Published: April 24, 2016
Climate change is one of the world’s major concerns and so it was, on this day, for the citizens of London. For not only was it hot on this mid-winter’s day, but the capital was shaken by an earthquake, causing chimney pots to crash down into the street and at least one building to collapse.
Astonishingly, the unprecedented tremor was to be followed exactly a month later by a second, much stronger quake. People were awakened in the early morning by the violent shaking of buildings, which came after half an hour of almost continual thunder and lightning.
Politician and man-of-letters Horace Walpole wrote: “I felt my bolster lift up my head; I thought somebody was getting from under my bed, but soon found it was a strong earthquake that lasted near half a minute, with a violent vibration and great roaring. I rang my bell; my servant came in, frightened out of his senses: in an instant we heard all the windows in the neighbourhood flung up. I got up and found people running into the streets. Two old houses had been flung down, several chimneys, and much chinaware.”
Scientific theories were advanced to the effect that there was a honeycomb of air pockets just below the Earth’s surface and that occasionally violent winds, or possibly flames, or water could rush through these pockets, causing earthquakes.
“Absolute nonsense,” insisted Thomas Sherlock, the Bishop of London. There had been no earthquake anywhere else in England and he was convinced that the quakes had been ‘immediately directed’ against the sinful city of London; the Lord expressing his wrath over the publication of ‘The Memoirs of Fanny Hill’ – “this vile book, the lewdest thing I ever saw.”
The book, full of “unnatural lewdness,” according to the bishop, had just been published by John Cleland, a well-educated man who had been imprisoned for debt and who hoped to change his financial fortune by setting down the imaginative but lurid tale of Fanny Hill. In the book, actually entitled Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure, she is a 15-year-old girl who finds herself in a London brothel, discovers that the life is to her liking, and writes frankly about her experiences in a series of letters.
After his eventual release from prison, Cleland said he had written the book when he was just a youth, and that many years later when he was in jail he had prepared it for publication because he desperately needed money. But he was “thoroughly ashamed” of it.
Ironically, the book failed to achieve the financial independence that Cleland sought. The publishers, who made thousands of pounds from it, paid the author only twenty pounds for the copyright. In 1789, at the age of 79, he died in poverty, whilst his creation, Fanny Hill, faced a thriving future and remains a bestseller to this day. Causing, no doubt, the Bishop of London to be turning in his grave . . .