Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Most readers today will not be familiar with the name John Cleland, the author of this often censored book which has been resurrected in its unexpurgated form and then edited by Richard Terry and Helen Williams. The sexual content of the book has always been at the root of the various charges of obscenity levelled at the book’s author and/or publisher. “Memoirs, beyond merely portraying different types of sexual practice, was intended to provoke its readers toward immediate sexual feelings and activities.  The novel runs through what Cleland probably understood to be a nearly exhaustive repertoire of sexual potentialities, including lesbianism, female masturbation, defloration, sex as an expression of romantic love, sex with younger and older partners, fetishistic sex, sex combined with flagellation, rape, sex in group contexts and male homosexual intercourse. Solitary male masturbation, the use of sex toys, and the orgiastic swapping of partners are perhaps the only easily imagined activities not represented” (22 – 23).

At the beginning of the novel Fanny arrives in London and, taken in by the bawd Mrs Brown, is given the standard forcible introduction into the eighteenth century sex trade. Fanny’s first impressions on entering the premises are positive, and the few male clients we meet seem moneyed, since 150 guineas is placed on her maidenhead. She is spirited away by Charles and, having lived with him as his wife, she enters the profession of a woman of pleasure when she becomes a kept mistress to Mr H. Catching him in adultery, she has an affair with a young man. Sloughed off by Mr H who finds out about the affair, Fanny enters the profession of prostitute. This signals the end of Cleland’s Volume 1.

Subsequent volumes tell more of Fanny’s adventures. She regards the sex with a young nobleman as gratifying and consensual. With his departure to Ireland Fanny follows a difficult path in meeting the sexual needs of Mr Norbert and the flagellant Mr Barville. Later she is rescued by an elderly gentleman, who makes her his kept woman and bestows a healthy inheritance on her when he dies. As the editors point out, Fanny rarely asks for money. All financial aspects seem to be handled invisibly, a point which makes her career at variance to the usual form of eighteenth century prostitution. Moreover, Fanny enjoys sex. That, too, is not usual. “The moment of mutual ejaculatory climax she reveres as the ‘pleasure of pleasures,’ in which pleasure rises to a sweet excess and then dies” (44). A good example of this is shown on p.191. Sex for Fanny never reveals any of life’s mysteries, “it never escapes being essentially a transaction of ‘pleasure’” (45).

This edited edition of the famous novel is intended to be an academic publication. It consists of a List of Illustrations, an Acknowledgments page, an Introduction, John Cleland: a Brief Chronology, and a Note on the Text. These are quite detailed so that the actual narrative begins on page 53. There are then a series of valuable Appendices.

Appendix A: Censorship and its Repeal contains Warrant for the Detention of Cleland and Others in 1749; statements taken by various parties in 1749, an obituary of Cleland in 1789, and a Ruling by Supreme Court Justice Arthur G Klein in 1963.

Appendix B is called Writing Sex. It is made up of an excerpt from The School of Venus in 1680, various writings dated 1741, 1745, 1730, 1743, an investigation into pederasty in 1749. The crux of the appendix is that a flourishing sex-related trade operated in the eighteenth century and that it took a variety of forms.

Appendix C Sexual Bodies has excerpts from Nicholas Venette explaining the pleasures of conjugal love, probably in 1740, William Cowper describing the anatomy of the human body (1737) [and getting it all wrong], La Mettrie’s dissertation on Man a Machine in 1749, and Cleland’s own paper on Institutes of Health in 1761.

Appendix D Prostitution has Cleland’s The Case of the Unfortunate Bosavern Penlez (1749), an excerpt from Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Fanny M (1759), another called Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Maria Brown (1766) and a final excerpt from Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757 – 95).


Appendix E is called Cleland’s Writings on the Novel. It reviews Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle, Monthly Review (March 1751), a review of Henry Fielding’s Amelia Monthly Review 1751, an excerpt from The Dictionary of Love (1753), and a Commentary on Historical and Physical Dissertation on the Case of Catherine Vizzani (1751).

The book concludes with a Select Bibliography.

The material about the book, as distinct from the actual text, takes up about 120 pages or a third of the book. I found this level of academic input very useful indeed. I could well support the idea that students of eighteenth century sexual knowledge and practices would find the material just as valuable. Finally, actually making the text itself available in an intellectual environment, is priceless. I recommend this book highly.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure


Richard Terry and Helen Williams (eds)

Broadview Press

ISBN: 978-1-55481-296-7

336pp; $32.99

To order a copy of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure  at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit


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