"Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure", commonly known as "Fanny Hill", has been shrouded in mystery and controversy since John Cleland completed it in 1749. The Bishop of London called the work 'an open insult upon Religion and good manners' and James Boswell referred to it as 'a most licentious and inflaming book'. The story of a prostitute's rise to respectability, it has been recognized more recently as a unique combination of parody, sensual entertainment and a philosophical concept of sexuality borrowed from French libertine novels. Modern readers will appreciate it not only as an important contribution to revolutionary thought in the Age of Enlightenment, but also as a thoroughly entertaining and important work of erotic fiction, deserving of a place in the history of the English novel beside Richardson, Fielding and Smollett.
John Cleland was born in 1710, the eldest son of William Cleland, an officer and friend of Pope. He entered Westminster School in 1721 and remained there until his sudden departure in 1723. Later he joined the East India Company, where he rose from simple soldier to businessman and eventually secretary of the Bombay Council. However, his good fortune did not last and he left Bombay around 1740 and returned to London in 1741. Thereafter Cleland followed a career as literary hack, Grub Street writer and journalist. The life was extremely competitive and though Cleland pursued every promising avenue, both literary writing and factual reporting, he was in costant financial difficulty. He was imprisoned for debt on several occasions and on one of these, between February 1748 and March 1749, he usefully employed his time by revising and rewriting a draft of a novel entitled Fanny Hill. Both volumes of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, the final title, were published before his release. Cleland enjoyed some success with Fanny Hill and he hoped to exploit this with a sequel, Memoirs of a Coxcomb; but this and his other attempts at erotic fiction sank into oblivion. Impoverished and virtually unknown, John Cleland died in Westminster in January 1789