Biography of Obscene British Author John Cleland

About the obscene British author John Cleland, his biography and works Fanny Hill and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

JOHN CLELAND (1709-1789). British author.

He gained immortality for creation of a single book, Fanny Hill, or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which censor Anthony Comstock would later call "the most obscene book ever written." Thought to have been the son of a Scottish tax commissioner named William Cleland (a roisterer who served as a prototype for Joseph Addison's fictional Will Honeycomb), John Cleland was educated at Westminster School in 1722. He became the British consul in Smyrna, and in 1736 worked for the East India Company in Bombay. After quarreling with his employer, Cleland lost his job and returned to London impoverished. Failing to support himself with his pen, he wound up in debtors' prison.

While incarcerated, he was approached by a 28-year-old printer, Ralph Griffiths, who offered to bail him out of jail if he would write a licentious novel. Cleland agreed, and the result was the overtly sexual (30 acts of copulation and perversion), euphemistic (not one 4-letter word), and scandalous Fanny Hill, the story of the acrobatic bedroom experiences of a 15-year-old orphan lass, which appeared in 2 volumes in 1750. The novel earned its printer pond 10,000 (about $25,000 today) and its author a mere 20 guineas (about $50). The book also earned a bookseller, Drybutter, punishment in the pillory for having "altered the language of the book for the worse after it had been favorably noticed in the Monthly Review." Cleland himself escaped punishment when Lord Granville, a president of the Privy Council, intervened on his behalf and even got him a pension of Pond100 a year in return for the promise that he would write no more dirty books.

Actually, Cleland had written 2 dirty books, for his Memoirs of a Coxcomb had followed Fanny Hill by a year. But Cleland desisted from any further indulgence in pornography. He wrote political pieces for newspapers, signing them "A Briton" or "Modestus." He wrote several dramatic plays, one entitled Timbo-Chiqui, or the American Savage, a Dramatic Entertainment in Three Acts. After leaving England to make his home in France, he devoted himself entirely to writing benumbing books on philology. Among his better-known language pamphlets and books, one dealt with Sanskrit, another with ancient Celtic.

The Gentleman's Magazine, February, 1789, listed obituaries of personages who had just died, among them, "In Petty, France, aged 80, John Cleland, esq. . . . In conversation he was very pleasant and anecdotal, understanding most of the living languages, and speaking them all very fluently. As a writer, he shewed himself best in novels, song writing, and the lighter species of authorship; but when he touched politics . . . he was soporific." Cleland's Fanny Hill remained the major underground classic of erotic literature for over 2 centuries, until it was published openly by the New York firm of G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1963. Putnam's was taken to trial, won, lost an intermediate appeal, and in 1964 won again in New York's Court of Appeals, 4 votes to 3. Fanny Hill was free at last.

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