10 Classic Books That Were Scandalous AF When They First Came Out

by Charlotte Ahlin

When we think of scandalous books, we probably think of Fifty Shades of Grey, or maybe of some very uptight parents campaigning to have Harry Potter pulled from the shelves. But the history of scandalous reading material is long and sordid, and a lot of the books we now consider to be classics were once considered straight up filth. Some were banned for containing too much sex, or too much blasphemy, or for “depicting women in strong leadership roles” (seriously). So if you're looking to spice up your reading list, here are a few books that were considered scandalous AF when they first came out.

A few of these books are still clinging onto their titles as scandalous and generally trouble-causing novels, but most of the rest have quietly slipped onto high school reading lists, languished in relative obscurity, or even become beloved childhood classics. Actually, there's a pretty solid reason that so many of the books we think of as classics started out as racy: Nothing makes a bestseller like a scandalous reputation. So check out these books that were considered way too much for the general public:

'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre was a big hit when it first came out, but it was also widely considered a "naughty book" because it was written by a real live woman. Can you imagine? Nowadays, critiques of Jane Eyre generally focus on its representation of colonialism, but... back in the day, the fact that "Currer Bell" turned out to be a woman named Charlotte Brontë was enough to get everyone's panties in a twist.

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'Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure' by John Cleland

OK, so the reasons behind this scandal are a little more... obvious. Fanny Hill does have quite a few sex scenes. But it's also a lively comedy and the story of one young woman's determination to find real love and happiness. The idea of a young woman who could both engage in sex work and have her own human wants and desires was way too much for the readers of 1748.

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'Ulysses' by James Joyce

These days, Ulysses is widely considered to be "too confusing to be offensive." But when it first came out, Ulysses was met with outrage. Leo Bloom is a human man who's attracted to plump women! His wife, Molly, spends the whole final chapter of the book masturbating! And if you think that's bad, do not read Joyce's personal correspondence with his own wife, because they were not nearly as subtle about their own sex life.

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'Candide' by Voltaire

Yes, Candide was widely considered to be scandalous for its blasphemy in suggesting that life isn't perfect, but oh, well, let's just go on living anyway. To be fair, Candide is a huge comedic satire of both the church and the government, and the church and government are not particularly known for their chill sense of humor.

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'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker

If you've ever read The Color Purple, then you know it deals with women surviving through horrific sexual abuse and systemic racism. But... readers at the time were shocked by the very idea of sex and homosexuality and the book's apparently "troubling ideas about race relations, man's relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality." Yikes.

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'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

Yes, everyone's favorite homework assignment from ninth grade English was once a scandalous book that adults wanted to keep out of the hands of young people. We have to assume it's because of that one scene where Holden doesn't sleep with a prostitute, but next to the rest of these books Catcher is pretty darn tame (unless silly hats warrant censorship).

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'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by D. H. Lawrence

Lady Catterley's Lover was so incredibly scandalous that there was an obscenity trial against Penguin Books in 1960 — a whole 32 years after the book was originally published. Penguin won the day, though, and now we all get to read about Lady Chatterley getting it on with a (gasp!) working class man.

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'The Satanic Verses' by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses is still a hugely scandalous book today, but, you know... people are not being murdered as much as when it first came out. Rushdie's infamous novel was so divisive in its critique of religion that even the translators of the book were under attack in their home countries. The Italian and Norwegian translators were seriously injured, and the Japanese translator was stabbed to death.

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'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall is hardly a household name, but The Well of Loneliness was once an enormously controversial book. Most of the scandal centered on one sentence, in which a woman kisses another woman. Romantically! This relatively innocent display of lesbian love was more than enough to shock readers of 1928, but the book was still a bestseller.

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'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' by L. Frank Baum

Yes, this is the book that was banned in all public libraries for “depicting women in strong leadership roles.” This was considered ungodly. The scandal around The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was mostly about the corrupting influence that strong female characters might have on the youth, but some people were also concerned about the portrayal of good witches and the fact that the books "promoted self-reliance." Seven families in Tennessee actually went to court to try and get the book banned for containing friendly witches and self-reliant little girls.

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