Grub Street Snob

Terry Eagleton

  • Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland by Hal Gladfelder
    Johns Hopkins, 311 pp, £28.50, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 4214 0490 5

Sex began in academia a decade later than it did for Philip Larkin. From the rise of the women’s movement to the postmodern cult of the perverse, few themes have been more persistent in literature departments than sexuality. For most people, writing about multiple orgasms is known as pornography; in academia, it can win you a chair.

Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what most people do, whereas sexuality is largely the province of the intelligentsia. Sex can be fun, but sexuality is serious stuff. Academic writing about it hardly ever captures its amusing, even farcical dimensions, whatever it is that makes it such a perennial subject of curiosity and intrigue. Hearing that two people are sleeping together can often provoke a spontaneous grin, provided neither of them is your partner. Even so, sex and sexuality are hardly on different planets. Most of those who write on sexuality have sex lives themselves, and thus tend to practise what they preach. Studying sexuality is always at some level self-study, rather as writing about popular culture, for most of the students who do it these days, involves watching movies and TV shows they would have watched anyway. There is thus a convenient continuity between one’s academic and one’s actual life, as with a psychiatrist who is an expert on his own psychosis. This is not true of working on line-endings in Swinburne or desire in Deleuze; but in the long trek from Foucault to Family Guy, literary studies have moved closer to the everyday experience of their practitioners, even if so much of their talk is of otherness. This is also the reason so many students write about fanzines or Madonna in such alarmingly uncritical terms. Some of them would no more speak disparagingly of their own culture than they would insult their mothers.

Just as pornography is notoriously clinical, so it is hard to write analytically about sexuality without a certain sensationalism. The works of Freud are the thinking person’s pulp fiction. Fanny Hill in Bombay is a title designed to catch the eye of more than 18th-century scholars, and there isn’t much in the book to justify it. It is an impressively learned, scrupulously detailed study of John Cleland, author of one of the most salacious pieces of fiction in the English language; but it is no disrespect to Hal Gladfelder to wonder whether the Johns Hopkins press would have been quite so eager to take on an erudite study of an obscure 18th-century hack were he not renowned for having written an exceedingly dirty book. Most publishers run a mile these days from such single-author studies. They do not sell, unlike postcolonial anthologies and bluffer’s guides to Virginia Woolf.

In the prelapsarian 1960s, a typical critical essay might be entitled ‘Window Imagery in the Later Pasternak’, while in the theoretico-political 1970s, ‘Class Struggle in The Divine Comedy’ was a more predictable topic. By the 1980s and 1990s, conference papers with titles like ‘Putting the Anus back into Coriolanus’ had arrived on the scene. The shift from class struggle to the anus was not one from the political to the erotic, but from one kind of politics to another. Marxists for whom sexuality was as embarrassing a subject as sanctifying grace were reminded that labour meant producing babies as well as chocolate bars. A theory so high as to be well-nigh invisible to the naked eye was summoned sharply back to earth. Politics and sexuality formed some potent alliances, as they continue to do today. Gay and lesbian politics are among the most precious legacies from this period.

Yet as radical hopes faded in the late 1970s, sexuality came to displace left politics as well as to deepen them. With the advent of postmodernism, sexuality became largely depoliticised. Passions once invested in the question of sweatshops or chemical warfare were gradually transferred to fisting and nipple-piercing. We had moved from Trotskyism to transgression. Publishers began to reject critical studies that did not contain the word ‘body’ in their titles. Gendered bodies were acceptable, but sick or labouring ones much less so. Sex was packaged and peddled in the seminar room as well as on the streets. In some quarters, forms of sexuality that had been previously gagged and hounded became the loves that dared not stop speaking their names.

Since almost everyone is interested in sex, while fewer and fewer people care much about literature, a sexual approach to texts, alongside its inherent value, is a splendidly effective way to keep literature departments ticking over at a time when the humanities are under siege. Questions of gender and desire should be central to any study of cultural artefacts. They are also more likely to pull in the punters. If literary works forget to mention the clitoris, as Scott and Thackeray unaccountably do, you can always put them right. Hence the current practice of rewriting the classics so as to make them more ‘accessible’, adding a touch of cleavage to Emma Woodhouse or dash of zoophilia to Mr Knightley. Novels whose characters do not fall instantly to groping each other on first encounter are offensively elitist, out of touch with everyday experience.

