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When the Supreme Court Had to Read an 18th-Century Erotic Novel

January 23, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

by D.H. Lawrence and Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller—and getting those bans overturned. Eager to fight a similar public battle, G.P. Putnam’s Sons started selling Fanny Hill in 1963.

As expected, the publisher was charged with obscenity, and it took its case to the highest court in the land. In early 1966, the Supreme Court ruled six to three that Fanny Hill was not obscene and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Previously, the court had ruled that obscene works had to be “utterly without redeeming social value.” Justice William Brennan argued in his majority opinion that Fanny Hill’s historical and literary importance gave it social value. (The dissenting Justice Tom Clark, meanwhile, complained in his opinion that the underage Fanny was “nothing but a harlot.”)

G.P. Putnam’s Sons wasn’t the only publisher with this idea. In the mid-1960s, the British publisher Mayflower Books Ltd. also started printing Fanny Hill in the U.K. The government seized tens of thousands of these books until 1970, when the country lifted its centuries-long ban on the novel. Decades later, the novel still draws prurient interest. In January 2019, a Victorian-era copy of Fanny Hill sold for £360 (or $409), nine times the price that Hansons Auctioneers in Derbyshire estimated it was worth.

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Source: HISTORY

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