From a paper written by Mark Proudfoot, a scholar at Westminster in 2012, for a school prize linking a current student with a relative many years ago. Mark also found that John’s brother, Henry, made the Honours Board at the school. Mark is also the nephew of John Clelland Hocknull, founder of the Clan Cleland Society (worldwide).
Old Westminster. John Cleland. Elected April 24 1721
Mystery surrounds the life of the Old Westminster who created the “first person narrative” form of novel. The first recorded Cleland married Sir William Wallace’s aunt, Margaret. Of several ancestors who fought with Wallace, James Cleland was described as the first nobleman and gentleman of Scotland. Later Clelands fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Their bravery was rewarded with gifts of land in Central Scotland. His grandfather, William Cleland was the driving force which raised a regiment ‘in a single day’ at Douglas for the Earl of Angus. William immediately became Commanding Officer of the Regiment, known as the Cameronians, which defeated the Highland army at the battle of Dunkeld in 1689. He was also a poet.
from engraved copper plates published in the Ragman Rolls
His father William, the last Chief of Clan Cleland, registered arms in 1717. Born in Edinburgh he lived in St James’s Place, London, with an official salary of £500 per year as Honourable Commissioner of His Majesty’s Customs in Scotland and as a Commissioner for the Land Tax and House Duty in England. His closest friend, the poet Alexander Pope, wrote of William as an incorruptible civil servant in his masterpiece ‘The Dunciad’ (1743). William was sacked in 1741, by Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole despite, or perhaps because of, Horace Walpole’s friendship with William’s wife, Lucy. The couples torn loyalties may have been a more significant reason for William’s dismissal. They were involved in both Hanoverian Whig and Jacobite conspiracies. Or perhaps he was sacked because of ill health. William died the same year. John, the Old Westminster author, had a portrait of his father William, dressed as a highly fashionable rake, above his death bed.
John’s mother, Lucy, met William when he was studying law at The Hague. She was the daughter of a Dutch Jewish merchant and a wealthy English mother. Extremely well connected she was friends with many of the most important people in London as well as fashionable men of the arts such as Swift.
Into this family was born John, author of work which may never have been more popular than it is today. Compulsory and compulsive reading in universities around the world it was illegal to read or publish for over 350 years unless you were a lawyer or a judge. However it has always been available on the black market and film makers have been unable to resist it since the creation of film.
We are unsure when he was born but John Cleland was baptized on the 24th September 1709 and died roughly 80 years later on January 23rd 1789. He was born in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey but grew up in London.
John Cleland joined Westminster School April 24th 1721 but he left in 1723. We do not know why he left the school. His work was satisfactory and he was not expelled. His father was appointed Commissioner for the Land Tax and House Duty in England the year John left school. His brother later joined the school before going up to Oxford. It may be that John was made an offer he couldn’t refuse for the next we know he is British Consul in Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Turkey. In 1732 he founded the ‘Society of Dilettanti’ in Smyrna to encourage young men doing the ‘Grand Tour’ to study the arts and archaeology. Soon after his return to London be joined the British East India Company at Bombay. There is disagreement in the sources about these years. Wikipedia fails to mention Smyrna and claims that he was in Bombay 1728-1740 when he was recalled by his dying father. Other sources mention him being in Bombay by 1736 but say that he leaves in a hurry in 1740 after a quarrel with Members of the Council in Bombay. All sources agree that he left India with no money. It seems reasonable that he would hope for some inheritance from his father and would return with that expectation. Upon his father’s death in 1741, the estate went to his mother. She did not choose to support John or his brother and sister who could support themselves.
The following years are not well documented. Some sources suggest that he toured Europe but they provide little detail. Other sources believe that he was in several debtors prisons. At least one writer says that he went to several prisons across Europe. The lack of detail suggests that there are no contemporary sources and later ‘sources’ are presenting older writers guesswork as fact. If he had been in prisons there would be records with dates.
There is a suggestion that he attempted to persuade the Portuguese that they should create a Portuguese East India Company. His suggestion was not accepted.
In 1748 he went to prison with a debt of £840, equivalent to about £100,000 today. It was around this time when he met Ralph Griffith and agreed to write a novel. In prison he wrote, “The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”. It was released in two installments, in November 1748 and February 1749. An exceptionally long obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine recorded that John was paid only 20 guineas for the work which made at least £10,000 for Griffith who had the copyright. John was released from prison in March 1749. In November that year Cleland and the publishers of the book were arrested. In court, Cleland renounced the novel and said that he could only “wish, from my Soul,” that the book be “buried and forgot”. The book was officially withdrawn at that point. However, pirate editions continued to sell well. When a pirate edition inserted a new chapter of homosexuality, there was little the author could do. In 1750 John released a highly censored version of the book but he again faced charges. These charges were later dropped perhaps because they related to unauthorized versions of the book. Or, perhaps because Cleland had friends in high places. According to one source Cleland was never charged and only a publisher who had altered the words was charged and pilloried in 1757.
It is therefore more than a little surprising to find that the Privy Council awarded John a pension of £100 per year. Some say that he was paid not to write any more novels of this nature. The official reason given by Lord Grenville, President of the Privy Council, was that the pension would allow Cleland to put his abilities to the public good. Others suggest that Cleland was paid not to reveal the true corrupt nature of English Society.
Cleland is now celebrated for the quality of ‘A Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.’ It was “the first original English prose pornography, and the first to break away from the dialogue form into the style of the novel.” It is also considered by specialists in the study of pornographic literature to be “the best erotic novel in the English language” and “one of western literature’s great books.” Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is “a distinctive and considerable example of a mid-eighteenth-century British novel”. The book was never again legally published until 1963 in America and 1970 in Britain. Its importance in British heritage is emphasized by the fact it is on the required reading list for many English literature degree courses. The power of the story is clear from the continual remakes for TV and silver screen.
Despite the great accomplishment of “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”, Cleland’s other works were poor in comparison. After his release from prison and the prosecutions over “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”, Cleland attempted two more novels, “Memoirs of a Coxcomb” and “The Woman of Honour”, as well as a collection of romance tales in “The Surprises of Love”. None of these was particularly successful, either in literary or popular terms.
None of Cleland’s literary works provided him with a comfortable living, and he was typically bitter about this. He publicly denounced his mother before her death in 1763 for not supporting him. Cleland died, perhaps unmarried, in 1789 and was buried in St. Margaret’s churchyard next to Westminster Abbey.