JOHN CLELAND: Images of a Life by William H. Epstein

JOHN CLELAND: Images of a Life

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A very just resurrection of a one-book author of the 18th century, but what a book! -- the most famous, and most enduring pornographic novel of all time, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill as she is more familiarly known. With his scrupulous eye on the pitfalls of the ""biographical fallacy,"" Epstein depicts the writer in his family, literary and political environment. Cleland attended the most prestigious public school of his day, inexplicably dropped out, spent twelve years abroad with the East India Company -- and probably wrote his scandalous novel (""the lewdest thing I ever saw,"" according to the Bishop of London) while imprisoned for debt. Epstein places Cleland's classic ""whore biography"" within the anti-Pamela movement, noting the influence of Defoe's Moll Flanders and Hogarth's Harlot's Progress through spiritual rain to material gain. He discusses the themes of ""natural philosophy"" -- criticism of the artificiality of people of quality (Cleland's social-climbing parents who clearly disapproved of their son's profligacy?) -- and the ""woman question."" After Fanny Hill, Cleland returned to the respectable fold, but his later work is nothing if not undistinguished -- as a hack reviewer; possibly involved in the pirated Embassy Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague; author of flopped novels about a Woman of Honor and a Coxcomb; several plays which friend Garrick refused; of a work on etymology and finally one on health that included a long disquisition on controlling ""the PASSIONS."" Epstein asks: ""Was the transition from pornography to proprietary more than his talent could sustain?"" A rare combination of lucid writing and scholarship and an enlightening study of the literary fringe of a fascinating era.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1974
Publisher: Columbia Univ. Press