London, Macmillan, 2000, ISBN: 9780333650530
University of Wolverhampton
Date accessed: 8 February, 2023
This is a relatively short book by Britain's leading historian of sexuality, but it has a big agenda. Drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, Lesley Hall discusses the shifts, the continuities and the changes in sexual custom and practice that prevailed between 1880 and the present day. All the key elements are here: marriage and divorce; the increasing separation of sex from reproduction; same-sex relationships; the growth of sexual knowledge; prostitution and its attendant activities; sexually transmitted diseases; legislation and censorship. We are given a deft and scholarly overview of sex, gender and social change during the period by a pioneering writer in this area of research.
The book is engagingly written - it is refreshing to read such a polished text at a time when History often seems besieged by unreadable texts and dense, specialist language. Hall's elegant, witty prose is a delight. It is old-fashioned history writing of the best kind, a narrative account rather than a theoretical treatise and is much the better for it. There are some wonderful vignettes of real people caught up in the vicissitudes of sexual politics in late nineteenth century and twentieth century Britain. Indeed, this is emphatically a book about the ordinary lives of individuals who breathed, lived and experienced the period as much as grand historical themes.
The book is organised chronologically so readers can see events within the social and cultural context of the day. Hereby, Hall has been able to chart the symbiotic, and often dialectic, relationship between sexual progress and other forms of social reform, placing sexuality within a wider context of change: in education, in employment, in politics, in medicine and in the law. Sexual beliefs, Hall argues, were neither monolithic nor consistent: at one and the same time women were believed to be natural homemakers and home-breakers. Thus at the time when motherhood was thought to be a naturally biological state for women, it was commonly believed that once women were educated not only the family but indeed the human race itself would be at risk: educated women would not want to be mothers. As one might expect, the strength in organising the book in this way, decade by decade, is also its weakness. Not only is there a tendency for some stories to remain incomplete (for example the continuities within abortion reform are not altogether developed) but the political context sometimes appears rather sketchy.
Of course there is much here that will be familiar to the expert reader: the Married Women's Property Acts, the Divorce Acts, the Contagious Diseases Acts, the Oscar Wilde trials and so on. But other less well known pieces of legislation (e.g. the Indecent Advertisement Acts) are also examined and individual cases are used to illustrate current opinion and practice - like Edith Lanchester who in 1895 was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum by her parents when she announced that she wanted to live in a free union with a socialist railway clerk. Only after the intervention of several high profile socialists, including John Burns, was she released to continue her attachment to her lover.
Scandals too are well covered and Hall does not shrink from dealing with West End establishments which offered erotic massages to their customers. The massage parlours which flourished at the end of the nineteenth century may well have been a response to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. This denied prostitutes the opportunity to work on the streets, and they had little option but to set up trade in alternative locations.
By the twentieth century ideas about eugenics had come to inform the sexuality debate. Lesley Hall shows that both the left and the right wing were sympathetic to eugenic beliefs. Almost 50% of the Eugenic Education Society were women, of whom many were single working in professional occupations. Indeed a number of key suffragists such as Mrs Frances Swiney joined the Eugenic Education Society and eugenic ideas may have been even more widespread among leading suffragists than Hall suggests - for instance it is known that Emmeline Pankhrust was sympathetic to the cause of eugenics and that she campaigned with Mary Dendy to set up institutions for those children deemed to be 'feeble-minded'. Of course, as Hall points out, much of the concern was heightened by the panic surrounding the spread - or the perceived spread - of syphilis, with its legacy of 'miscarriages, stillbirths, deaths in early infancy and the birth of wizened puny babies' (p69).
Lesley Hall has fun challenging some of the long-cherished stereotypes of men and women from the late Victorian period. 'Under the crinoline' she writes, 'the Victorian female was a hot little number' (p16). Not all men were 'pestiferous roués, harassing brutes or chivalrous defenders of womanhood' (p53), for many were as much victims as women. The tragic case of John Hindson who was sentenced to death for helping to procure an abortion for his girlfriend resonates poignantly across the centuries. Reform of this kind, as with so much sexual reform, was a long time in coming. For while in 1936 the much-needed Abortion Law Reform Association was founded, it was not until 1967 that an Abortion Act (which essentially gave statutory force to the Bourne case of thirty years before) allowed a woman some rights over the unborn child in her body. But a great many sexual stereotypes remain. Hall shows how even in the third millennium women can still be categorised by their sexual conduct; how single mothers can still be stigmatised for giving birth to babies without the right sort of ring on their left hand; and how homosexuals can still be regarded as second class sexual citizens, denied equal sexual status with heterosexuals.
