John Cleland was the eldest son of the Scot William Cleland (1673/4 – 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 and lived in Bombay from 1728 to 1740. He returned to London when recalled 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. The novel was published in two instalments, in November 1748 and February 1749. In March of that year, he was released from prison.
In November 1749, Cleland was arrested again, along with the publishers and printer of Fanny Hill. 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 The book was then officially withdrawn. It was 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.
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 in 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), for the stage, but neither was ever produced. Cleland publicly accused David Garrick 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 nearly devoid of worth. He attempted to show that Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Latin were all derived from Celtic roots. He pursued this endeavour through three books.
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 deal of translation and review work. He contributed thirty reviews to the Monthly Review and over two hundred letters for the Public Advertiser between 1749 and 1787. In his later years, he also wrote two highly idiosyncratic and overly positive medical works, and told Boswell that he, Cleland, knew more about nerves than any doctor in Europe.
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. He also 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". 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" 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. 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), 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. 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.
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or, Fanny Hill (1749)
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or, Fanny Hill (1750) (expurgated, legal version)
Memoirs of a Coxcomb (1751)
Titus Vespasian (1755) (unperformed play)
The Ladies Subscription (1755) (unperformed play)
Tombo-Chiqui, or, The American Savage (1758) (unperformed play)
The Surprises of Love (1764)
The Surprises of Love: Exemplified in the Romance of a Day Or An Adventure in Greenwich-Park Last Easter, The Romance of a Night Or A Covent-Garden-Adventure, The Romance of a Morning or The Chance of a Sport, The Romance of an Evening or Who would have thought it ? (Collection of short stories)
The Woman of Honour (1768)
Molly Hill. Memoirs of The Sister of Fanny Hill
The Illustrated Fanny Hill
Memoirs of an Oxford Scholar
The Memoirs of Maria Brown (Genuine Memoirs of the celebrated Miss Maria Brown)
The Way to Things by Words, and to Words by Things
Other philological works, poetry, translations, periodical reviews and letters