Obscenity, Censorship, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: The Case of John Cleland

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It is tempting to cast the eighteenth-century novelist John Cleland, best known during his lifetime (as now) as the author of the scandalous Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in the role of rebel against censorial tyranny, a martyr in the ongoing struggle of freethinking and free expression against the forces of legal silencing and control. Cleland did, indeed, suffer a kind of martyrdom after the Memoirs were publication: arrested, interrogated by the Secretary of State, threatened with prosecution, and bedeviled, even after his legal troubles were over, by "a stigma on his name, which time has not obliterated, and which will be consigned to his memory whilst its poisonous contents are in circulation" (Nichols, "Obituary"). (1) For more than two centuries since its publication in 1748-49, the novel has been a touchstone in the history of censorship both in Britain and the United States. (2) Even if Cleland did try to avoid prosecution for obscenity by holding others responsible for the text (and for the decision to publish it), he continued, as if on a dare, to produce works that pushed the limits of literary decency: an expurgated but still sex-obsessed rewriting of the original Memoirs, titled Memoirs of Fanny Hill; a second novel, Memoirs of a Coxcomb, a masculine rewriting of the first; and a translation of an Italian medical narrative of a cross-dressing female adventurer who, armed with what Cleland refers to as a "leathern Contrivance, of a cylindrical Figure," seduced and eloped with a series of young women until her death when her secret was published. (3) Cleland continued to work, bravely or calculatingly (for there has always been money in the illicit), at the margins of the legally permissible. His case, however, does not so much exemplify the conflict between freedom and censorship, the literary imagination and legal repression, as illuminate how, during the eighteenth century, censorial regulation was inscribed into the practice of authorship itself. In this essay I explore the relationship between censorship and the self-consciously open-ended, self-critical, and self-reflexive genre (or anti-genre) of the novel that Cleland played a significant part in developing. (4)

Novelist and Censor might be considered antithetical figures, irreconcilable foes; indeed their antagonism has a long and depressing history. But in the eighteenth century, many novelists claimed a crucial censorial role for themselves, foregrounding the monitory, corrective, socially regulative aims of their work. Fanny Hill's concluding defense of virtue in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure pushes this tendency to a comic extreme, because the novel itself is such a sly assault on the censorial sensibility: so smugly moralistic in its overt message, so lushly pornographic in detailed scenes. In taking on a censorial persona and deliberately setting it in agonistic relation to the other personae, discourses, and voices jostling for attention in his fiction, Cleland, implicitly or explicitly, called that persona into question. But he was not the first writer to adopt such a strategy. Against unstable obscenity laws, debates over the moral aims of fiction and the aesthetic approaches best suited to carrying out those aims, Cleland, Defoe and other novelists disavowed the obscenity in their own novels, became their own censors, and, thus multiplying the meanings in the text, perversely enabled them to be read in contrary ways.

Strictly speaking, there was no law against obscenity in Britain before the passage of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857; instead, the "legal control of literary expression," as Alec Craig wrote, was "effected through the operation of the law of libel" (19). Such libels might be blasphemous, seditious, defamatory, or obscene; although why an obscene publication regarded could be considered libelous posed a problem for writers on the law in the eighteenth century. In the 1708 trial of James Read and Angell Carter on charges of obscene libel for publishing The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead, for instance, the judge held that the accused could not be found guilty: "This is for printing bawdy stuff, that reflects on no person, and a libel must be against some particular person or persons, or against the government. …