Many people know this as the first English-language pornographic novel. It remains one of the most widely banned books in English (thus, my need to read it), though by today’s standards its 1740’s style isn’t exactly explicit in language—avoiding vulgar terms in favor of neutral terms used in double entendre. It is graphic, however, and sex is central throughout. (Fun Fact: As with many of the works of the Marquis de Sade, this book was written while the author was in prison–though in Cleland’s case it was debtor’s prison.) It’s the story of a young woman of “loose morals”—both professionally and as an amateur, if you will. The story is told through letters to another woman in which Frances Hill explains how she ended up leading the life she did.
As with de Sade’s “Justine,” the inciting incident is that Hill becomes an orphan—though in this case her parents succumb to small-pox. Also, like Justine, Hill starts out naïve, and is taken advantage of by unsavory characters. This shouldn’t suggest that the character and story are completely the same. [Note: this book was written several decades before de Sade’s.] Hill is neither as relentlessly virtuous nor as relentlessly victimized as is Justine. At various points, she has agency in her decisions, while agency is at best an illusion for Justine. Hill even develops a love interest in the book in the form of a young lawyer named Charles who is soon separated from her (providing an engine for the continuation of the story.) Furthermore, she ultimately finds herself in the hands of a man who does her a fair turn, rather than twisting her misfortune to his desires (as all the men and many of the women do in Justine’s life.)
As one might expect of a novel written in the middle of the 18th century, the prose is purple. Also, as mentioned, it’s not for those with delicate sensibilities as sex is a fixture throughout. It’s interesting to read what the state of erotic literature was in the 18th century. If you’re curious about what that first porn novel was like, I’d recommend this book—as long as you are neither a prude nor incapable of deciphering the purple prose of that era.