Monday, October 22, 2012

The Wages Of Sin: $80,000 For Rare Fanny Hill

by Stephen J. Gertz

Fanny Hill must be thrilled. After plying her trade with varying degrees of success she now commands $54,000-$80,000 to spend an intimate evening with her. Reading a scarce, true first edition copy of her memoirs, that is.

On Tuesday, October 30, 2012, Christie's-Paris is offering an excellent copy of the rare, two volume (here bound as one) true first edition of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, John Cleland's oft reprinted 1749 book that is the classic and most important erotic novel in English. It is estimated to sell for €40,000-€60,000 ($54,000-$80,000). [UPDATE 10/31/2012: Sold for $148,878, incl. premium].

"Cleland [1710-1789] composed his novel while serving a sentence for debt in the Fleet Prison. According to his own testimony, it was written largely from boredom and, the early chapters anyway, was based on an idea '...originally given me by a young gentleman of the greatest hopes I ever knew, above eighteen years ago, on an occasion immaterial to mention here.' Volume one appeared about November 1748, and volume two was published in early February of the following year. Both were printed by Thomas Parker for Ralph Griffiths and advertised in the press at three shillings each volume.

"In November 1749, a warrant was issued for the persons responsible for the book and by the end of the month, Cleland, Griffiths, and Parker...were all on bail and awaiting trial" (Kearney, A History of Erotic Literature, p. 66). Bookseller and publisher Ralph Griffiths blamed everything on his brother, Fenton Griffiths, whose inverted name, G. Fenton, was used for the book's false imprint. As  this brother did not, apparently, exist he was a convenient fall-guy.

During this period, Cleland, at the suggestion of Ralph Griffiths, excised the majority of the offensive material - of which there was plenty - and in 1750 this abridged edition was published under the title Memoirs of Fanny Hill. "The expurgated version seems not to have found any more favour than the complete first edition for it was suppressed very quickly" (ibid). As a result the self-censored 1750 edition is even rarer than the complete first, with only one copy, in the British Library (call # C.133.a.9), known to have survived its ban.

Despite arrests and the prospect of trial, however, the cases against Cleland et al were not, apparently, pursued.

The book's plotline became a enduring cliché rehashed in countless erotic novels that followed (but not Sade's!) in English and French: Innocent country girl goes to the city and must prostitute herself to survive, with ups and downs, and happily ever after with a nobleman who knows her past and forgives.

The bibliographical history of this book is quite convoluted and it was not until David Foxon's essay in his Libertine Literature in England (1965), reprinted from The Book Collector (Autumn 1963), that the various editions - four prime suspects - were sorted out and the true first ID'd.

Foxon's description of the true first:

"Oval woodcut ornament on title-page. Date as 'M.DCC.XLIX.' 12mo: A-I12, K6, A-K12, L6, M2. Pp. [1-3] 4-227 [228 blank]; [1-3] 4-255 [256 blank]. 25 lines of type per page except vol. I, pp. 194-227 which are set unleaded, giving 29 lines. Headlines: Memoirs of a / Woman of Pleasure. With a sodomitical description in vol II, pp. 177-9."

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was illegal in the United States until the Supreme Court's obscenity decision of 1964 cleared it for open publication. The first legit edition was published in 1965 by G.P. Putnam's Sons in New York but it does not contain the two-paragraphs in volume two  of the true first describing a homosexual encounter, the infamous "sodomitical" tableau. That scene was excised from all subsequent 18th and 19th century editions and did not reappear until Maurice Girodias, under his deceased father, Jack Kahane's, Obelisk Press imprint, published Memoirs of Fanny Hill in 1950 and included it.

The true  first edition of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure consisted of only 750 copies which sold for six shillings (2 vols x 3s). Its maximum profit could not have been more than £100. Cleland is said to have received a grand total of £20.

He wrote it out of boredom while in debtor's prison, not out of any sense of literary calling or art. but, rather, for a quick buck.

"One of those booksellers who disgrace the profession offered him a temporary relief for writing the work above alluded to, which brought stigma on his name, which time has not obliterated, and which will be consigned to his memory whilst its poisonous contents are in circulation" (John Nichols, The Gentleman's Magazine, February 1789, p. 180).

It may be said that Cleland, like his comely creation, Fanny Hill, was a whore, and a cheap one, too. The £20 Cleland earned was a pittance compared to the £840 he owed. Yet "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," as Samuel Johnson famously said. Poverty tends to focus a writer's attention.

Cleland was "a man who would have been merely another minor 18th-century literary figure had it not been that the shortage of a bob or two had forced him to write a sensational novel" (op cit,  Kearney).

A sensational novel that, in its true first edition, now fetches a sensational price.

CLELAND, John. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. London: Printed [by Thomas Parker] for G. Fenton [bookseller Fenton Griffiths, i.e. Ralph Griffiths] in the Strand, 1749 [1748-49]. Two parts bound in one twelvemo volume (163 x 98 mm).  227, 255 pp. Woodcut vignette to title page and end of Part II.

Kearney, Patrick J., The Private Case 415. Pia 846. Foxon, Libertine Literature in England, pp. 52-63. Cf. Ashby III, p. 60. Cf. Kearney, A History of Erotic Literature, pp. 66-71.

Image courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

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