What is novel about this book is that all discussions about sexual attitudes and behaviour are conducted within a coherent framework of transgressive sexuality. Indeed, Lesley Hall underlines the point that transgressive sexuality and what was considered 'normal' existed side by side in Victorian London, and that such cohabitation exposes the myth of the Victorian era as primarily characterised by prudery and sexual restraint.
Among the benefits of such a wide-ranging book is the clear identification of what issues needs further elaboration and indeed further research. As Lesley Hall affirms, the book focuses on London, and certainly, there is a dearth of knowledge about sexuality in the provinces - the experiences in the capital might well be interestingly different from those in Birmingham, Newcastle or even Torquay. Religious influences on sexual conduct, such as the influence of Ellice Hopkins, might add an interesting dimension to our understanding of sexuality in this period. Other researchers might investigate how exactly did the established, and indeed non-established churches, respond to the changes in sexual mores which constitute the focus of this brilliant little book. Others yet could examine the effect that race had on sexual politics and vice versa - one remembers that the 20th century immigration laws were bound up with issues of alleged sexual immorality. Clearly, Lesley Hall can only touch on individual sexual reformers, some of whom, like Stella Browne, deserve a book of their own. Indeed the book's cover, which shows two women in a public house, one a barmaid dressed in the conventional garments of the trade, the other a customer wearing a pinstriped suit, suggests another research avenue to be explored - the history of cross-dressing.
This is one of a few rare books which can be enjoyed by the general reader, used as an undergraduate text, offer fresh insights to social historians and indicate further lines of enquiry for future researchers. It is an entertaining, judicious and insightful discourse by a well-established author who has, over the years, influenced a generation of students and academics. As always, her scholarship is unquestionably good and her skill in sharing her vast knowledge of her subject with so much enthusiasm and style is exceptional. This is history written with transparent warmth and humanity - it will undoubtedly give pleasure to all who are fortunate enough to read it.
I was delighted to read Paula Bartley's flattering review of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880, which is the kind of review historians dream about. It would be lazy, though true, to say that my choices as to what went in and what didn't were affected by the length limitations of the format for the textbook series - my editor did very kindly grant me a 20,000 word extension, but there was still much that I couldn't cover. So I shall address a few of the points she raises.
Firstly, I should like to dissociate myself from any claims that 'the Victorian female was a hot little number'! I was using this as a blanket characterisation of a certain trend among some historians of the Victorian era (far be it from me to imply that they are necessarily all males with crinoline and corset fetishes...) to argue against the stock repressive Victorian image by over-exaggerating in the opposite direction. (I defy any female to be a hot little number with the repressed unsensual anxious creature who was only too many Victorian males). Goodness knows it seems impossible to get rid of the 'repressed Victorians' stereotype - every few years someone produces a 'radical' new piece of popular history to argue that, hey, they were quite the converse, serious swingers and kinksters having huge numbers of orgasms. My position is that 'Victorian sexuality' like 'woman', is too often the subject of huge and meaningless generalisations.
While I hope that my account was informed by recent theoretical developments, I am rather cautious about the ways in which theory can be used by the historian. If none of us comes to the evidence that survives completely free of preconceptions and assumptions, I have come across too many instances where theory has been deployed as a box into which to cram the evidence, rather than as a analytical tool to assist in understanding it. Also, I have come across instances of developed theoretical arguments which rest on a shaky, at best, knowledge of contingent facts (e.g. the grounds upon which divorce could be granted, 1857-1923 or the precise legal position of birth control).
I concur that the chronological organisation sometimes works against coherent narratives of the history of different topics. However, in many cases, these topics didn't have a coherent narrative - it was a case of stop-start, flurry of moral panic followed by a slump into neglect, ebb and flow of concern, which occurred over and over again across a wide range of sex and gender issues. Using E. M. Forster's characterisation of the development of narrative form in Aspects of the Novel, many of these stories follow the simplest 'And then... and then... and then' pattern and never rise to the complexity of development and causation which defines 'plot' as opposed to mere 'story'. This appears to have been particularly acute in the case of sex education, one of my current research projects. Cyril Bibby, Special Advisor on Sex Education to the Central Council of Health Education, was expressing ebullient optimism in 1946 at the apparent surge of interest in and enthusiasm for sex education on the part of both teachers and parents, an optimism that in retrospect seemed to him ill-founded and deceptive. It was not that there was furious opposition: the subject was simply ignored and neglected, or given the most minimalist of attention within the school curriculum.
