John Cleland was baptized on September 24, 1720 in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey. His father, William Cleland, served as an officer in the British army before entering into a variety of civil-service jobs, acquired through a network of influential friends and acquaintances. William Cleland's dependence on such connections, however, made his position in society both tenuous and ambiguous and he found himself, as William Epstein describes, "trapped between the destitute anonymity out of which he had arisen and the privileged nobility into which he could never enter..." (12). Cleland's mother, Lucy, also had many notable contacts, including Horace Walpole and Viscount Bolingbroke.
When John Cleland was around eleven years old, his parents sent him to the prestigious Westminster School, where he earned recognition as a King's Scholar before his unexplained withdrawal in 1723. In 1728, at the age of seventeen, Cleland joined the East India Company in Bombay as foot-solider and eventually, like his father, moved into civil service. He remained in Bombay until 1740, when he sailed back to London at his ailing father's request. William Cleland died in 1741, leaving Lucy in charge of the family estate.
Following his father's death, Cleland and his mother moved into a house in St. James Place, where he lived for the next six and a half years. Not much is known about Cleland's life during this period, although his biographer Epstein points out that "he was faced now, in his early thirties, with the problem of beginning a new career" (60). Apparently receiving little financial support from his mother, he was committed to Fleet Prison in February 1748 for failure to pay a debt of £840.
He remained in prison until March 1749 and during his confinement finished his novel, Memoirs of Woman of Pleasure, which he "later claimed, in a conversation with Boswell, to have written ... in his early twenties, in order to show his colleague...that it was possible to write about a prostitute without using vulgar language" (Peter Sabor, in ODNB). The publication of this work, as well as the later, bowdlerized version, Memoirs of Fanny Hill (1750), introduced Cleland to bookseller Ralph Griffiths, to whose Monthly Review the novelist would regularly contribute in later years.
Both versions of Memoirs were targeted by the government as obscene, and arrest warrants were issued against Griffiths, Cleland, and printer Thomas Parker; however, nothing ever seemed to come of the charges, and none of the men suffered any significant punishment as a result of them.
For the next twenty years, Cleland was a prolific author; however, most of his works earned him neither accolades nor money. Among these disappointing endeavors were three plays—Titus Vespasian (1755), a tragedy; and The Ladies Subscription (1755) and Tombo-Chiqui or, The American Savage (1758), comedies—none of which were ever staged, "two cantankerous medical treatises" and "three eccentric linguistic treatises" (Sabor, ODNB). He also attempted to exploit the popularity of his previous novels with the publication of Memoirs of Coxcomb (1751), a novel about the escapades of a male prostitute. The book failed to attract much attention.
During this time Cleland also wrote more than thirty book reviews for Griffith's Monthly Review, including "Monthly Catalogue: Philosophical letters upon physiognomies" (Aug. 1751); "Fielding's Amelia (Dec. 1751); "James Parson's Remains of Japhet: being historical Enquiries into the Affinity and Origin of the European Languages" (June, July 1768); and "Literary Article from Denmark: On the Proceedings of the Danish Society of Science" (Oct. 1770).
In November 1753 Ralph Griffiths published Cleland's translation of J. F. Dreux du Radier's Dictionnaire de l'amour under the complete title The Dictionary of Love. In which is contained, the Explanation of most of the Terms used in that Language. The work was published anonymously; however, as Roger Lonsdale was the first to point out, Griffiths identifies Cleland as the author in a handwritten annotation accompanying his review of the work in the December 1753 issue of the Monthly Review. In comparing Cleland's DOL and the French original, Lonsdale concludes that "about a quarter of the definitions are basically Cleland's own, usually somewhat less cynical and more genuinely pessimistic about modern decadence than those translated faithfully" (286).
Cleland's interest in the dictionary reflects the same preoccupation with façade that dominates most of his works, including Memoirs. Epstein characterizes the author as "a man who had spent most of his life trying to expose to public view a private world which would not have him" (166). The DOL, as an examination of the deceptive and affected nature of the language of love among society's elite, fits neatly into this campaign. While it was certainly meant to be a diversion in its own right, the dictionary also seems to serve as a guidebook to the kind of euphemistic and circumlocutory language used by Cleland's fictional characters, such as Fanny Hill. Indeed, Cleland uses many of the terms from the DOL in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.
Lonsdale claims that the dictionary was relatively popular and that its publication "appears to mark the end of a period in which Cleland was dependent on his pen for a living" (287). Further, some sources indicate that he began receiving a pension from the government around this time in an effort to "'nobly [rescue] him from the like temptation' (of writing pornography)" (Lonsdale 287-288). Yet Cleland was never entirely secure financially and was never fully able to escape the notoriety surrounding Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.
Boswell's impression of a sixty-two year old Cleland was as "'a fine sly malcontent'... [but with] 'something genteel in his manner amidst this oddity'" (Sabor, ODNB). On that same occasion, Cleland's friend David Garrick, the famous thespian, was present, and Boswell relates that the latter "was talking vainly of his being appointed the executor of a clergyman by 'that great man, Lord Camden.' 'Not a very great man,' grumbled Cleland. I saw Mr. Garrick was not at leisure, so I went and breakfasted at the Mount Coffee-house." (80-81).
John Nichol's obituary of Cleland, however, describes him as "...a very agreeable companion'" in his later years, remarking that "in conversation he was very pleasant and anecdotical, understanding most of the living languages, and speaking them all very fluently" (180). Cleland died in January 1789 and was buried in St. Margaret's churchyard. He never married, and he had no children.