John Cleland

Last updated
John Cleland
Born24 September 1709
Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, England
Died23 January 1789(1789-01-23) (aged 79)
London, England
Resting place St Margaret Lothbury churchyard, City of London
Occupationsoldier and writer
Alma mater Westminster School

John Cleland ( /ˈkllənd/ ; baptised 24 September 1709 – 23 January 1789) was an English novelist best known for his fictional Fanny Hill: or, the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure , whose eroticism led to his arrest. James Boswell called him "a sly, old malcontent". [1]


Earlier life

John Cleland was the eldest son of the Scot William Cleland (1673/1674–1741) and Lucy Cleland (née DuPass). He was born in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey but grew up in London, where his father was first an officer in the British Army and then a civil servant. William Cleland was a friend to Alexander Pope, and Lucy Cleland was a friend or acquaintance of Pope, Viscount Bolingbroke, Chesterfield and Horace Walpole. The family possessed wealth and moved among the finest literary and artistic circles of London.

John Cleland entered Westminster School in 1721, but he left or was expelled in 1723. His departure was not for financial reasons, but whatever misbehaviour or allegation had led to his departure is unknown. Historian J. H. Plumb speculates that Cleland's puckish and quarrelsome nature was to blame. He entered the British East India Company after leaving school. He began as a soldier and worked his way up into the civil service of the company. He lived in Bombay from 1728 to 1740, when he was recalled to London by his father, who was dying. Upon William's death, the estate went to Lucy for administration. She, in turn, did not choose to support John. Meanwhile, Cleland's two brothers had finished their education at Westminster and gone on to support themselves.

Publication of Fanny Hill

John Cleland began courting the Portuguese in a vain attempt to refound the Portuguese East India Company. In 1748, Cleland was arrested for an £840 debt (equivalent to a purchasing power of about £100,000 in 2005) and committed to Fleet Prison, where he remained for over a year. It was while he was in prison that Cleland finalised Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. The text probably existed in manuscript for a number of years before Cleland developed it for publication. [2] The novel was published in two instalments, in November 1748 and February 1749. In March of that year, he was released from prison.

However, Cleland was arrested again in November 1749, along with the publishers and printer of Fanny Hill. [3] In court, Cleland disavowed the novel and said that he could only "wish, from my Soul," that the book be "buried and forgot" (Sabor). The book was then officially withdrawn and not legally published again for over a hundred years. However, it continued to sell well in pirated editions. In March 1750, Cleland produced a highly bowdlerised version of the book, but it too was proscribed. Eventually, the prosecution against Cleland was dropped and the expurgated edition continued to sell legally.

Later writing

Cleland's obituary in the Monthly Review said that he had been granted a government annuity of one hundred pounds to prevent his writing further obscenity for pay. However, no record of this has been found, and it is frankly doubtful. It is more likely that the report was invented by his eulogist. However, Cleland was celebrated for the quality of Fanny Hill, even if the work was no longer for sale in a legal edition in its entirety. Cleland became friends with David Garrick, and James Boswell sought out his company.

Regardless of the power and stylistic accomplishment of Fanny Hill, Cleland's other works were poor or journeyman work by comparison. After his release from prison and the prosecutions over Fanny Hill, Cleland became a hired author. He attempted two more novels, Memoirs of a Coxcomb (1751), which contains a parody of Mary Wortley Montagu as "Lady Bell Travers" that was much discussed, and The Woman of Honour (1768), as well as a collection of romance tales in The Surprises of Love (1764). None of these was particularly successful, either in literary or popular terms.

He attempted a tragedy, Titus Vespasian, in 1755 and two comedies, The Ladies Subscription (1755) and Tombo-Chiqui, or, The American Savage (1758), neither of which was ever staged. The failure prompted Cleland to accuse David Garrick publicly of sabotage. Although the men were reconciled, Cleland was savage in his disappointment.

Cleland also engaged in an idiosyncratic effort to prove that Celtic languages were the Edenic tongue from which all other languages were derived. He was himself of Scottish extraction and was fluent in multiple languages, but his philological works were largely devoid of worth. Through a series of three books, he attempted to show that Hebrew, Ancient Greek and Latin were all derived from Celtic roots.

His only popular work after Fanny Hill was an adaptation of a French original for Dictionary of Love in 1753. However, he wrote a verse satire entitled "The Times!" (1760 and 1761), a burlesque of Robert Dodsley's The Oeconomy of Human Life in the form of The Oeconomy of a Winter's Day (1750), a biography of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV of France in 1760, and a great many translations and reviews. He contributed thirty reviews to the Monthly Review and over two hundred letters to the Public Advertiser between 1749 and 1787. In his later years, he also wrote two idiosyncratic and overly positive medical works. He told Boswell that he, Cleland, knew more about nerves than any doctor in Europe.

