The Amorist achieved a lifetime’s ambition this week. She was invited onto a topical news programme to read aloud some 18th century pornography while reclining on a chaise longue (ok, a BBC sofa). The Beeb’s Newsnight was following up the controversy over whether John Cleland’s romp Fanny Hill, the most notorious of 18th century erotica, could – or should – be taught to today’s crop of literature students. The academic Judith Hawley, who teaches at London university’s Royal Holloway, had caused a stir when she was (wrongly) accused of declining to put the work on the syllabus. In fact she taught it at Cambridge in the 1980s, but had remarked on a recent radio programme that it might be too controversial for some of today’s sensitive snowflakes, with their need for ‘trigger warnings’ about sexual content.
This triggered a chain of news-as-gossip – recognisable both from our internet age and the 18th-century coffee houses beloved of Fanny Hill’s readers. ‘Erotic novel first banned 270 years ago for describing a young girl’s sexual exploits is censored AGAIN – in case it upsets students,’ crowed the Mail on Sunday, as did a follow-up in the Times.
It was one of those silly season stories, where no one was paying too much attention to Hawley’s academic credentials – she’s an esteemed scholar of Lawrence Sterne and other risqué eighteenth century writers, who’d hardly be likely to advocate sparing student blushes. But the furore gave the Amorist her best opportunity for showing off since she was the only woman the BBC could find who would say the c-word (on a programme called The C-Word), an occasion which had involved reading aloud one of the most notorious passages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The Amorist fondly imagines she’s now on a BBC rolodex under the heading ‘Will read absolutely any old filth aloud and not blush’. But she’s definitely in favour of Fanny Hill, as is one of her favourite authors Wray Delaney (the erotic nom de plume for Carnegie medal-winner Sally Gardner), who admits that John Cleland is the main inspiration for her wonderful new novel An Almond for a Parrot. Interestingly Delaney is certain that Cleland is not sole author and that a woman (presumably of the night) had a hand in the writing of his novel.
Whatever the case, the Amorist thoroughly enjoyed her trip to BBC Centre at Portland Place for the purposes of being (presumably) the only harlot within reach who was prepared to read post-watershed filth to the news-hungry classes. She recited the description of Fanny’s first encounter with the penis belonging to Will, the man she will come to love.
"...and now, disengag’d from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant. Its prodigious size made me shrink again; yet I could not, without pleasure, behold, and even ventur’d to feel, such a length, such a breadth of animated ivory! perfectly well turn’d and fashion’d, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root, through the jetty sprigs of which the fair skin shew’d as in a fine evening you may have remark'd the clear light enter through the branchwork of distant trees over-topping the summit of a hill: then the broad and blueish-cast incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins, altogether compos’d the most striking assemblage of figure and colours in nature. In short, it stood an object of terror and delight.’
The Amorist believes there’s no finer description of a well-shaped penis in the literary canon. Although she invites readers to submit their own rival selections.
PICTURES: from a selection of books, illustrations and films, showing Cleland's novel inspired many interpretations and spin-offs
I want a red dress. I want it flimsy and cheap, I want it too tight, I want to wear it until someone tears it off me.