Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland

August 16, 2012

While most readers are probably familiar with the title of a book that was to make (notorious) legal and literary history as Fanny Hill, first published in 1748-49 as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the life of its unfortunate author is still shrouded in mystery. If James Boswell considered Memoirs a "most licentious and inflaming" book, he merely expressed the opinion of a middle-class English readership rejecting both its frank if ironic representation of sex and, even more emphatically, the French libertine spirit inspiring it.

Cleland was a hack writer who tried his hand at almost every popular and polite genre, yet his only true achievement was an erotic best-seller whose writing he soon regretted. One wonders, therefore, why a scholar should turn to a biographical study of such a marginal figure, especially since we already have a standard biography in William Epstein's monograph of 1974. Hal Gladfelder's answer to this question is, first, that Cleland's works reward close attention because "even the forgotten texts are...audacious, aesthetically and intellectually daring and complex (but also idiosyncratic, frustrating, bizarre)". Second, he argues that it is Cleland's "marginality and oddness...that makes him worth studying". I beg to differ about the aesthetic audacity and complexity of his lesser-known works. But I concede that such a bizarre figure from Grub Street deserves our attention precisely because, in his desperate attempts to make money with fiction, drama, political propaganda and pseudo-medical and linguistic treatises, he was so typical of a (sub)culture mocked by the literary grandees of his time. Gladfelder does not want "to replace Epstein's John Cleland: Images of a Life", his ultimate goal being instead "a case study of the writer writing". In chapters 1 to 2 and 4 to 7, Gladfelder largely achieves this aim. Here, drawing on painstaking archival and other historical research, he provides a vivid impression of the tumultuous life of a renegade authorial persona.

However, as with Shakespeare, much about Cleland's life still remains a matter of conjecture - hence the biographer's urge to "clarify": in the book's chronology of Cleland's life, we repeatedly find such terms as "probably", "apparently" and "rumours". Trying to shed light on the early history of Memoirs ("probably" written in Bombay in 1730 in collaboration with Charles Carmichael), Gladfelder has to concede that "none of these questions can really be answered". Similarly, we shall never really know whether Cleland, threatened by further prosecution after the publication of Memoirs, struck a deal with the government and then wrote favourable articles about it.

Having edited Fanny Hill for the Penguin English Classics series, I was particularly interested in Gladfelder's discussion of Cleland's masterpiece. In chapter 3, he analyses Memoirs in juxtaposition with Thomas Cannon's 1749 pamphlet Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify'd. It is true that the homosexual scene involving two "young sparks romping" was what led to the prosecution of Fanny Hill, yet it seems to me that too much weight is placed on this theme. Gladfelder maintains that "Fanny's sodomitical encounter forms part of a larger pattern in the text of unsexing [his emphasis] the body, unmooring it from any single sexual identity, female or male". Had he looked further into the French libertine literature that inspired Fanny Hill, he would have found that by 1745 the allegedly unique theme of sodomy was commonplace in erotica as one form of sexual behaviour (eg, in Jean Charles Gervaise de Latouche's Histoire de Dom B***, translated into English in 1743). This is the great lacuna of this study - Gladfelder seems to assume that an educated writer such as Cleland moved exclusively in the English language.

As I have argued in my Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America (1988) and in the Penguin introduction, in its plot Fanny Hill merely reassembles what French obscene (anti-monastic) fiction had paraded before ad nauseam. Gladfelder seems to have consulted only critical literature written in English. That is a pity, as Peter Naumann's 1976 German-language work Keyhole und Candle, which Gladfelder ignores, remains the best study of Fanny Hill; Gladfelder might also have revised some of his statements about the book had he cast a look at the important analyses of erotica by the late Paul-Gabriel Boucé. Fanny Hill is a remarkable book because Cleland attempted to impose a French libertine mentalité upon an English audience unwilling to accept such an aristocratic attitude towards sex. Unfortunately, Gladfelder is not interested in these crucial ideological issues.

Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland

By Hal Gladfelder. Johns Hopkins University Press. 328pp, £28.50. ISBN 9781421404905. Published 18 May 2012

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