Controversial book featuring England's first pornographic prose sells at Derbyshire auction for nine times estimate

Pages from the book. Photo - Hansons
Pages from the book. Photo - Hansons

A copy of one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history - regarded as the first English pornographic prose - has sold for nine times its estimate at auction in Derbyshire.

Memoirs of the Life of Miss Fanny Hill, The Career of A Woman of Pleasure, London, by John Cleland was first published in 1749.

Jim Spencer with the book. Photo - Hansons

Jim Spencer with the book. Photo - Hansons

But it was banned from publication in America until 1966 and in the UK until 1970 and was once considered immoral and without literary merit.

A 139-year-old copy, dating back to around 1880, was found by chance by Jim Spencer, antiquarian books expert at Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers. It went into auction with an estimate of £40-£60 but was contested to £360 - nine times its low estimate.

Mr Spencer said: “I wasn’t surprised to see this book do well. We had strong interest prior to the sale. It sold to a private UK buyer.

“I came across it at our saleroom near Derby when I was cataloguing a box of cigarette cards. It was one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history, the first English pornographic prose. It contained a 1960s newspaper article relating to police raids at a Manchester firm which had published around 20,000 copies of the book.

The book. Photo - Hansons

The book. Photo - Hansons

“Fanny Hill has been shrouded in controversy for most of its 271-year life. It was banned from publication in America until 1966 and in the UK until 1970. It was once considered immoral and without literary merit, even earning its author a jail sentence for obscenity.”

The book tells the story of Fanny Hill, a young Lancashire woman who loses both parents to smallpox, moves to London seeking domestic work and gets coaxed into prostitution. Fanny enjoys her work and eventually finds true love and wealth.

Mr Spencer said: “Today Fanny Hill is considered an important piece of political parody and sexual philosophy. It stands as one of the great works of 18th century fiction for its unique combination of parody, erotica and philosophy of sensuality.

“Some of the terminology in the book raises a smile. Cleland boasted that he could write a sexually exciting story without using a single foul word. Instead he conjured up descriptions such as Red Headed Champion, The Engine of Love Assaults, Stiff Staring Truncheon and Sturdy Stallion.”

Cleland, who sold the story for £21 in 1748, was summoned before the Privy Council for licentiousness when it was published in 1749. He escaped punishment by pleading poverty.

Seven years later, a bookseller was put in pillory for publishing it and, in the 1960s, a judge banned the book in New York. However, the New York Supreme Court later ruled it was not obscene.