Overdrafts of Pleasure


Prison Lit

John Cleland wrote his (very) erotic novel, Fanny Hill, in prison. What did he mean by it?

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Merle Haggard and the long tradition of the outlaw poet, here.

John Cleland’s sentences often resemble the sexual encounters he imagined in his best-known book—a two-volume novel called Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, published when he was in debtor’s prison between 1748 and 1749, reissued in a censored edition the following year, and presented in both cases as an autobiographical letter by a former courtesan named Fanny Hill. A typical Cleland sentence goes on past any moderate end point, “wedging [itself] up to the utmost extremity.” It makes unexpected, spasmodic, sometimes baffling detours, “exalted by the charm of their novelty and surprise.” It drifts so far into the ridiculous that sometimes it seems “that on earth”—as Cleland’s heroine comments in one passage about the “women of quality” she and her colleagues once wanted to resemble—“there cannot subsist anything more silly, more flat, more insipid and worthless.” But then it keeps going, escalating until it seems to have been “driven forcibly out of the power of using any art.” 

These sentences tend to catalog their objects too thoroughly, to leave too little to the imagination. They are full of leering superlatives and puzzling similes. Cleland, a fervid, unhinged writer, conceived of Fanny as a hyperactive observer of bodies. No detail is too insignificant to mention, especially where it pertains to a body that’s prone, aroused, or drowsily available. About one of Fanny’s fellow courtesans during a ceremonial public lovemaking competition, for instance, we read that

Her posteriors, plump, smooth, and prominent, formed luxurious tracts of animated snow that splendidly filled the eye, till it was commanded by the parting or separation of those exquisitely white cliffs, by their narrow vale, and was there stopped, and then attracted by the embowered bottom-cavity, that terminated this delightful vista and stood moderately gaping from the influence of her bended posture, so that the agreeable interior red of the sides of the orifice came into view, and with respect to the white that dazzled round it, gave somewhat the idea of a pink flash in the glossiest white satin.

Fanny tends to describe women with relaxed, comradely admiration. She relishes them; they hardly ever threaten or surprise her. When, in the book’s early pages, the fifteen-year-old Fanny inadvertently finds herself rooming in a brothel, her poor Liverpool parents having been swiftly dispatched by smallpox, her sexual initiation comes playfully from one of the house’s experienced female boarders.

Men, in contrast, can be traumatic presences, like the debauched elderly caller “with a yellow cadaverous hue” that Fanny’s landlady duplicitously assigns her as her first customer. They can also, Fanny soon decides, be sources of strange and varied pleasures. Where she catalogs other women’s charms easily and causally, she treats those of male figures like her first love—the handsome son of a civil servant—with a kind of eager awe:

Nor did his shirt hinder me from observing that symmetry of his limbs, that exactness of shape, in the fall of it towards the loins, where the waist ends and the rounding swell of the hips commences; where the skin, sleek, smooth, and dazzling white, burnishes on the stretch over firm, plump, ripe flesh, that crimp’d and ran into dimples at the least pressure, or that the touch could not rest upon, but slid over as on the surface of the most polished ivory.

She is particularly drawn, in her descriptions of men, to a part of the body Cleland turns stylistic somersaults not to name. It begins as a “wonderful machine,” then, fifteen pages later, becomes an “engine of love-assaults,” then a “stiff staring truncheon.” One such truncheon later in the book is a “sensitive plant” with a head “not unlike a common sheep’s heart” and a “broad back” along which “you might have trolled dice securely.”

Reading passages like this, one’s first impression is that Cleland’s main concern in Fanny Hill was solving a technical problem. Can secondhand descriptions of pleasure, however elaborate or detailed, give a novelist enough energy to sustain a book? Much of the novel can be read as an illustration of Fanny’s claim near the end of the second volume that, if she should apologize “for having too much affected the figurative style,” it is because sexual pleasure “is poetry itself, pregnant with every flower of imagination and loving metaphors, even where not the natural expressions, for respects of fashion and sound naturally forbid it.” On closer inspection, however, the book comes off as something more complicated than a flowering of one eccentric and filthy man’s erotic imagination. Its elaborate descriptions of pleasure given and taken start to seem like scrims for a moral argument about what sorts of sexual behaviors should be “forbid” and which should be encouraged—an argument refined in prison by an author deeply occupied with thoughts of punishment, dissipation, and sin.

This illustration, and the three below, come from a 1907 reprint by the Kamashastra Society of a rare 1749 edition of Fanny Hill. It contained eleven plates, ten of them colored by hand.