In postmodern eyes, sexuality is at its best when deviant, since the normal and conventional are thought to be on the side of power. This is the reason words like ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ are nowadays swathed in scare quotes, as they are in this study. Yet crooked bankers and serial killers are deviant, while sunlight, death, panic and arthritis are natural. Whatever else they may be, human beings are natural material objects. Normality and convention can be on the side of enlightenment: if being allowed to go on strike isn’t normal, it ought to be; convention dictates that you shouldn’t kick vagrants who ask you for money. Postmodernists celebrate the marginal, while failing to note that neo-Nazis fall into that category. They also take the side of minorities, a group which includes tax evaders. In any case, those who prize the deviant should also cherish the normative, since there would be no deviancy without it. Sexuality dismantles the difference between the normal and the transgressive, as Gladfelder argues in a careful analysis of Fanny Hill. It is normal for sexual drives to kick over the traces; plasticity is in their nature. Sexuality is thought to be where we are most animal, but it is actually where we are least so. Spiders do not go in for foot fetishism, and stoats would not engage in cross-dressing even if they wore clothes.

It is scarcely surprising that there should be so much sex about in the late capitalist world, and not just because it is one of the most saleable of commodities. There was a time when life under late capitalism was secure but boring; these days it is insecure but still boring. Sex thus provides a spot of everyday drama for societies unafflicted by civil war or mass famine. Those in the suburban West spared the upheaval of tsunamis, wars against drugs or attempts to topple dictatorships have to make do with dogging and troilism instead. No doubt they would learn to be less preoccupied with such matters if they were to be put down in the middle of Mogadishu. Sexuality is also the most ambiguous of human activities, and so has a natural appeal to literary critics, for whom ambiguity is a vital notion. It is just that Empson’s sense of the word has given way to androgyny and cross-dressing.

The author of Fanny Hill (the hill of the fanny is the mons veneris) was a toff as well as a pornographer. John Cleland was born near London in 1710, the offspring of an ancient but impoverished Scottish family, and was educated at the prestigious Westminster School. His parents were on amicable terms with a number of the age’s luminaries, from the Duchess of Marlborough to Richard Steele and Alexander Pope. At the age of 18, Cleland arrived in Bombay in the service of the East India Company, where his skill at writing and talent for languages smoothed his progress from foot soldier to attorney, and from there to secretary of the Bombay council. One of his colleagues in India, Charles Carmichael, encouraged him to try his hand at a piece of pornography, though Gladfelder, who has a penchant for the dialogic and intertextual, speculates that the work, later to become Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and then, revised and expurgated, Memoirs of Fanny Hill, was something of a joint enterprise between Cleland and Carmichael. If this is true, then we are partly indebted for one of the smuttiest novels ever published to the son of a Scottish earl, a man whose brothers included an ambassador, an Archbishop of Dublin, an MP and a page to George II.

Cleland seems to have been a flamboyant, contrarian figure, who in his time as a young attorney in the East India Company boldly took on the prosecution of a senior colleague accused of defrauding an Indian merchant. He was not, he declared, ‘to be awed and frightened from pleading the cause of the poor or weak, against Power and oppression’, a radical flourish oddly out of keeping with his later reactionary views. In retaliation for his insolence, the senior colleague in question insinuated that Cleland was unworthy of his horsewhip by virtue of being a sodomite, an accusation that was to dog the author of a notorious piece of heterosexual erotica for the rest of his days. A shopkeeper with the splendid name of Samuel Drybutter, who was once thought to have written the only sodomitical passage in Fanny Hill, and who was killed by the mob as a sodomite himself, may have been a friend of Cleland.

In his time in Bombay, Cleland also defended a raped and enslaved Indian woman, despite being a slaveholder himself. There are times when his tirades against his East India Company employers bring to mind Edmund Burke’s later, rather more eloquent assaults on the same institution, which also take a smack at the sexual crimes of the colonialists. Rather as Burke was both Irish outsider and champion of English tradition, so Cleland was similarly self-divided. He professed to despise politics, yet was rumoured to have lost his state pension for being sarcastic about the monarchy. In the year he perpetrated the act of sexual exploitation known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, he also published a polemic against London brothel owners for keeping their employees in a state of slavery. Keenly aware of the connections between the sex trade and the general plight of women, he did not allow a little matter of sexual politics to interfere with his profits as a pornographer.

Gladfelder’s study is alert to these contradictions, finding in its subject an apostle of deviance and excess who also bewailed the degeneracy of the age. If Cleland is a proto-postmodernist, a patrician renegade whose identity is fluid and unstable, he is also a doughty apologist for cultural authority. It is as though Roland Barthes and Samuel Johnson were to inhabit the same body. There are times when the book makes rather too much of the former persona. Cleland is seen as multiple, protean, parodic, dissident, marginal and un-English, all qualities likely to win a warm beam of approval from a younger generation of critics. This, perhaps too programmatically, is a Cleland for our times.

