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Cleland, John (1709-1789)  

John Cleland is remembered for the one book he claims to have regretted writing, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Fanny Hill (1748-1749), the first (and probably the funniest and most humane) pornographic novel in English.

Cleland's life is obscure. His father was a friend of Alexander Pope, his education was good, and he spent twelve years as a soldier and bureaucrat in India. On his return to England in 1741, he soon found himself in financial difficulty. He is said to have composed The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure while in Fleet Prison for debt.

The Bishop of London attempted to suppress the Memoirs, probably because of the passages depicting , but charges were not pressed against Cleland, who published an expurgated version of the novel in 1750.

Although he seems to have been promised a government pension, perhaps for propaganda work, this probably never materialized and the rest of his life was a financial struggle. He wrote novels, books on medicine and philology, and journalism without ever achieving a major success. He appears in James Boswell's Journals and elsewhere as an outspoken eccentric on the outskirts of the literary circles of eighteenth-century London.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is a novel in two parts told in the first person by Fanny Hill about her rise via prostitution from a poor orphan in the country to a rich, respectable, married woman. It is elegantly written and features an amazing series of ingenious euphemisms for sexual organs and acts. For example, the male member is a "nipple of love," semen is "my dear love's liquid emanation of himself," and the female genitalia are the "soft laboratory of love."

The novel is a sexual fantasy in which women are endlessly compliant in satisfying male desire, in which all unattractive elements of sexuality and prostitution are avoided, and in which bourgeois morality is carefully balanced with a libertine philosophy claiming pleasure as the ultimate goal. Fanny loses her virginity to the man whom (after many sexual adventures) she will marry.

Although heterosexual sex dominates the book, Fanny describes lesbians and male homosexuals, giving insight into the formation of these roles in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, as Nancy K. Miller and Donald H. Mengay have observed, the first-person narrator, Fanny, is Cleland himself doing a female impersonation. An apparently heterosexual text thus becomes a masterpiece of .

The Memoirs differs from most pornographic novels in the detail and coherency of its plot and in the development of its principal character, who undergoes an education in the novel, learning not only survival skills in the underworld of prostitution but also intellectual, emotional, and cultural skills that turn her into a devoted wife and mother, cultured upper-class lady, and sophisticated writer.

However, her attitude toward same-sex relationships does not change. She learns about such relationships by experience among women at the beginning of the novel and by observation of men near the end. Although her judgments about such women are less harsh than those of the men, she thinks that "the bad of our own sex" (that is, women who seduce other women) can be as responsible for the downfall of women as men.

Fanny's view of men who have sex with each other is much harsher; she describes them as "universally odious" and "absurd." She wants to turn the two young men she observes having sex over to the authorities (who would likely have hanged them), but is prevented from doing so by a fortunate fall from the stool she is using to spy on them.

However, even if Fanny does not change her judgments, Cleland gives the reader enough information to change hers or his. Fanny's judgments on both men and women engaging in same-sex encounters never coincide with her actual observations. She describes having more sexual pleasure with women than she admits to. She thinks all sodomites are effeminate, but none of the men she describes fit that description.

The Memoirs give us a glimpse into the manners and practices of eighteenth-century lesbians and gay men. How far Cleland knew these matters from first-hand experience is uncertain. In his later years, he was considered to be a sodomite, which may have been a political slander, a conjecture based on his writing of such matters in the Memoirs, or the true state of things.

Terrence Johnson


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Cleland, John. Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Peter Wagner, ed. London: Penguin, 1985.

Epstein, William H. John Cleland: Images of a Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

Foxon, David. Libertine Literature in England 1660-1745 With an Appendix on the Publication of John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, commonly called Fanny Hill. New Hyde Park: University Books, 1965.

Kopelson, Kevin. "Seeing Sodomy: Fanny Hill's Blinding Vision." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Claude Summers, ed. New York: Haworth Press, 1992. 173-183.

Mengay, Donald H. "The Sodomitical Muse: Fanny Hill and the Rhetoric of Crossdressing." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Claude Summers, ed. New York: Haworth Press, 1992. 185-198.

Miller, Nancy K. "'I's' in Drag: The Sex of Recollection." The Eighteenth Century 22 (1981): 47-57.

Trumbach, Randolph. "Modern Prostitution and Gender in Fanny Hill: Libertine and Domesticated Fantasy." Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment. G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, eds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. 69-85.


    Citation Information
    Author: Johnson, Terrence  
    Entry Title: Cleland, John  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 27, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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