Cleland’s biography is patchy. There are stretches in his eighty-year life during which, for up to a decade at a time, the surviving record loses track of him or gives only vague and puzzling data. He was born in 1710 to a former military officer by then settled in Kingston, a large town in greater London. No signs remain of why he left the prestigious Westminster school at age thirteen, but the record finds him again in 1728, a teenage recruit to the East India Company logged on a ship for Bombay. He lived in India as a civil servant for twelve years, during which period he probably began a draft of Fanny Hill. Despite owning several slaves himself, he had to defend himself midway through his service in Bombay against charges that he’d either taken in or “abducted” a woman enslaved to another man—the wording varies with the account—to protect her from her master’s abuse. (As the scholar Hal Gladfelder pointed out in his illuminating 2012 book Fanny Hill in Bombay, the defense Cleland gave at his trial contains similar language to his later writings accusing brothel masters in London of keeping their women “in a state of Slavery.”)

Cleland’s departure from Bombay in 1740—he requested a temporary leave but never returned—seems to have initiated ten years of mostly undocumented drifting. There was an ambitious attempt to launch another colonial project with the Portuguese monarchy, which seems to have come to little, followed by a return to London, where Cleland is presumed to have met and befriended the author Thomas Cannon. The details and extent of their friendship are unclear, but it decidedly did not last beyond February 1748, when Cleland was arrested and sentenced to what became thirteen months’ confinement in Fleet prison for failing to pay Cannon a debt of eight hundred pounds. By that point, he is thought to have drafted an early version of Fanny Hill. He spent much of his time in prison revising the text, expanding it and preparing it for publication. Early in 1749, just before the second volume of Fanny Hill appeared, Cannon’s servant found a note sealed to her master’s door in Cleland’s handwriting*:

Here lives that execrable white-faced, rotten catamite, who joined with his own mother to consummate the murder of an unfortunate gentleman who had saved his life, and whom, in return, he poisoned five times with common arsenic, which, it is probable, he will never recover the bloody effects of. Enquire for further particulars of his Mother in Delahaye Street. His name is Molly Cannon.

In Fanny Hill, white complexions are almost always marks of youth and lively unspoiledness (e.g., “the dewy lustre of the whitest skin imaginable”), especially when contrasted with the “vermillion” regions of the body where blood tends to rush. (Cleland loved this word. It appears at least nine times in Fanny Hill, once as a verb, in reference to a “red-centered cleft of flesh” with “lips vermillioning inwards.”) Venal or ugly characters tend to be yellower-skinned, sallow, warmed over. But for Cleland to call Cannon “white-faced” here was to cast doubt on his sexual normalcy and health. It was another image in service of Cleland’s unambiguous insistences (“catamite,” “Molly Cannon”) that Cannon was secretly gay.

Cleland renewed the accusation when he was again arrested at the end of 1749, this time for obscenity charges. (The authorities, it seemed, considered phrases like “stiff staring truncheon” no less explicit than the “natural expressions” they matched.) Vindictively, the novelist informed one of the Duke of Newcastle’s subordinates that Cannon had just published a pamphlet called Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d, in which he had written “in defense of sodomy.” The Duke’s authorities followed his lead. Cleland would be arrested once more on the basis of Fanny Hill, in 1750, but his cheerful heterosexual obscenities seem never to have brought him to trial. “Buggery,” on the other hand, was a capital crime. Cannon fled the city for several years. His publisher, whom he had assured “that the whole Pamphlet throughout was so far from encouraging the Vice, that it was Design’d to expose the Crime and make it hatefull to all Mankind,” was jailed and may have been pilloried.



Why wasn’t Cleland prosecuted for Fanny Hill? In the book’s second volume, he had escalated his provocations, as if worried that his readers would lose interest otherwise. Fanny, surrounded by her coworkers, happily couples with one of her customers atop the same divan on which she’s just watched them satisfying theirs; on “a gust of fancy for trying a new experiment,” she agrees to see a wealthy client who can only be satisfied by repeated bouts of mutual whipping; in a queasy sequence, she helps a friend seduce a stammering, mentally disabled flower seller who, when aroused, moves from startled confusion to “a raging ungovernable impetuosity” that leaves Fanny’s partner “torn, split, wounded” and “pleased to her utmost capacity of being so.”

