This 1748 Erotic Novel Sure Can Describe a Dick!

Cover of “Fanny Hill.”
Cover of “Fanny Hill.”
Image: Getty

After being discovered in a cigarette box, a copy of the British erotic novel Fanny Hill dating from 1880 will go to auction next week. The book by John Cleland is, according to the BBC, “the first example of ‘pornographic prose’ in English,” which is notable! More notable to me, however, is that it utterly delights in describing the D.


The novel—originally published in 1748 as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and famously censored shortly thereafter—tells the first-hand account of a young lady who moves to London and becomes a sex worker. (It was, naturally, written by a man.) The raunchy tale is accompanied by all sorts of explicit illustrations (see below), but, really, who needs drawings when there is such evocative peen prose as this:

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.

Maypole. Young giant. Animated ivory. The breathless dick-thusiasm is almost contagious. In fact, it is so notable that a couple years ago The Paris Review in writing about Fanny Hill had to do a quick survey of Cleland’s choice dick metaphors:

It begins as a “wonderful machine,” then, fifteen pages later, becomes an “engine of love-assaults,” then a “stiff staring truncheon.” One such truncheon later in the book is a “sensitive plant” with a head “not unlike a common sheep’s heart” and a “broad back” along which “you might have trolled dice securely.”

“You could toss dice on that dick” is the best penis description that the world will ever see.

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel


I can vouch for Fanny Hill, with its rollicking eighteenth-century sensibility, being a much better read than the later but better-known My Secret Life (1888), written by “Walter”. Walter is a jerk, but the book (I have a condensed modern printing) does provide some insight into the seamy underbelly of Victorian society and couplings. My Secret Life, however, did feature in one of the more comical moments that happened as I was moving into my new place (new as of 11 years ago).

Ma Finch (helping me move): Where does this book go? My Secret Life? Wait, what?