Before 'Fifty Shades of Grey': Erotic bestsellers of yore

Posted By KATE STANTON,  |  Aug. 10, 2012 at 9:19 AM
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E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" has officially made its way into the cultural zeitgeist, tearing up the bestseller lists, popularizing classical music, inspiring romantic getaways and apparently, paving the way for an impending baby boom.

Called "mommy porn" by some, "Fifty Shades" originated as explicitly sexual "Twilight" fan fiction. It tells the story of innocent college student Anastasia Steele whose relationship with enigmatic billionaire Christian Grey draws her into the world of rough sex play.

But "Fifty Shades" is not the only work of erotic fiction to find mainstream success. Sex has been selling books for centuries.

"Fanny Hill" by John Cleland

"Fanny Hill" is the popular name for Cleland's 1748 scurrilous novel "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," the tale of a young girl forced to work as a prostitute. Considered the first English-language erotic novel, "Fanny Hill," flourished in underground, pirated publications throughout the 19th century, where its explicit references to lesbianism, rape fantasies and orgies made it synonymous with obscene storytelling.

A 1964 cinematic adaptation of "Fanny Hill" was promoted with the tagline, "They said it couldn't be filmed."

"Venus in Furs" by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

The Titian painting that inspired "Venus in Furs."

James owes a lot to Sacher-Masoch (who lends his name to the word "masochism") and his 1870 novella, "Venus in Furs." It tells the story of religious European nobleman Severin von Kusiemski, who derives pleasure from his slave-like sexual relationship with the brutal Wanda von Dunajew. "Venus in Furs" has inspired five movies adaptations, a Velvet Underground song and a Broadway play set in the modern day.

"Lady Chatterley’s Lover" by D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence's 1928 classic describes an illicit affair between a young married woman, Constance, and her working-class gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. Scandalized by the novel’s abundant use of four-letter words, the British government took the publishers to court under 1959's Obscene Publications Act. During the trial, chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked jurors if "Lady Chatterley" were the kind of thing "you would wish your wife or servants to read."

The trail's ultimate "not guilty" verdict found that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was acceptable under British law because its subject matter was "justified in the interests of science, literature, art and learning or any other object of general concern."

"The Monk," by Matthew Gregory Lewis

First published in 1796 when Lewis was just 20 years old, "The Monk" became an instant gothic classic. It tells the story of the innocent monk Ambrosio, his seduction by a young woman and his subsequent descent into evil. Plus there's some rape, torture and incest thrown in. Eager to see what all the fuss was about, proper British women picked up the novel in droves. According to the UK's Telegraph, the book was so scandalous that Lewis conceded to rewriting its most offensive passages, noting later that "even in its improved state, the work was still unfit for general perusal."

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