John Cleland

English author John Cleland (1710–1789) wrote one of the most controversial novels in the history of Western literature. The heroine of Fanny Hill, alternately known by its original 1748 title, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, is a prostitute who recounts her sexual adventures with undisguised enthusiasm, yet pines for true love and monogamy. Literary historians cite it as the first work of erotica to pace itself along the standard narrative arc of a novel, and Cleland as the first identifiable writer of a novel entirely pornographic in content.

The author of one of the most risqué novels published in 18th-century England, John Cleland was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, England, near London, in September of 1710. His father, William Cleland, was descended from a once-illustrious Scottish lineage that had fallen into decline and lost its property. He served in the British army, held a civil service post, and had connections to several notable figures, among them satirist Alexander Pope and Horace Walpole, son of a British prime minister. Cleland's mother, Lucy DuPass Cleland, was the daughter of a prosperous Surrey family and had Dutch-Jewish roots on her father's side. Lucy also knew the younger Walpole, as well as Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a figure of enormous political influence during the early 1700s.

Early Hint of Family Strife

Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

Cleland was the firstborn son in the family, which grew to include a sister, Charlotte, and brother, Henry. In January of 1721, the ten-year-old was enrolled at the elite Westminster School in London, where schoolboys were drilled in Greek and Latin. “Within a year he was chosen to be a King's Scholar, one of an elite group destined for scholarships at Oxford or Cambridge,” wrote William H. Epstein in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Novelists, 1660–1800. In 1723, Cleland was removed from school for an unspecified reason. “The withdrawal was a momentous event in young Cleland's life, for it diverted this elder son of socially mobile parents away from the path of gentlemanly leisure and learning which he had been following,” according to Epstein.

Between 1723 and 1728, Cleland's activities and whereabouts remain unknown. Some sources claim he worked as a clerk for the British consul in Smyrna, Greece, but the first definitive record of his employment dates from August 1728, when he secured a place with a militia unit of the British East India Company and moved to Mumbai, India. This was an excellent career opportunity for an adventurous 18-year-old and one that required family connections. Moreover, an official job with the colonial trading colossus offered the chance for self-dealing as a merchant and trader once a specific rank was attained. Cleland was a gifted writer and adept at learning new languages, and these talents earned him successive promotions in the 1730s in Mumbai. One of his final roles with the East India Company was as secretary for Portuguese affairs.

Thrown into Debtors’ Prison

In February of 1748, Cleland was arrested for a debt of £840, a sum equivalent to twice the annual salary for a civil servant of his rank. The origin of this financial obligation remains unknown, despite heroic efforts by Cleland's biographers to untangle the vicious literary and legal saga that played out over the following two years. Cleland's chief creditor was a former friend, a younger man named Thomas Cannon, whose father had been the dean of Lincoln Cathedral. Cleland and Cannon may have collaborated together on some underground parodies or pamphlets of a licentious nature, and Cleland later accused Cannon of attempting to poison him with arsenic.

When Lucy Cleland refused to loan her 37-year-old son the funds needed to resolve the matter with Cannon, Cleland was detained for nearly 13 months in the debtors’ section at London's Fleet Street jail. With him was a manuscript he had started nearly a decade prior, while in Mumbai, apparently as a response to a challenge from his friend, Charles Carmichael, another young East India Company bureaucrat. The dare was to write a story that contained every act of sexual intimacy known to the era without using a single vulgar word when referring to male and female reproductive anatomy, or to practices, acts, or perversions involving one or more persons in either the privacy of the bedchamber or in other intimate settings. The original version of Cleland's risqué literary experiment was believed to have privately circulated among friends in England and Scotland during the 1730s.

Desperately in need of money, Cleland revised his ribald tales of Miss Frances “Fanny” Hill into a novel format while confined to his cell on Fleet Street. To print it in book or pamphlet form for public sale posed great risk, however, and retaining anonymity was essential. During his incarceration, he likely entered into an arrangement with Fenton Griffiths, a London publisher and printer whose brother Ralph was a bookseller. The Griffiths, in turn, negotiated with Thomas Parker, owner of a printing press, to produce 750 copies of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was published in two installments.

The first volume of the novel that would become known as Fanny Hill appeared in November of 1748. The second volume was published three months later, and in March of 1749 Cleland was released from the Fleet Street jail. The two-part novel sold as a set for six shillings, but sales would not have generated sufficient funds to settle the author's £840 debt to Cannon. Cleland likely entered into a contractual agreement with the Griffiths brothers to produce other works of a similar nature.

