John Cleland Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

John Cleland 1709-1789

English novelist, dramatist, journalist, translator, and critic.

Cleland is best known as the author of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill. Written in epistolary form, the novel details the life of a naive country girl who becomes a worldly-wise prostitute. Censored and suppressed since the time of its publication, Cleland's principal novel has become a minor classic of eighteenth-century prose. The Memoirs is one of a very few books from the eighteenth century that has been widely reprinted and read from the time of its first appearance. In the twentieth century, it has been seriously studied as well.

Biographical Information

Cleland was born in Surrey, England, to a prosperous middle-class family. In 1721 he enrolled in the prestigious Westminster School, where he was an outstanding student. His education ended suddenly after two years for unknown reasons. In 1728 Cleland joined the mercantile East India Company in Bombay, India. He advanced rapidly and eventually became the company's factor—a job that required management, negotiating, and diplomatic skills. Cleland was called home in 1740 to be with his ailing father. When his father died the next year, Cleland gave up his position in the East India Company and stayed in England. However, he received no inheritance on his father's death, and he fell into debt. He was prosecuted for nonpayment of bills around 1747 and jailed for over a year. While in jail Cleland wrote Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. He offered the manuscript to Fenton Griffiths, a printer, and to his brother Ralph Griffiths, a publisher and editor of the popular journal Monthly Review. Realizing the potential of Cleland's novel, Ralph Griffiths paid off Cleland's debts and bought the copyright to the Memoirs for twenty pounds. Griffiths also contracted with Cleland to provide an abridged edition of the Memoirs, entitled Memoirs of Fanny Hill (1750), perhaps in anticipation of the uproar that would greet the sexual content of the novel. Both books were extremely successful, and commentators guess that Griffiths made a fortune on his investment. Cleland, on the other hand, received no royalties from either work. Shortly after Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was published, a warrant was issued for Cleland's arrest, this time for writing a lewd book. It is unclear what legal actions, if any, were taken against Cleland. According to some sources, he was given a government grant to prevent him from writing another work like the Memoirs. Cleland did write another novel, Memoirs of a Coxcomb (1751), as well as several plays and books of linguistic theory. He also contributed political, social, and literary criticism to the Monthly Review. He died in 1789.

Major Works

In addition to being witty and erotically entertaining, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure provides a satiric attack on the morality of eighteenth-century society. Cleland ironically indicated that his protagonist's use of sexual commerce as a path to success closely resembled the financially motivated husband-hunting of the upper classes. Many readers found this sardonic social commentary as objectionable as the work's passages of erotic description. For these, Cleland did not rely on profanity, vernacular, or even realistic description. Instead, he used euphemism, simile, and metaphor to described male and female genitalia and a variety of sexual acts. The verbal richness of his prose has been compared to that of the metaphysical poets, and Cleland's prose style has been called one of the lushest, wittiest, and most interesting of the eighteenth century. It inspired a host of imitations. The sensual, uninhibited heroine of Cleland's novel has appealled to both male and female readers. She becomes and remains in control of her own life and sexuality; growing wealthy while unabashedly fulfilling her own desires, and the novel ends with her marriage to the man she loves.

Critical Reception

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was virtually ignored by literary commentators until the twentieth century. Commonly referred to as "obscene" or "pornographic," the novel was not published legally in Great Britain or the United States until 1963. Before then it was dismissed as having no literary merit, existing solely to appeal to the "prurient interests" of readers. However, commentators have come to assess the Memoirs as one of the greatest examples of the subgenre "whore biography" that proliferated during the eighteenth century, exemplified by Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722). In his novel, Cleland neatly reversed the basic plot of Samuel Richardson's popular moralistic novel Pamela, in which a young woman repeatedly fights off the sexual advances of her employer and is rewarded by his proposal of marriage. Cleland subverts the formula that chastity will be rewarded and licentiousness punished: far from being destroyed by premarital sexual adventures: Fanny profits from them and marries after she has had a multitude of lovers and a range of sexual experiencess.