Later life

None of Cleland's literary works provided him with a comfortable living and he was typically bitter about this. He publicly denounced his mother before her death in 1763 for not supporting him. Additionally, he exhibited a religious tendency toward Deism that branded him as a heretic. Meanwhile he accused Laurence Sterne of "pornography" for Tristram Shandy .

In 1772, he told Boswell that he had written Fanny Hill while in Bombay, that he had written it for a dare, to show a friend it was possible to write about prostitution without using "vulgar" terms. At the time, Boswell reported that Cleland was a "fine, sly malcontent". Later, he would visit Cleland again and discover him living alone, shunned by all, with an "ancient and ugly woman" as his sole servant. Josiah Beckwith in 1781 said, after meeting him, that it was "no wonder" that he was thought to be a "sodomite". From 1782 until his death on 23 January 1789 Cleland lived on Petty France, Westminster "a few hundred yards from his childhood home in St James's Place". [4] He died unmarried and was buried in St Margaret's churchyard in London.

Composition of Fanny Hill and after

Cleland's account of when Fanny Hill was written is difficult. For one thing, the novel has allusions to other novels that were written and published the same year (including Shamela ). Further, it takes part in the general Henry Fielding/Samuel Richardson battle, with Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded on one side and Joseph Andrews on the other. Furthermore, the novel's geography and topicality make a Bombay composition less likely than a Fleet Prison one. It is possible, of course, that a pornographic novel without vulgarity was written by Cleland in Bombay and then rewritten in Fleet Prison as a newly engaged and politically sophisticated novel.

Officially, Fanny Hill remained suppressed in an unexpurgated form until 1970 in the United Kingdom. However, in 1966 it became the subject of a famous US Supreme Court judgment 383 US 413 A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, holding that under the US Constitution a modicum of merit precluded its condemnation as obscene. In fact, the novel is now regarded as a "stylistic tour de force" [5] and as a participant in the "making legible the bourgeois remapping of certain categories constitutive of 'woman', and then exposing that remapping as ludicrous" (Gautier x). It has exceptionally lively style, profoundly playful and ironic questions about womanhood, and a satirical exposition of love as commerce and pleasure as wealth.

Fanny Hill and homosexuality

The fact that the passionate descriptions of copulatory acts in Fanny Hill are written by a man from the point of view of a woman, and the fact that Fanny is obsessed by phallic size, have led some critics to suggest it is a homoerotic work. [6] This aspect of the novel, plus Cleland's presumed offence at Westminster School, lack of intimate friends, and his unmarried status have aided conjecture that he was homosexual, as has his bitter falling out with friend Thomas Cannon, author of the pamphlet Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify'd (1749), [7] the earliest surviving published defence of homosexuality in English (Gladfelder).

The authorised edition of Fanny Hill also contains a scene where Fanny (to her disgust) comes across a man and a boy fornicating. [8] The friendship of Cleland and Cannon was "volatile, verging on murderous", but in the opinion of Gladfelder, who rediscovered the Ancient and Modern Pederasty..., "It's no coincidence that they simultaneously produced the only two explicit accounts of male same-sex desire in English before the nineteenth century, published just a month apart in 1759." This may, however, simply reflect Cleland's knowledge of his friend's research, and the opportunity to use it in a novel that had a rare explicitness for the time. [9]



  1. Quoted in Bradford K. Mudge, ed.: When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2004), p. xxiii.
  2. Gladfelder, Hal (2012). Fanny Hill in Bombay: the making & unmaking of John Cleland. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN   9781421404905.
  3. Stern, Simon (17 June 2015). "Fanny Hill and the 'Laws of Decency': Investigating Obscenity in the Mid-Eighteenth Century". SSRN   2619825 .Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. Gladfelder 2012, "Epilogue". sfn error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFGladfelder2012 (help)
  5. John Cleland: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, critical ed. by Peter Sabor, Oxford University Press, 1985.
  6. Robinson 2006, p. 38.
  7. Rousseau 1991, p. 147.
  8. Norton, Rictor (2003). "A History of Homoerotica". Archived from the original on 8 November 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  9. Hal Gladfelder, Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, p. 9.
  10. Paul Pezron (2000). Celtic Linguistics, 1700-1850: The antiquities of nations. Taylor & Francis. p. 22. ISBN   978-0-415-20479-8.

