Alleged ban on 1748 erotic novel seen as pandering to the sensibilities of a generation of ‘snowflake’ students

On Monday, Vogue’s website, unusually straying into academia, reported: “Eyebrows were raised when the first erotic novel in the English language, Fanny Hill, was dropped from an 18th-century literature course ‘for fear of offending students’.” This followed a headline in the Mail on Sunday: “Erotic novel first banned 270 years ago for describing a young girl’s sexual exploits is censored AGAIN – in case it upsets students.” Both assertions were incorrect, neatly illustrating how freedom of speech so easily slides into the murky realms of Trumpian “post-truth”.

John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill (a play on mons veneris – the mount of Venus) was published in 1748. He began it as a young man working in the East India Company in Bombay in response to a challenge to write what became the first English pornographic novel without using coarse language. He completed it in his 30s, in debtor’s prison, writing to pay for his freedom. He returned to jail soon after, convicted on obscenity charges.

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