John Cleland is best know for his scandalous first novel, Memoirs of Fanny Hill, published in 1749 as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. This, his second novel (1751), is less well known.
There's a similarity of narrative structure. Fanny Hill, of humble origin, falls into licentious behavior - and ultimately reforms. In Memoirs of a Coxcomb, young and rich Sir William Delamore indulges his "warm constitution" with numerous women - and ultimately reforms.
The admirable introduction explores the power struggles between men and women in this novel and is quite informative. But not being a scholar, I read the story less critically, perhaps more like an eighteenth-century reader.
I relished the social satire. For example, Sir William is quite entertaining as he describes the ritual among well-bred women of incessantly "visiting" each other while hoping to find no one "at home." His lively digressions on dissipated young lords, pompous political bores and the dullness of country life are equally amusing. I even enjoyed Sir William's unrealistic romantic obsession with the pure young woman he loved and lost without ever knowing her.
I have to confess I liked Sir William personally, despite his youthful absurdities, his lustful behavior and his vanity. After all, he was affectionate to his old aunt, he never indulged in gambling or drunkenness, and he avoided sleeping with prostitutes, considering them "unhappy victims of indigence."
Then there's the fun of Cleland's quaint prose. He describes erotic adventures in euphemistic metaphors - a nice change from the X-rated language in present-day film and fiction.
The moral aim of fiction was a great subject with eighteenth-century writers. In the interest of condemning human folly, an author could describe it in fascinating detail. Cleland's novel is an excellent example of this curious way of teaching young people a lesson.