Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
Don’t be fooled by the flowery prose, John Cleland’s romp through the beds of 18th Century London does not shy away from the explicit details. It was the first pornographic novel from England, telling the tale of young Frances Hill who is orphaned at 15 and moves to London to try to find work. She falls into the clutches of a madame who takes young Fanny to her bordello, where this country girl embarks on a sexual adventure involving voyeurism and mutual masturbation with other girls in the brothel, before falling in love with the young nobleman to whom she loses her virginity.
Fanny’s life is a roller coaster threaded together with numerous sexual experiences with well-endowed men. On first impressions this novel may seem old fashioned with its antiquated language, but once you immerse yourself in its graphic, phallic-centric sex scenes, Fifty Shades of Grey will seem as exciting as reading legal contracts… oh wait. However, what grants this book its literary merit isn’t just that it was one of the first books to be so so explicit - it is, after all, porn - it is that it actually depicts a woman who enjoys sex and will aggressively search for it out of her own pleasure.
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Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue
If you want to venture towards the depraved side of classic erotica, you can’t beat the Marquis Sade. His novel Justine tells the story of virtuous girl, who after a series of unfortunate events flees to a monastery for her own protection, only to find herself flung from frying pan into fire when she’s forced to become a sex slave serving the monks’ most perverted fantasies. Despite bearing all, it’s unlikely you’ll find the his graphically depicted acts of sex, cruelty, and sadism titillating.
Justine’s suffering and misery give this book an infamous a horrific edge, delving into the darker recesses of humanity, yet it’s still being more palatable than Sade’s infamous 120 Days of Sodom. Reading his work, it becomes clear just why Sade’s name made it into the dictionary with the word “sadism”.
Published about 50 years after Fanny Hill, Justine still sports the elaborate language that was fashionable at the time, but don’t feel duped by the regal prose, this is still the book Napoleon described as being “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination”. Napoleon incarcerated Sade, and shortly he was declared insane and condemned to an asylum.
While you’re not going to read Sade for kinky kicks, unless watching, or rather reading about, people suffering the most depraved acts turns you on. Sade’s work offers a voyeuristic window into a dark side of human nature, so if you’re a curious reader, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Justine.
Story Of O
Before Fifty Shades of Grey, there was the Story of O. A classic in the erotic literary canon, depicting the downward spiral of O, a beautiful fashion photographer in Paris, who goes deeper and deeper into the world of BDSM via an elite sexual club, or rather a cult, who meet in French chateaus and put O through rigorous training to be ready for oral, anal and vaginal sex on demand. O becomes a servant, first to her lover René who initiates her into his dark world, and later to Sir Stephen. The novel follows O’s journey into total submission that grows more extreme as the book goes on.
While the acts depicted in the book are intense, Reage, a pseudonym for Anne Desclos, shies away from writing explicitly. Her narrator, O, experiences her sexual encounters through her emotions instead of her sensations, which can distance the reader from some of the scenes in the book.
Desclos wrote the book for her lover who admired the Marquis de Sade, and wanted to emulate his work, but by comparison, Story of O feels tame compared to Sade. Story of O feels more erotic in that O’s experience is consensual, and the romanticism in the background softens the hardcore erotica that lies at the kernel of the story.
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Venus in furs
Just as Sade brought sadism in to the world, Sacher-Masoch gave birth to masochism. His short novel Venus in Furs is a was published in 1870, almost 100 years after Sade’s Justine. It follows Severin, a man obsessed with the beautiful Wanda. In place of the usual story of love and desire, Severin wants to submit to Wanda as her slave, begging her to degrade and humiliate him. Reluctant at first, Wanda gives into his fantasy and as the story unfolds as she becomes both empowered by experience and grows to despise Severin for forcing her into this unwanted cruel role.
The novel delves into the world of female domination, turning the tables from the usual trope of portraying women as victims. This book makes it into the classics not for the quality of its erotic prose, but rather as is function as a psychological study. Wanda as a character is fascinating. She starts as a woman in love and submissive by nature who wants to make Severin happy, but grows to hate him as he turns her into something she’s not. The book is far from perfect, the author, for example, has a particular tick of describing all clothing as being made of ermine, despite this it’s a short and curious read, especially if you’re interested in the history of masochism.
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Delta of Venus
While Anaïs Nin’s life was full of erotic adventures, all of which were intensely documented in her own diaries, such as her decade-long affair with Henry Miller and her erotic adventures with his wife June, she’s best known for her collection of erotic short stories. Delta of Venus was originally written for a private collector, and was not intended for publication. It was only after her death these stories were published. Nin’s erotic shorts are vivid, intense, sensual and sometimes downright disturbing. She never shies away from the darker sides of sexuality, even touching on subjects that are still taboo today. While certainly pornographic, Nin still manages to weave her own elegance into her writing leaving behind a sublime piece of prose that merits its inclusion into the classics. It’s still arousing, but complex, interlinking sexuality with sociocultural and psychological commentary. If intelligent erotica with a strong literary hook appeals, then pick up this book featuring 15 short stories to keep you warm at night.
Tropic of Cancer
Tropic of Cancer makes the list as an erotic classic, but don’t expect continuous literary pornography. Miller has a brilliant way of writing about ugly, grotesque things with such beauty, and Tropic of Cancer seduces you into this gritty world where fiction blends with Miller’s own life in 1920s and 30s Paris. While Tropic of Cancer features a number of explicit sexual encounters, it’s a novel that is an ode to live in the bohemian community in Paris. It’s the tale of a struggling author who lives through his senses in every possible way. The experiences are visceral and intense, then they flow into Miller’s stream of consciousness. Tropic of Cancer still comes with plenty of carnal sensuality. It’s obscene and it’s beautiful, and caused such a scandal when it was published the book faced numerous bans.