Arrested on Pornography Charge

The anonymously authored Fanny Hill caused a sensation in literary circles when it appeared in late 1748. Cleland's fictional heroine is a young woman from Lancashire who recounts her story to a third party in the form of a letter. Her story is a common one: She was orphaned at age 15 when both parents died in a smallpox epidemic, and she decided to leave her hometown for London in the hopes of finding a position as a domestic servant. Tricked at an employment agency into thinking she has been offered a job, Fanny finds herself trapped at a brothel, where her virginity will be sold off for a sizable price. A handsome young man named Charles aids her escape and installs her in his room with the assistance of a sympathetic landlady. The wellborn, well-connected Charles then vanishes several months later when his father orders him to go abroad.

Now accustomed to material comforts and unashamed of her sexual appetites, Fanny works for a Covent Garden brothelkeeper and encounters a variety of sexual practices over the next two years. When one of her clients dies and bequeaths her a sum of money, she achieves financial independence and attempts to track down Charles. By sheer chance, they encounter one another at an inn and are happily reunited. Fanny confesses all the events during his absence with rue, and Charles declares his intention to marry her for love nevertheless. She resists and warns him not to trade “his honor for infamy and prostitution in making one his wife who thought herself too much honoured in being his mistress.” Charles is adamant, however, and the couple marries, have several children, and lead a respectable life, as Fanny recounts on the final page. “Thus, at length, I got snug into port,” she reflects and, before adding a caution to those male readers who bring their sons to brothels as a rite of passage: “Temperance makes men lords over those pleasures that intemperance enslaves them to: the one, parent of health, vigour, fertility, cheerfulness, and every other desirable good of life; the other, of diseases, debility, barrenness, self-loathing, with only every evil incident to human nature.”

Cleland's arrest on a pornography charge in November of 1749, eight months after his release from the Fleet Street jail, came after agents of the British government, under the authority of the British Secretary of State, traced Fanny Hill's publication to the Griffiths brothers, printer Thomas Parker, and Cleland. Cleland, Parker, and Ralph Griffiths were arrested and later released on bond.

Prompted Fears of God's Wrath

Before legal proceedings began, Fenton and Ralph Griffiths produced a second, much-eviscerated edition, with numerous excisions, in the effort to evade prosecution. That version of Fanny Hill appeared on March 8, 1750, the same day London was hit by a rare earthquake with an epicenter inside the city limits. The tremor prompted an outraged Bishop of London to rail against the novel—even in its cleaned-up version—as an affront of cataclysmic scale.

Others, too, called for its censorship as a threat to public morals. Cleland and his colleagues agreed to withdraw the book from publication and none were ever prosecuted. Pirated copies sold for decades, however, and Fanny Hill was translated into several European languages and published clandestinely.

During the legal drama surrounding Fanny Hill, Cleland exacted revenge on Thomas Cannon by reporting to government agents that the anonymous author of a notorious pamphlet, Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify'd, was in fact Cannon. The unfortunate man was forced to flee England, although he returned a few years later and was not prosecuted.

Apart from his involvement with Fanny Hill, Ralph Griffiths became the publisher of Monthly Review, a London journal founded in 1749 that contained critiques of newly published books. Cleland wrote for this periodical for 25 years, authored a male version of Fanny Hill titled Memoirs of a Coxcomb in 1751, and produced other novels of lesser merit during the 1760s, among them The Surprises of Love and The Woman of Honour. He served as a ghostwriter for others, wrote treatises on linguistics and healthy living, but lived his final years in charmless penury. The prolific diarist James Boswell knew him and wrote of visiting Cleland's shabby rooms in the Savoy quarter, a rundown section of central London at the time. In 1782 Cleland vacated that address for a flat on nearby Petty France, where he died on January 23, 1789.

Since the mid-18th century, Fanny Hill has been the target of several enduring legal rulings. In 1821 the Massachusetts Supreme Court prohibited its publication in the first obscenity-related ruling in U.S. case law. In the early 1960s, a British bookstore owner was subject to prosecution for selling the original, unexpurgated 1748 version, and a U.S. publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons, mounted its own legal challenge in order to reprint it. The original Massachusetts ban on Cleland's novel was successfully overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966.


Cleland, John, Memoirs of Fanny Hill, privately printed for the Kamashastra Society, 1907.

Gladfelder, Hal, Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

(MLA 8th Edition)