In the instance of abortion, which Paula Bartley mentions, I perhaps did not make clear enough the extent to which the Bourne judgement of 1938 foreclosed the more radical agenda being promoted by the Abortion Law Reform Association. It satisfied most of the requirements of the sympathisers among the medical profession by inscribing in case-law the medic's right to employ his or her clinical judgement 'in good faith' to perform an abortion. In spite of the ongoing efforts of ALRA and its supporters throughout the 1950s (which should not be underestimated as a factor in keeping the movement alive), it was the thalidomide scandal, combined with the dissatisfaction of articulate middle-class married women with the reliability of the contraceptive methods available to them, which reignited the struggle in the 1960s.
I would certainly agree with Paula Bartley's comment about the extent to which feminism and eugenics were intertwined in the early years of the twentieth century. A further analysis of this interesting topic may reveal that there was a radical moment prior to 1914 in which a very real feminist note was being struck in the debates, which got lost with the assimilation of 'social purity' into 'social hygiene', as with the debates on male responsibility for the dissemination of venereal diseases which dissipated with the introduction of a new public health agenda on VD control (for a further discussion of this see the Introduction to, and my chapter in, Roger Davidson and Lesley Hall (eds.) Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Diseases in European Social Context since 1870, forthcoming, Feb 2001).
I felt it was important to include the broadest possible spectrum of sexual behaviour and attitudes towards sexuality, both the normal and the 'deviant', as these are intricately related within a much larger system of understandings of and beliefs about sex and gender. As McLaren demonstrated in The Trials of Masculinity, perceptions of deviancy are used to define, and police the borders of, the 'normal' and acceptable, while as Kinsey discovered, the boundaries themselves start to break down when individuals are questioned about their own intimate practices.
It would have been nice to include more on geographical and regional variations and such localised phenomena as the Bolton Whitman fellowship and the circles around the Leeds Arts Club. My Lancashire grandmother's expression 'living tally' (i.e. setting up a household without formal marriage) suggests that this was a recognised and acknowledged phenomenon in some districts. But as Paula Bartley points out, a good deal of work still needs to be done on sexuality in the provinces.
Again, much more could have been written about the role of religion, not only the traditional groupings of Judaism and the various branches of Christianity but also the rise of various religious 'alternatives' such as theosophy, diverse occultist groups, and by the 1950s Wicca, which Ronald Hutton in The Triumph of the Moon has made a compelling case for as being a peculiarly British religion. It is notable that many of the marriage reformers of the interwar period were clergymen (or lay persons active in religious organisations) promoting a theology of marriage informed by the changing status of women and incorporating the insights of sexology. A strong note of nondenominational sex-and-nature mysticism is discernible in the popular writings of Marie Stopes (there is less distance between her and D. H. Lawrence than might at first appear!), and this clearly formed a powerful part of her appeal.
But I would see two main lacunae in Sex, Gender and Social Change. I would admit that the relatively sparse attention I gave to issues of race (and indeed constructions of 'the Other' more generally, for example the delineation of 'French vices' and 'Hunnish practices') is a weakness. However, there are several important studies either recently published or in progress which do tackle this. I also consider that the question of changes and/or continuities in specifically male behaviour, attitudes, and identities was not addressed with as much fullness as I should have liked. This is definitely an area which requires further investigation!
To conclude, I'm only too aware of how provisional Sex, Gender and Social Change is as an account of its topic. Since I completed the manuscript I have been gnashing my teeth over the appearance of so many relevant and important studies: substantial accounts of censorship, Louise Jackson's book on child sexual abuse in Victorian England, Paula Bartley's own important study of prostitution, Roger Davidson's survey of Scottish attitudes towards sexually-transmitted diseases, Chris Nottingham's The Pursuit of Serenity: Havelock Ellis and the New Politics, and several more, not to mention all the work that I know is now in progress. It's rewarding but also frustrating to be working in such a lively and thriving field!