Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Curious Case of the Unfortunate John Cleland

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Curious Case of the Unfortunate John Cleland

Article excerpt

Upon leaving the demi-monde of the eighteenth-century brothel, Fanny Hill has, like any bankable celebrity intent on self-promotion through scandalous recidivism, found herself in a series of unexpected situations. With her old adventures having never quite gone out of print, she has turned up saturated with fresh ink of all sorts, ready for new adventures in comic books, glossy lads' mags, and photo-illustrated "sexology" manuals that mingle sex-ed with titillation. In cinema, she has traveled the globe and been spotted in the smaller theaters of Sweden, Germany, and the U.S.-in portrayals that have put her face to face with Lady Chatterley, the Red Baron, and the dastardly Dr. Erotico-before a sudden interest in her early career led to full-dress masterpiece-miniseries treatment by the BBC. When Fanny herself falls off the radar, we look to her "husband," her "sister," her "daughter," her "son," and to more obscure relations such as "Freddy" and "Danny" Hill for a continuation of her carnal metaphorics until she is found again. With only slight alterations to her appearance, she has adopted the persona of the "Jewish Madam" Fanny Hillman ("Darling, you enjoyed?") and gone to Washington D.C. before arriving, tellingly, on "Campus"; then, clad in a leather jacket embroidered with "Fanny Hell," she became a biker's moll, had a dalliance with "Captain Sex," and, again, ended up on campus, as her university's most accomplished soror, "Phi Beta Fanny." At the first signs of her waning celebrity in the 1970s, she even authored a cookbook (with special sections on "whores d'oeuvres" and "stews"). The trajectory here is one of redemption, of the hard-living voluptuary returning to educate us through an intense and repeated focus on her career as an eighteenth- century sex-worker. Early in the twentieth century, her sordid past had been well preserved on barrister's bookcases in deluxe, small-batch private editions, as well as under mattresses in cheap-print volumes that trade on the frisson of the word "uncensored." Lately, after 1985, she has been kept alive on academic syllabi, making classroom-ready Penguins and Oxfords the likeliest places to find her. But where is the equally persistent and protean John Cleland while all of this is going on?

To judge from its title alone, Hal Gladfelder's Fanny Hill in Bombay (Johns Hopkins, 2012) would seem to be an analysis of Fanny's character migration in the mode of studies by David Brewer and others, one that furthermore appears to follow the eastward current of the winds of academic interest that inspire critical studies of colonial expansion and reception biographies such as Reading Lolita in Tehran.1 Fortunately, Gladfelder's eminently marketable title is misleading. Locating Fanny on the Indian subcontinent might seem a concession to our current moment were it not so well supported by Gladfelder's engaging elaboration of Bombay as the most likely site of Fanny's conception, however partial and sketchy the idea of her was at that point. However, the figure that consumes Gladfelder here is not Fanny but the man who drew her character from diverse sources and debates-some of them dating from Cleland's time as a soldier and merchant in Bombay, where he collaborated on Fanny's story with Charles Carmichael, who would die of "fever" a few years later.

Like Cleland himself, Gladfelder is interested in "cases," and seeks to perform the work of making a "case study of a writer writing" (5), of Cleland as a frustrated author, one whose idiosyncrasy, damaging initial success, truculence, "skeptical self-reflexivity" (7), and willingness to adopt "a variety of authorial personae" (9) helps identify the century's "prevailing commercial norms and canons of taste" (6) as well as the mechanisms by which authorship itself was dialogically conceived by marginal writers in the century. If Cleland's initial fame makes him a limit case, his career is all the more interesting for his having had to work at the edges of various conventions. …

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