October 6, 2016
John Cleland (1709-1789) was an author and philologist. Poor most of his life, he had also been a soldier and civil servant. His works included Fanny Hill: or, the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure; Memoirs of a Coxcomb; The Woman of Honour; The Surprises of Love; Titus Vespasian; The Ladies Subscription; Tombo-Chiqui, or, The American Savage; Dictionary of Love; The Times!; and The Oeconomy of a Winter’s Day. He also wrote three books arguing that the Celtic languages were the basis from which all other languages derived; translations; reviews for the Monthly Review; letters for the Public Advertiser; and two medical works. A difficult, quarrelsome man, he was, nevertheless, a friend of David Garrick, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.
Fanny Hill, published in 1748-9, was Cleland’s most famous book. The story recounts the life of an innocent, uneducated country girl who becomes a prostitute in London. It is unusual in that the point of view is female. Fanny is bemused by men but appreciative of them. A strong, liberated heroine, she feels no guilt about her profession and ends up with a loving husband. The book takes the form of a letter-novel and is told in retrospect. Its central themes include sexual education as the basis for all other knowledge and an acceptance of sexuality if it is not carried to an extreme. Fanny Hill is sometimes thought to be a homoerotic work because the book features what was a rare description of homosexuality in those times; Fanny is obsessed with penis size; and rumors persist about the author. The book also includes bondage and voyeurism. It was written on a dare from a friend to show that erotica could be created without swear words. (Sexuality is only described with metaphors). Cleland’s obituary stated that he received 100 pounds in a yearly annuity from the British government not to write any more erotica, though this was probably invented by the eulogist.
John Cleland, along with his publisher and printer, were prosecuted for obscenity because of Fanny Hill. He noted that he “wished, with all my soul that the book be buried and forgot”. The book was officially suppressed but it was republished the next year in a censored version and thereafter became a best seller. The original version remained illegal until 1966 with the U.S. Supreme Court judgment of A Book Named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, which held that under the U.S. Constitution a modicum of merit precluded its condemnation as obscene. A few years later, it also became available legally in the United Kingdom.
I loved Fanny Hill when I read it some years ago. Playful, elegant, it depicted a world –and a woman –free of Puritan repressions. We are closer to that outlook now, thankfully.