- Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland by Hal Gladfelder
Hal Gladfelder’s deeply researched and thoughtfully assembled biography of John Cleland makes good on its promise “to reopen [his] writing in all its messiness of being written” (4). Cleland here is an eccentric figure who strategically navigated eighteenth-century print culture and politics. Gladfelder’s exhaustive work with primary documents provides a welcome supplement to William Epstein’s 1974 biography, which dealt sketchily with Cleland’s career beyond Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Gladfelder does devote substantial time in the third and fourth chapters to this most famous of Cleland’s works. The first of these situates the novel within the discourse on sodomy, suggesting Cleland and his contemporary Thomas Cannon, author of Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d, explored the category not to vilify same-sex intercourse but to portray erotic desire as a range of non-normative sexual behaviors. (Cannon’s pamphlet is extant only in legal transcriptions, and Gladfelder’s ample quotations provide unprecedented access to this lost work.) In these writings, “eros turns the body topsy-turvy,” and desire and its objects are distanced from restrictive moralistic and heteronormative paradigms (77). Gladfelder’s [End Page 383] reading of Cleland’s sodomy scene, which has received so much critical attention, is the most persuasive and textually attentive treatment I’ve encountered, acknowledging echoes of anti-sodomy stances but showing ultimately that its continuities with “heterosexual” scenes challenge eighteenth-century distinctions between “natural” and “unnatural” desire. The fourth chapter argues that Cleland’s prose fiction, Woman of Pleasure in particular, unseats familiar conventions of the early English novel in favor of experimenting with new instructive modes: repetition and folly. In sum, Gladfelder provides a thick and comprehensive account of Woman of Pleasure, parsing its internal sexual deliberations with as much care as its engagement with literary culture more broadly.
But perhaps most importantly, this book examines Cleland’s entire career, from his first Bombay clerical writings to his late linguistic and political tracts. Rather than try to account for the sources and works covered—Gladfelder’s research in this regard is exhaustive—I’ll offer here what I found to be the most transformative revelations. First, Gladfelder’s work with Cleland’s correspondence brings to life an articulate, bold, erratic, even volatile personality. Advocacy for Indian citizens in 1730s Bombay, humble self-defense following Woman of Pleasure’s publication, desperate applications to his mother for an early inheritance—his various legal negotiations show him to be alternately persuasive, self-pitying, and ferocious. In letters to his mother particularly, Cleland writes in a “stagey,” heavily stylized manner that at once threatens and pleads for her financial help—to no avail, ultimately (185). This synthesis of confidence with desperation characterizes so much of his dealings with others—Cannon, David Garrick, politicians and administrators, booksellers, his own obituary-writer—that Cleland’s flamboyant style in publication begins to appear continuous with a broader rhetorical strategy for social recognition. Second, Gladfelder reveals an ongoing critique of sexual convention across the wide range of Cleland’s published works. In reviews, translations, treatises, letters, fiction, and drama, Cleland envisioned sexuality as a spectrum of imaginative and performative possibilities arising in the individual will. Routinely exposing a “psychopathology of masculine other-sex desire” that rendered sex acts unequal and alienating to women, Cleland, by Gladfelder’s smart readings, imagined erotic life as coextensive “with sexual ‘deviance’ and excess, and with unstable, fluid, or dissident gender identities” (197, 4). Cleland’s interest in overturning the hypocrisies of the sexual and domestic status quo stands as a constant across his career. And his career, Gladfelder proves beyond doubt, was varied, resilient, and strategically engineered by Cleland himself, dispelling standing assumptions that he never recovered from the infamy of Woman of Pleasure. While its publication brought legal and social complications, its “literary qualities were also openly praised, and it never stood in the way of Cleland getting other work published” (239).