The sale this week of an 1880 edition of Fanny Hill for £360 – rather more than the expected price of £40 – £60, which quite honestly, even we would’ve paid for it – has made us think back to when the name Fanny Hill was synonymous with sex and sin, and when the banning of the book saw opportunists leaping to cash in on her notoriety.
Often named as ‘Britain’s Most Famous Banned Book’, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (or assorted variations thereof) first appeared in two parts between 1748 and 1749, and was still causing trouble over two hundred years later. In 1963, Mayflower Books – convinced that the acquittal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the famous 1960 obscenity trial meant that this scandalous novel could now be made available – published a mass-market paperback (like many a banned book, it had long been available in high-priced editions that were safely out of the reach of the hoi polloi), only to find the book seized by the police and subjected to trial under the Obscene Publications Act. In 1964, to the shame of the nation, this entirely harmless book was found obscene – due chiefly to a scene involving flagellation – and was withdrawn from sale. An expurgated version was later published, with a spoof chapter added in the style of the original text, in which Fanny breathlessly describes ‘her’ court appearance and conviction. A widely mocked verdict, it couldn’t hold – by 1970, the uncensored book was back in print and no police force (not even Manchester) has attempted to take action since.
The book was also subject to a similar obscenity battle in the US, where the case went all the way to the Supreme Court before the book was officially declared not obscene in 1966. All this publicity for a book that was in the public domain was not lost on assorted opportunists, and throughout the 1960s, there was a slew of Fanny-related films (from Russ Meyer‘s ill-judged affair to the likes of The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill and Fanny Hill Meets Dr Erotico) and, less well known, a whole series of LPs that sought to cash in on hopes of titillation without attracting the attention of the law.
Given that Cleland famously avoided using any ‘dirty words’ in his novel, it was not that hard to take chunks of the book and, with the addition of a saucy female voice, at least in theory satisfy the horny listener without breaking obscenity laws even when and where the book was banned. You just had to miss out the more problematic parts and hope that no one complained; it was, in any case, unlikely that many people would want to return their purchase because it wasn’t filthy enough.
Yours Faithfully, Fanny Hill was a British release from 1964, and perhaps understandably goes out of its way to emphasise the classy good taste of the recording – after all, the release was to cash in on the obscenity conviction, and Dial Records probably didn’t want their entire stock confiscating. So the sleeve notes assure us that it “will not in any way offend against good taste”, while also bigging up the credentials of Mary Harrison, who is reading the extracts from the book and who, we are told, is “a strikingly beautiful young actress” who was educated at St Joseph’s Priory in Dorking and has had a successful career in repertory theatre. Further research shows a short career in supporting roles on TV, ending in 1967 when she presumably packed it all in. Whether that is her on the cover is anyone’s guess.
Slightly more ambition is shown in Memoirs of Fanny Hill, a two record set from the US, which has a somewhat dramatised version of the novel. Starring Pamela Hayes-Marshall – for whom this would seem to have been a one-off affair – and several supporting players, the Recorded Literature release is lacking in production detail such as the release year, but given the attempt at giving the project a bit of class with Velasquez’s Venus and Cupid on the cover (credited to the National Gallery, London just to emphasise the upmarket nature of the affair) we can assume that it is of similar vintage to Yours Faithfully, Fanny Hill.
Things become more eccentric with The Ballad of Fanny Hill, a 1963 recording that adapts the novel into a piece of musical theatre. Written by Vincent Purcell with lyrics by Charles Sydney and music by Gerald Coates, this has Julie Hamilton playing Fanny, performing such ditties as Lewd, Lascivious Phoebe and Thrash Me Laddie, Thrice to the Bar. As you might guess, this is not an entirely serious work, which might explain how they got away with it. The packaging, at this point, remains subtle. As censorship rules relaxed, Fax Records reissued it later in the 1960s as two individual LPs, with rather less tasteful artwork, replacing the classical art with cheesecake shots of 1960s topless dolly birds, and presented as part of a series of stag party LPs.
Here are a couple of songs to give you a feel for what to expect to hear at your next stag party:
Finally, we enter the 1970s, when the novel could be enjoyed by all and a few dramatised version appeared courtesy of Stream Records. We’re back to the more subtle – albeit slightly saucy – cover art in this 1973 recording overseen by Ivan Berg and Marion Reed, in which Jaqueline Stanbury is Fanny, third-billed on the cast list! The production is credited to Arrow International Artists, which makes them sound rather grander than I suspect they were.
Fanny Hill remains a popular figure of erotic imagination – there was a British film adaptation of the novel in 1983 (one of the last gasps of the British sex film) and an obscure American version in the mid-1990s. The BBC unexpectedly adapted it in 2007 – don’t hold your breath waiting for them to do it again. Meanwhile, there are now dozens of unexpurgated audio books available, the quality ranging from the decent to the appalling. None quite have the eccentric charms of these LPs though.