since it was somewhat popular in “underground” circles, a publisher named Peter Holmes saw an opportunity to profit from printing and selling it. During the trial, the prosecutor based his arguments solely on the book’s sexual content, arguing that, under common law, it should not be printed or possessed. The trial court judge agreed and found Holmes guilty of obscene libel.
Presenting his appeal before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Holmes’s lawyer seemed to accept the decision that the book was obscene, arguing for his client not on First Amendment grounds but on technical grounds, since Holmes had not published and delivered the book to a particular individual, as he had been charged, but had rather published the book “generally.” In its decision the higher court stated that Holmes was a “scandalous and evil disposed person” who was contriving to corrupt the morals of the “good citizens of said commonwealth . . . and to raise and create in their minds inordinate and lustful desire.” This decision would be the sole legal ruling in the United States regarding obscenity in published material until 1890.
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