Related Research Articles

Frances Burney English diarist, novelist and playwright

Frances Burney, also known as Fanny Burney and later Madame d'Arblay, was an English satirical novelist, diarist and playwright. Born in Lynn Regis, now King's Lynn, England, on 13 June 1752, to the musician Dr Charles Burney (1726–1814) and his first wife, Esther Sleepe Burney (1725–1762), she was the third of her mother's six children. She began her "scribblings" at the age of ten. In 1786–1790 she held an unusual courtier appointment as "Keeper of the Robes" to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, George III's queen. In 1793, aged 41, she married a French exile, General Alexandre D'Arblay. Their only son Alexander was born in 1794. After a long writing career, and travels in which warfare stranded her in France for over ten years, she settled in Bath, England, where she died on 6 January 1840. The first of her four novels, Evelina (1778), was the most successful and remains the most highly regarded. Most of her plays were not performed in her lifetime. She wrote a memoir of her father (1832) and many letters and journals, which have been gradually published since 1889.

<i>Fanny Hill</i> 18th century erotic novel

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure—popularly known as Fanny Hill —is an erotic novel by English novelist John Cleland first published in London in 1748. Written while the author was in debtors' prison in London, it is considered "the first original English prose pornography, and the first pornography to use the form of the novel". It is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1740.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1748.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1749.

Societal attitudes towards same-sex relationships have varied over time and place, from requiring all males to engage in same-sex relationships, to casual integration, through acceptance, to seeing the practice as a minor sin, repressing it through law enforcement and judicial mechanisms, and to proscribing it under penalty of death. In a 1976 study, Gwen Broude and Sarah Greene compared attitudes towards and frequency of homosexuality in the ethnographic studies available in the Standard cross-cultural sample. They found that out of 42 communities: homosexuality was accepted or ignored in 9; 5 communities had no concept of homosexuality; 11 considered it undesirable but did not set punishments; and 17 strongly disapproved and punished. Of 70 communities, homosexuality was reported to be absent or rare in frequency in 41, and present or not uncommon in 29.

Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413 (1966), was the United States Supreme Court decision that attempted to clarify a holding regarding obscenity made a decade earlier in Roth v. United States (1957).

Sarah Fielding was an English author and sister of the novelist Henry Fielding. She wrote The Governess, or The Little Female Academy (1749), thought to be the first novel in English aimed expressly at children. Earlier she had success with her novel The Adventures of David Simple (1744).

In psychology, displacement is an unconscious defence mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.

Impact play Human sexual practice

Impact play is a human sexual practice in which one person is struck by another person for the gratification of either or both parties which may or may not be sexual in nature. It is considered a form of BDSM.

Mistress (lover) Female who is in an extra-marital sexual relationship

A mistress is a woman who is in a relatively long-term sexual and romantic relationship with a man who is married to a different woman.

<i>Amelia</i> (novel) Novel by Henry Fielding

Amelia is a sentimental novel written by Henry Fielding and published in December 1751. It was the fourth and final novel written by Fielding, and it was printed in only one edition while the author was alive, although 5,000 copies were published of the first edition. Amelia follows the life of Amelia and Captain William Booth after they are married. It contains many allusions to classical literature and focuses on the theme of marriage and feminine intelligence, but Fielding's stance on gender issues cannot be determined because of the lack of authorial commentary discussing the matter. Although the novel received praise from many writers and critics, it received more criticism from Fielding's competition, possibly resulting from the "paper war" in which the author was involved.

Thomas Cannon of Gray's Inn was an English author of the 18th century. He wrote what may be the earliest published defence of homosexuality in English, Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify'd (1749) and may also have collaborated with John Cleland, author of Fanny Hill.

Events from the year 1748 in Great Britain.

Fanny Hill is a BBC adaptation of John Cleland's controversial 1748 novel Fanny Hill, written by Andrew Davies and directed by James Hawes. This is the first television adaptation of the novel. Fanny Hill was broadcast in October 2007 on BBC Four in two episodes. Fanny Hill tells the story of a young country girl who is lured into prostitution in 18th-century London.

Events from the year 1749 in Great Britain.

Ralph Griffiths

Ralph Griffiths was an English journal editor and publisher of Welsh extraction. In 1749, he founded London's first successful literary magazine, the Monthly Review (1749–1845), and remained its editor until his death in 1803.

<i>Fanny Hill</i> (1983 film) 1983 film by Gerry OHara

Fanny Hill is a 1983 British erotic comedy film directed by Gerry O'Hara and starring Lisa Foster, Oliver Reed, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Shelley Winters. It is adapted from the 1748 novel Fanny Hill by John Cleland. It is also known as Sex, Lies and Renaissance.

Fanny Hill is a 1968 Swedish film written and directed by Mac Ahlberg and starring Diana Kjær based on the 1748 erotic novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland.


Further reading