France & England, 17th-18th Centuries
L’École des filles / The School of Venus (1665)
Considered the first French libertine novel of the seventeenth century, L'École des filles [The School for Girls], whose author is unknown, was published in Paris in 1655. The narrative recounts the sexual initiation of the young female character Franchon, through two dialogues with her cousin Susanne and a sexual relationship with the male character Robinet [faucet]. Michel Millot, the first publisher of the book, was put on trial and the book burned in Paris on August 9, 1655. A first English translation of the novel was clandestinely published in 1680, under the title The School of Venus, or the Ladies Delight, Reduced into Rules of Practice. The novel was not legally published, in either France or the United States, until the twentieth century.
Thérèse philosophe / Therese the Philosopher (1748)
One of the most popular French libertine novels of the eighteenth-century, Thérèse philosophe [Therese the philosopher], first published in 1748 and continually reprinted thereafter, is an erotic version of a roman philosophique [philosophical novel], in which fictional characters discuss ethical and metaphysical questions, as in works by Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others. The philosophical dimension is not absent in Thérèse philosophe, which notably deals with the question of atheism; this soon gives way, however, to obscene or pornographic themes. The novel nevertheless contains social criticism concerning the sexual oppression of women and the abuse of religious authority (the young protagonist Therese having been confined in a convent against her will). The copy here exhibited, clandestinely published by Auguste Poulet-Malassis in Belgium around 1865, includes twenty eighteenth-century engravings attributed to Antoine Borel (1743-1810).
Fanny Hill / Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland (1748-49)
John Cleland (1709-89) wrote Fanny Hill, which is considered the first English pornographic novel (in the etymological sense of pornography: writing about prostitutes) and whose original title is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in Fleet Prison in London in 1748. The novel, consisting of two letters addressed by the fictional character Frances “Fanny” Hill to a “Madam,” recounts in vivid and explicit detail Fanny’s transgressive sexual experiences from her adolescence through her middle age. According to Peter Sabor, “the rare first edition of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure contains an important two-paragraph description of a male homosexual encounter deleted from all subsequent editions, including the modern paperbacks” (Censorship, 2121). This novel was perhaps the most heavily challenged book in court, in both England and the United States, since its first edition was censored and the author and publisher arrested by the duke of Newcastle in November 1749, until the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Memoirs v. Massachussets (383 U.S. 413) in March 1966, which lifted the ban imposed by the Attorney General of Massachusetts on the first unabridged edition of Fanny Hill published in the United States by Putnam in 1963. In his concurring opinion, Justice William O. Douglas declared: “As I read the First Amendment, judges cannot gear the literary diet of an entire nation to whatever tepid stuff is incapable of triggering the most demented mind. The First Amendment demands more than a horrible example or two of the perpetrator of a crime of sexual violence, in whose pocket is found a pornographic book, before it allows the Nation to be saddled with a regime of censorship.”
Le Parnasse libertin / The Libertine Parnassus (1772)
The eighteenth-century anthology of French licentious poetry Le Parnasse libertin consists of 150 songs, tales, and epigrams, in part attributed to Jean de La Fontaine, Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, the abbé de Chaulieu, Piron, and Voltaire, among others, and for the most part (85 poems) anonymous. Anthologies of erotic poetry were widely circulated in France, at least from the Parnasse des poètes satyriques attributed to Théophile de Viau, who was imprisoned and sentenced to death after its publication in 1622, until the late nineteenth-century Parnasse satyrique du dix-neuvième siècle, also exhibited here.
Histoire de Juliette, ou les Prospérités du vice / The Story of Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded by Sade (1800)
The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), undoubtedly the most controversial French writer to date, spent most of his adult life in prison, because of his sexual and violent behavior, as well as the sexual and violent mores depicted in his books (hence the word sadism), including The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) and Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). The Story of Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded, published in 1800 while Sade was enjoying temporary freedom during the French Revolution, is the continuation of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), considered the antithesis of Samuel Richardson’s moral novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). While young and innocent Justine is repeatedly sexually abused and assaulted in her pursuit of virtue, her older and depraved sister Juliette is always happily rewarded after committing serial murders and other crimes. After the anonymous publication of both novels, under the title La Nouvelle Justine, in ten volumes illustrated with a hundred explicit engravings in 1799-1800, Sade was arrested by order of Napoleon in 1801 and imprisoned in the asylum of Charenton, where died thirteen years later. The publication of Sade’s works, one of the most radical literary experiments, was prohibited in France until 1957 (even if illegal editions, including the one exhibited here, had been widely circulated since the 18th century), when the publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert was acquitted of the charge of “outrage aux bonnes mœurs” [affront to public decency] for publishing Sade’s novels. These works, though still controversial, are now part of the French literary canon. The first American paperback edition of Juliette was published by Grove Press in 1968. The couplet on the title page of the French original edition, attributed to Petronius, states that “On n’est point criminel pour faire la peinture / Des bizarres penchans qu’inspire la nature” [A man is hardly a criminal for depicting the bizarre inclinations inspired by nature].
Les Crimes de l’amour / The Crimes of Love by Sade (1800)
The eleven “Heroic and tragic tales” collected in the four illustrated volumes of The Crimes of Love, legally published in the year VIII of the French revolutionary calendar (1800), are far less transgressive than Sade’s other novels, such as Justine and Juliette. In the first volume of The Crimes of Love, exhibited here, the tales are preceded by an essay bearing the title “An Idea about Novels,” in which the author roughly survey the history of fiction in order to justify the supposed morality of his own novels. In this essay, Sade falsely denies being the author of Justine, which, since its first clandestine publication in 1791, has rightly been attributed to him. The quotation on the title page is an unfaithful adaptation of a translation of The Complaint, or Night Thoughts (1742-45) by Edward Young. Sade’s version may be translated as “Love, delicious fruit that Heaven allows earth to produce for happiness in life, why must you create crimes? and why does man abuse everything?”