J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Isaiah Thomas and a Woman of Pleasure

In 1786, the London bookseller Thomas Evans wrote to Isaiah Thomas, who had finally established himself as a printer in Worcester: “The Memoirs of a W. of P. which if you must have, [I] must beg you will apply to some of the Captains coming here, as it is an article I do not send my Customers if I can possibly avoid it.”

John Cleland’s erotic novel The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, had been published in London in 1748-49 by “G. Fenton,” otherwise unknown. On 11 Dec 1752, Garrat Noel advertised that book for sale in the New-York Gazette; its title appeared at the end of a long list of books that started with “Bibles.” By that point, however, Cleland and the reputed printers had been prosecuted for obscenity, and the publication driven underground.

Which is not to say Fanny Hill had disappeared—there were several British editions over the next thirty years, but most were still credited to “G. Fenton” since the authorities could do nothing to him.

Did Thomas ever get his hands on the book? He definitely did, as the American Antiquarian Society’s Past Is Present blog showed a few years back.
…the marbled boards…covering AAS’s copy of Jonas Hanway’s Advice from Farmer Trueman to His Daughter Mary…are actually unbound, unused copies of John Cleland’s quite vicious Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (popularly known as Fanny Hill).

Marcus McCorison, AAS President Emeritus, bibliographer, and author of an essay on early American printing of Fanny Hill, has pointed to the “curious juxtaposition of pious works” bound with such risqué words. Perhaps an impertinent binder, with a supply of marbled Fanny Hill sheets at his side and a Hanway book to bind, covered this copy of Advice From Farmer Trueman. The binder may never have thought that the marbling would wear away, expose Cleland’s words, and reveal the binder to be quite the ironist.
That posting goes on to note that McCorison also found that “In 1814, AAS founder Isaiah Thomas bound many of his newspapers in pages from Fanny Hill.” So Thomas had copies.

McCorison argued that those papers came from an edition of the novel printed in northern New England around 1813, once again credited to “G. Fenton.” In 1817 the printer Anson Whipple of Walpole, New Hampshire, had 293 copies of Fanny Hill in stock. The following year, someone complained to the governor of New Hampshire about copies being sold there, and over the next few years authorities in Massachusetts and New York prosecuted half a dozen men for selling copies of the book.

And who had bankrolled Anson Whipple in his printing business, sent him stock to sell, and remained his senior partner until 1817? None other than his father-in-law, Isaiah Thomas. Some book historians therefore think Thomas was secretly involved in publishing Fanny Hill for American readers after all.


Don Carleton said...

Just makes old Isaiah T. an even more interesting than ever!

J. L. Bell said...

Ellen S. Dunlap of the American Antiquarian Society alerted me that Isaiah Thomas wasn’t the father-in-law of Anson Whipple, even though bibliographies of American bibles have been saying that since 1861. So I’ve crossed out that part of the posting. The lack of a familial relationship makes their break-up as business partners less awkward.