One might have thought that passages like this would have earned Cleland more jail time. And yet the London authorities might have had reason to consider him less transgressive than he seemed. What Cleland managed in Fanny Hill was to wed a celebration of pleasure (“poetry itself”) with a defense of the precise virtues—temperance, purity, refinement—to which the extravagant pleasures he described would seem most opposed. The book’s healthy, red-blooded characters are also the ones who choose their “adventures” carefully, who use taste and discernment and refuse to sell themselves cheap. With the exception of a one-night fling with a handsome sailor, Fanny strenuously avoids any encounter that could threaten her ability to stay, in her words, “served at the top of the market,” and she wrinkles her noses at men who strike her as worn out “by constant repeated overdrafts of pleasure.” Vice has the same low status in Fanny’s imagination that it had in that of Cleland’s censors, precisely because it saddles a person with “languid powers” and “the least employment for the sex.”

Cleland litters both volumes of Fanny Hill with hints and anticipations of an argument Fanny makes in the book’s last pages. By this point, she’s been left a comfortable fortune on the death of one of her wealthy keepers and happily reunited, by a chance encounter at an inn, with her teenage first love. “I could not help pitying,” she tells her correspondent, “even in point of taste, those who, immersed in a gross sensuality, are insensible to the so delicate charms of Virtue, than which even Pleasure has not a greater friend, nor than Vice a greater enemy.” She anticipates that one might “laugh perhaps at this tail-piece of morality.” But how unfair to virtue, she argues, to suggest that “it can have no foundation but in the falsest of fears, that its pleasures cannot stand in comparison with those of vice”! Better to show “how spurious, how low of taste, how comparatively inferior” vice’s pleasures seem “to those which virtue gives sanction to.”

Those virtuous pleasures are the ones that occur between young, healthy men and women who stably cohabit. Fanny reserves her most violent denouncements for the one case she comes across of sexual love between men. Staying at a roadside “public-house,” she spies through a high peephole on the two guests in the adjoining room: “a tall comely young man” and “a sweet pretty stripling,” neither older than twenty. Cleland has to justify the ensuing detailed account of this couple’s lovemaking, which was cut from the book’s 1750 printing, by having Fanny insist that she watched “so criminal a scene … to the end, purely that I might gather more facts, and truly in my full design to do their deserts instant justice.” She falls from her perch with a clatter before she can summon the authorities.

It is an open question whether Cleland uses this inconvenient fall to ridicule Fanny’s outrage, or whether he simply couldn’t have his heroine getting people arrested and hanged. But the argument Fanny’s madame Mrs. Cole makes on the following page about the “infamous passion”—that “among numbers of that stamp whom she had known … she could not name an exception hardly of one of them whose character was not in all other respects the most worthless and despicable that could be”—looks much like Fanny’s own insistences that vice is a kind of degenerative illness, a “plague-spot,” in Mrs. Cole’s words, “visibly imprinted on all who are tainted with it.”


Cleland never recaptured the success of Fanny Hill. He lived under constant financial strain, firing off articles, reviews, and hackwork for booksellers who are often said to have taken advantage of him. Memoirs of a Coxcomb, the novel with which he followed Fanny Hill, failed to get as much attention. He wrote a commentary on his translation from the Italian of—in Gladfelder’s words—“a medical treatise on a lesbian cross-dresser and adventurer,” translated a French dictionary of love phrases, and wrote three books of linguistic theory in which he argued, dubiously, that our modern languages had originated from a single ideal “Celtic” source. In the mid-1760s he wrote a series of strange political columns under the anonymous attribution A Briton, in which he argued that the country deserved to return to a similar kind of ideal original unity. (Responding to the tumult over the Stamp Act in colonial America, he insisted that “all the British Dominions however divided, by Situation, form nevertheless one great and indivisible political body.”) He never married. When Boswell visited Cleland in 1778, he “found him in an old house in the Savoy … his room, filled with books in confusion and dust.”

He publicly regretted having published Fanny Hill, but he also maintained that the book was a hymn to virtue disguised as a catalogue of vice. He did admit, however, in a review of Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, that this strategy could produce as many dangers as benefits.

There are, it is true, some worthy and well-meaning Persons who disapprove this Way of handling of Vice, and who think … that even the End aimed at in presenting the Situations of it, does not atone for the Indecency of the Means; that it is holding the Light too near the Magazine; that in short they corrupt oftner than they instruct.

In his life, as in his most famous book, Cleland held the light dangerously close to the magazine. It hardly mattered whether or not his flirtations with deviance were meant, as he insisted, to show how superior virtue’s pleasures turned out to be. He managed to avoid prosecution, but not poverty and suspicion. Early in his book, Gladfelder quotes another, unnamed visitor to the ramshackle Savoy house where Cleland spent much of his later life: “it is no Wonder, in this Age, that he lost his Place or Pension … or that he should pass under the censure of being a Sodomite, as he now does.”

*How, since he was still imprisoned, did he get the note on the door? Gladfelder doesn’t say.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York. 

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