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John Cleland

English Novelist

Country:England

Lifetime: 1709 - 1789 Passed: ≈ 233 years ago

John Cleland was an English novelist best known for his fictional Fanny Hill: or, the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, whose eroticism led to his arrest. James Boswell called him "a sly, old malcontent".

 

John Cleland was the eldest son of the Scot William Cleland (1673/1674–1741) and Lucy Cleland (née DuPass). He was born in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey but grew up in London, where his father was first an officer in the British Army and then a civil servant. William Cleland was a friend to Alexander Pope, and Lucy Cleland was a friend or acquaintance of Pope, Viscount Bolingbroke, Chesterfield and Horace Walpole. The family possessed wealth and moved among the finest literary and artistic circles of London.

 

John Cleland entered Westminster School in 1721, but he left or was expelled in 1723. His departure was not for financial reasons, but whatever misbehaviour or allegation had led to his departure is unknown. Historian J. H. Plumb speculates that Cleland's puckish and quarrelsome nature was to blame. He entered the British East India Company after leaving school. He began as a soldier and worked his way up into the civil service of the company. He lived in Bombay from 1728 to 1740, when he was recalled to London by his father, who was dying. Upon William's death, the estate went to Lucy for administration. She, in turn, did not choose to support John. Meanwhile, Cleland's two brothers had finished their education at Westminster and gone on to support themselves.

 

John Cleland began courting the Portuguese in a vain attempt to refound the Portuguese East India Company. In 1748, Cleland was arrested for an £840 debt (equivalent to a purchasing power of about £100,000 in 2005) and committed to Fleet Prison, where he remained for over a year. It was while he was in prison that Cleland finalised Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. The text probably existed in manuscript for a number of years before Cleland developed it for publication. The novel was published in two instalments, in November 1748 and February 1749. In March of that year, he was released from prison.

 

However, Cleland was arrested again in November 1749, along with the publishers and printer of Fanny Hill. In court, Cleland disavowed the novel and said that he could only "wish, from my Soul," that the book be "buried and forgot" (Sabor). The book was then officially withdrawn and not legally published again for over a hundred years. However, it continued to sell well in pirated editions. In March 1750, Cleland produced a highly bowdlerised version of the book, but it too was proscribed. Eventually, the prosecution against Cleland was dropped and the expurgated edition continued to sell legally.

 

None of Cleland's literary works provided him with a comfortable living and he was typically bitter about this. He publicly denounced his mother before her death in 1763 for not supporting him. Additionally, he exhibited a religious tendency toward Deism that branded him as a heretic. Meanwhile he accused Laurence Sterne of "pornography" for Tristram Shandy.

 

In 1772, he told Boswell that he had written Fanny Hill while in Bombay, that he had written it for a dare, to show a friend it was possible to write about prostitution without using "vulgar" terms. At the time, Boswell reported that Cleland was a "fine, sly malcontent". Later, he would visit Cleland again and discover him living alone, shunned by all, with an "ancient and ugly woman" as his sole servant. Josiah Beckwith in 1781 said, after meeting him, that it was "no wonder" that he was thought to be a "sodomite". From 1782 until his death on 23 January 1789 Cleland lived on Petty France, Westminster "a few hundred yards from his childhood home in St James's Place". He died unmarried and was buried in St Margaret's churchyard in London.

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