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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 561-578

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Review Essay

From Sexual Liberation to Gender Trouble: Reading Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure from the 1960s to the 1990s *

Peter Sabor

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) --
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP. 1

If 1963, as Philip Larkin claims, was a good year for sexual intercourse, it was an annus mirabilis for John Cleland's first novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Since its initial publication in two installments in November 1748 and February 1749, the Memoirs had been a best seller but an illicit one. 2 Although entirely free from vulgar terminology, it contains more explicit descriptions of a broad range of sexual practices than any previous work in English. Government action against the novel began in November 1749, when a warrant was issued for the arrest of the author, the printer, and the publishers. Cleland and his associates were found guilty in court, and the novel was withdrawn, at least officially, from circulation. Despite losing the case, however, Cleland seems to have escaped lightly; no record of any punishment exists. Shortly after his release, Cleland produced a heavily bowdlerized version of the Memoirs, entitled Memoirs of Fanny Hill, 3 published in March 1750. 4 Readers, not surprisingly, eschewed this anodyne, ostensibly didactic abridgement in favor of the banned original, which circulated widely in underground form for over two hundred years, [End Page 561] albeit with the omission of one crucial passage that I shall turn to shortly. Issued by small presses, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure appeared primarily in deluxe, illustrated editions, designed as collectors' items, and as such offering little provocation. 5 Reputable publishers stayed away; the novel was sold and read surreptitiously. 6

All this changed in Spring 1963, when the American publisher Putnam's brought out the first commercial edition of the Memoirs, with an introduction by Peter Quennell, and was immediately prosecuted for doing so. After protracted court cases, the edition was eventually cleared by the New York State Supreme Court in August 1963 and by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1966. The British paperback publisher Mayflower followed suit with its own edition in November 1963, and was prosecuted in its turn before the Bow Street magistrate, Sir Robert Blundell. The chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, singled out for special opprobrium a flagellation scene, in which Fanny and one of her clients are sexually aroused by mutual beatings. Despite the arguments of several eminent defence witnesses, including Quennell, Marghanita Laski, Karl Miller, and Ian Watt, the novel was found obscene. Another prosecution took place in Manchester in 1964; not until the 1970s would Cleland's novel at last become safe from prosecution in the censorious British courts. 7

It is against this background of repeated arrests, trials, and confiscations that the critical response to Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in the 1960s and 1970s can best be understood. Quennell, for example, writing his Introduction to the Putnam's edition in anticipation of imminent prosecution, terms Cleland a "romantic sentimentalist," and notes shrewdly that "Fanny Hill would have shuddered at Lady Chatterley," cleared for sale by British and American court cases in 1960. 8 Marghanita Laski, in her role as defence witness, described the Memoirs as "a gay little book . . . a jolly book . . . It made me feel cheerful." 9 Gaiety, of the old school, was the order of the day. Brigid Brophy, in an upbeat New Statesman essay, termed the Memoirs "a highly engaging little erotic tale--perhaps the most engaging to emerge from . . . 17 centuries of European literature." 10 John Illo, in an article hedonistically entitled "The Idyll of Unreproved Pleasures Free," declared that unlike such degenerates as Henry Miller and Nabokov, Cleland celebrated "the supreme human happiness of . . . sensuously attractive sexuality, and, especially, wholesome heterosexuality." 11 Taking up a deft idea in an anonymous Publisher's Note to the Putnam's edition, Illo also...


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