All the same, the book is right to see its subject as a curiously amphibious figure. The ‘rococo profusion’ of his style, with its cosmopolitan borrowings and outlandish figures, is that of a man who also found in the ancient Celtic languages of Europe a plain, primitive vigour that had become calamitously corrupted. There is a good deal of the distressed gentlefolk syndrome about this respectable bourgeois, who was forced onto Grub Street by economic circumstance yet never ceased to maintain a certain inner dissociation from the tawdriness of his times. It was a tawdriness to which he signally contributed. Having made what Gladfelder calls ‘the most scandalous literary debut of that or any period’, he became deeply ashamed of having let Fanny Hill loose on the world, and spent the rest of his life trying to live it down. Nobody, he commented in his customary Janus-faced style, could desire the novel’s suppression more than himself. It was as though the Samuel Johnson in him was giving the Roland Barthes a rap over the knuckles.

Financial distress lay at the origins of Cleland’s most infamous work. He was committed to the Fleet prison for owing money to one Thomas Cannon, a man he described as an ‘execrable, white-faced, rotten catamite’, and began to write what later became Fanny Hill there in order to discharge his debt. He also accused ‘Molly’ Cannon (‘Molly’ was a cant word for gay) of plotting to poison him, and even implicated his elderly mother in the offence. Cleland was released from the Fleet, but was arrested for obscenity soon after Fanny Hill appeared, so that the work that had sprung him from prison seemed in danger of putting him back there. Appealing against this fate, he urged the authorities to allow the book to sink into oblivion rather than bring it to public attention through a criminal action, citing as an example of such benign neglect the fact that a pamphlet ‘in defence of sodomy’ by Cannon had been ignored by the attorney general and thus failed to make a splash. By this crafty manoeuvre, Cleland managed to escape the prosecutors himself while encouraging them to take action against the man who had put him in prison. Cannon remained floundering in the judicial system for several years, while Cleland was set free to enjoy the fruits of his licentious labours. Having just had his collar felt for obscenity, he showed remarkable sang-froid by proceeding to publish an explicit account of female same-sex seduction, complete with cross-dressing, dildos and a detailed investigation of his protagonist’s hymen and clitoris.

Rather surprisingly, Gladfelder argues that Fanny Hill, despite its heterosexual cavortings, is a sodomitical novel. Given that the novel contains very little sodomy, this seems about as plausible as claiming that Thomas Hardy never clapped eyes on a cow. What Gladfelder means is that the book challenges fixed categories of sexual identity in the manner of homosexuality itself. A supposedly perverse form of sexual relationship thus becomes typical of sexuality as such. This standard deconstructive move allows the study some subtle insights into the fluidity of gender in Cleland’s text; but it is hard not to feel that Fanny Hill is being too forcibly appropriated for queer theory: straight sex is really just disguised buggery. The familiar is only interesting when it turns out to be aberrant.

The problem, however, is that gay sex is just as predictable, and thus just as potentially boring, as the heterosexual variety. This poses a problem for lascivious writers with literary pretensions. In a perceptive chapter on literary form in Cleland’s work, Gladfelder recognises that pornography finds it hard to tell a story. Sex is too repetitive a business for that. The sexual repertoire of human beings is severely constrained by the nature of their bodies. Like debates in parliament, it gives rise to endless variations on the same old positions: biology is at odds with narrativity. Anxious for the reproduction of the species, however, Nature has wisely ordained that its repetitiveness should do little to abate our enthusiasm for it. As with the legendary amnesia of the goldfish, we come to it perpetually fresh.

Fanny Hill in Bombay is a biography, which is good news for a reading public agog for life-histories, but something of a problem for Gladfelder himself. There is something oddly self-undermining about a study that questions the whole concept of personal identity yet doggedly pursues a single individual from one archive to another. The book tries to lay this embarrassment to rest by insisting on the spectral, elusive nature of its subject, spectres and hauntings being a fashionable topic in literary studies. It also denies that it is a biography in the usual sense of the term, a notably unpersuasive line of defence.

There are other gestures of self-justification. Gladfelder brings a somewhat top-heavy scholarly apparatus to bear on this minor drudge, wheeling up many a big gun to dispatch the odd gnat, but insists that even Cleland’s forgotten works are ‘striking, audacious, aesthetically and intellectually daring and complex’. One does not feel inclined to put the claim to the test, not least because Gladfelder himself admits elsewhere that some of his author’s translations ‘might be considered more or less complete failures’. Cleland boasts of one of the stage comedies he translated that it had never suffered the disgrace of being rejected by the London theatres, but goes on to point out that it had never been offered to them either. Given the lowly status of some theatres in 18th-century England, that is probably a boast as well.

Rather as Cleland himself is both renegade and conservative, so his biographer combines sexual radicalism with orthodox scholarship. Gladfelder’s opinions may be dissident, but his methods of working are thoroughly traditional. He is a skilful literary sleuth of a commendably old-fashioned kind, who has unearthed Cannon’s pamphlet on pederasty and dug up a formidable amount of material from a wide range of holdings. That chair for writing about multiple orgasms can’t be far away.