Cleland, John

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Cleland, John (1710-89): English Writer.

John Cleland owes his posthumous fame to Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748-49), a novel which caused much scandal upon its publication because of its licentious content and language. Often known as Fanny Hill after the name of the protagonist, Cleland's major work is now regarded as a masterpiece of erotic fiction and has gained a certain eminence within the history of the novel.

A figure of some repute within eighteenth-century English culture, Cleland was a prolific writer, penning dramas, treatises on medicine and a number of novels, all of which are now forgotten, and his acquaintances included Pope, Alexander, Boswell, James and Smollett, Tobias George. He was plagued by debts throughout his life, and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure resulted in charges of obscenity and imprisonment. The book was banned until very recently, with the first official American edition being legally authorized only in 1963, but enjoyed immense popularity due to numerous pirated editions.

Memoirs is presented as a first person, autobiographical account of the protagonist's life and follows the style of early English novelists such as Defoe, Daniel. The adventures of Fanny Hill, her arrival at London, her tragic descent into prostitution and final redemption through marriage follow a plot similar to that of Moll Flanders. Cleland, however, portrayed Fanny's advance into her degrading profession from the perspective of the protagonist's "education" of the senses and obsession with carnal pleasure. Any sense of literary or moral decorum is absent, but Cleland's intimate knowledge of the London underworld in its minutest detail has recently led to a reassessment of his novel as a highly realistic document of English urban culture and society.

Further Reading:

William H. Epstein, John Cleland: Images of a Life, 1974.

Massimiliano Demata

Universita di Bari