What Do Fanny Hill and King Lear Have In Common? [with comment by Paul]

Fanny Hill was the first pornographic novel written in English. It was authored by John Cleland (who, as far as I know, never wrote anything else) and published in 1748. Among other things, Fanny Hill is famous for the fact that it doesn’t contain any bad words. Pornographers were a lot more inventive in those days. Nevertheless, it was, in former centuries, one of the most frequently banned books.

I confess that I have read Fanny Hill. It is, by the standards of the genre, both pretty good and pretty wholesome. One thing that never occurred to me, however, is that it would be part of a university curriculum. The Telegraph reports that the novel is once again being banned, this time from a syllabus:

Nearly 270 years on, it seems that modern day students are proving equally squeamish, as Fanny Hill, the first ever erotic novel written in English, has been dropped from the University of London curriculum for fear of offending students.
Judith Hawley, professor of 18th-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that after decades of teaching the provocative text on various courses, Fanny Hill is being dropped from the latest curriculum following a consultation with students.

Let me stop right there. I understand why you have to assign Tristram Shandy, say, as part of an English course to get students to read it. But Fanny Hill? Trust me, college-age students will read it whether they are required to or not. The guys, anyway. Fanny Hill may not have been intended for female eyes, even though the protagonist–the book is written in the first person–is a woman. Or, more accurately, it probably wasn’t written for 21st century liberal female eyes.

Speaking on a Radio 4 discussion on sex and freedom of speech, Dr Hawley said that including pornographic texts on any syllabus risked students “slap[ping her]…with a trigger warning”.

Do parents really send their kids to college to read “pornographic texts”? Apparently so. In any event, we encounter once again the laughable concept of the “trigger warning.” I am old enough to remember when people ridiculed the Victorians for bowdlerizing books they were too narrow-minded to read. Those days are long gone, obviously.

One of the most heavily censored texts of the English literary canon, Fanny Hill has been removed completely from the course “The Age of Oppositions, 1660-1780”, which examines libertine literature.

But wait! Why would anyone who might be offended by Fanny Hill sign up for a course in “libertine literature”? Academic life is so confusing!

Following the students’ request, the rest of the reading list for the course now comes with a “trigger warning”, explaining that Restoration and 18th-century texts “sometimes reflect the unpleasant prejudices of their time, just as they sometimes work to complicate or challenge those attitudes.

“Racism, sexual violence, and self-harm were part of society then, as in different ways they are now.”

Students at the University of London need to be told this? Admissions standards must have fallen since I was a college student.

But this is the really appalling part. The students didn’t just object to Fanny Hill:

Dr Hawley also confirmed that students had complained about a number of other texts, including Room by Emma Donoghue, the story of a young boy held captive with his abductee mother, and Shakespeare’s King Lear.

King Lear! How dumb are students nowadays?

Speaking to The Times about what concerns the students had about King Lear, Dr Hawley said: “Apart from gouging out of eyes [and] the death of Cordelia? Actually what most offends students is depictions of violence against women and suicide.”

In Shakespeare, I would estimate that there is at least 100 times as much violence against men as against women. I can’t offhand think of any violence against women, but I suppose there must be some somewhere. But how dimwitted can these kids be? Do they think that violence against men is OK?

She continued: “It is important not to exaggerate claims that students are stifling free speech on campus. We hope we have struck a balance between encouraging discussion of difficult issues without making life difficult for students who might feel coerced by academics.”

Well, that’s reassuring! But what I want to know is, why are students in a position to “stifle free speech on campus”? Are they in charge? Since when?

It is getting to the point where outside of the hard sciences, universities are useless except as jokes for everyone else to laugh at. We aren’t quite there yet, but we are getting perilously close.

PAUL ADDS: Eight years ago, or so, I saw a fine production of King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Stacy Keach played Lear. Edward Gero, who would go on to portray Justice Scalia, was Gloucester.

When Cordelia died, they brought her body in on a stretcher. The actress was nude. There was no trigger warning.

Unfortunately, I was seated in the front row. Mostly what I saw was the bottom of the stretcher. Needless to say, I felt cheated.

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