Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN: 9780521343435; 725pp.; Price: £110.00
University College London
Date accessed: 30 September, 2023
Simon Szreter's remarkable and very important book argues, in effect, that coincidence has deceived the historians of family sexuality in the period 1860 - 1960. The birth-rate per family in England and Wales declined ever more steeply in this hundred yea r period, and it declined with roughly the same timing and speed in most other European countries. Historians would dearly love the whole story to be one unitary phenomenon, and indeed this is how it is normally understood. Now Simon Szreter has come alon g, admonishing the historians that their cherished unitary fertility decline is riddled with coincidence. The appearance of one effect linking bedrooms of 1860 with those of 1960, and English bedrooms with those in Finland and Spain, is illusory, accordin g to Szreter. If he is right, he has completely rewritten this tract of English social history, and also created a model for enquiry into the subject which will be influential for years to come.
I have somewhat exaggerated the degree of belief, among historians, in a unitary fertility decline. For a long time it was indeed supposed that around 1860 married couples had started doing most of the things to prevent conception which they do for tha t purpose nowadays. More recently historians have come to doubt if late 19th-century birth-control was in fact achieved by barrier methods. They have also performed close studies of particular groups which suggest that there was great diversity within the courtship and bedroom practices (including those affecting fertility) in English society at any one time.
As Szreter complains, such developments in the historians' thinking should have shaken the whole theoretical edifice of a pan-European homogenous fertility decline to its foundations, but they have not. We now recognize that pre-20th-century birth-cont rol was not a matter of modern-minded couples taking advantage of newly available rubbergoods and chemicals, but we still assume that the greater part of the fertility decline (at least from around the beginning of this century down to our present) was such a phenomenon. The continuing attractiveness of this story has much to do with its relevance to the world's currently developing countries, and the power of the international agencies concerned.
In fact our whole mistaken picture of a monolithic uptake of birth-control across modern Europe goes back to a very celebrated early official attempt to demonstrate that there had been a steady and beneficial diffusion of such techniques through Englis h society. The census of 1911 is often called the 'fertility census', because the census-forms contained special additional questions. Households had to report on how many children had so far been born into unions. Over the next decade or so Dr T.H.C. St evenson, superintendent of statistics at the General Register Office, worked on the answers to these special questions, seeking to analyse the figures according to a particular categorisation of English social classes. This class scheme was to prove momen tous beyond anything Stevenson could have foreseen: for him at the time its relation to fertility was simply a very pleasing confirmation of what he had already believed about the nation's sex-life.
Stevenson's scheme was nothing less than the five-tier, one-dimensional, occupation-based division of classes which remains, in essence, orthodox and official in the present day, eighty years later. Stevenson's version went as follows: I Professional, II Intermediate, III Skilled Manual, IV Intermediate, V Unskilled Manual. There have been lots of complaints from historians over the years about the inadequacy of this list, but with slight revisions it remains ascendant. Stevenson's emphasis on occupati on and skills had at first been a response to the agenda set by eugenicists, whose hereditarian theories were being increasingly resisted, according to Szreter, by a 'confident, revitalized and more comprehensive environmentalist analysis' in institutions of social policy such as the GRO. The eugenicists said that low skills and high fertility were linked, leading to 'race suicide'. Given his environmentalist views, Stevenson may have been dismayed when he saw that the linkage predicted by the eugenicists in fact held. But he also saw an alternative line of argument, which accepted the linkage but overtrumped the hereditarian explanation with an impeccably environmentalist one. Birth-control was the key. It was 'diffusing' slowly from the educated and pro sperous in a gradient through the less educated and poorer ranks.
Szreter's very detailed and densely expounded account of these events in Whitehall around the years of the Great War takes up just a third of his extraordinarily wide-ranging book. He goes on to tackle the much deeper questions which the operations of the fertility census of 1911 so clearly raise. The ideology informing the census would be a matter of very restricted historiographical interest if Stevenson's claims about a spreading culture of birth-control had been correct. Still, a less tigerish and ambitious historian than Szreter might have been content to let the matter rest there. That is not Szreter's style. He asks head-on, 'Was Stevenson right?'
Szreter is confident that Stevenson was wrong, even on his own showing. The argument involved here is somewhat elaborate. Stevenson, and demographers ever since, have held that true birth-control - in the sense of full sexual relations between partners performed with the deliberate adjunct of devices and substances believed to prevent conception - will most clearly show up in the statistics in the 'stopping' rather than 'spacing' of births. Large numbers of couples will be detectable as at first produc ing children at something like the biologically maximum rate - and then producing no more. Stevenson claimed that stopping behaviour was discernible as 'diffusing' in the English social classes across time. The published data of 1911 do not permit Szreter to check this claim for couples who through ageing or death had finished having families by this date (the larger category), but he is able to perform the neat trick of checking it for the smaller category of younger couples who were still producing chil dren. We can work out if this group, at least, was 'spacing' or 'stopping'.
They were spacing. They do not exhibit the hallmark of birth-control required by Stevenson. There is an obvious way to rescue Stevenson at this point, in his own despite. Why can't spacing be a token of artefactually controlled conception, just as much as stopping? Szreter does not rest his case only on a refutation of Stevenson, on his own terms. He agrees that spacing of births could in principle be the result of birth-control. But he has drawn a further and more profound observation from the publish ed tables of the 1911 census. This is that low fertility achieved by spacing correlates with late marriage. Couples of child-bearing age who were conceiving rather infrequently were also likely to have postponed getting married.
This is probably the most important single result to emerge from Szreter's research, and it paves the way for his own general theory of family sexuality in the years around and after 1911, which occupies the final third of his book. It was, according t o Szreter, a 'culture of abstinence', influential right through to Philip Larkin's 1963 ('Sexual intercourse began'), which mainly drove down the fertility of England and Wales. On this account, diffusionism is out of the window. There was no wisdom about obtaining and using certain devices and substances which needed to percolate down from the privileged to the less privileged. Moreover, the thinking which impelled couples to resort to birth-control via 'abstinence' was, according to Szreter, one which w ouldn't yield a simple correlation with social rank. Couples took steps to reduce numbers of conceptions in response to the 'perceived relative cost' of childbearing. This pivotal concept in Szreter's whole argument is developed by him with great subtlety to suggest how fertility-control will crop up in a much more complicated, sporadic pattern than that predicted by Stevenson's diffusionism.
The 'perceived relative cost' of having a child may be a 'cost' in the purest economic sense, that is, whether a child will earn or lose its parents money, but also a 'cost' in a more rarefied sense: how much prestige attaches to fatherhood, for instan ce. This approach to the analysis of fertility is not novel. It is a respectable theory in modern demography, and has been applied previously to the 19th-century data. Szreter is pioneering in the way he has put the perceived relative costs approach to wo rk in detail right across English society, while exploiting the full range of the powerful notion of 'costs'.
I have invoked Larkin's 1963, and it may appear that what Szreter has done in this book is simply to provide academic support for a familiar modern cliché about English sexual culture in the 20th century, namely that sexual ignorance and repression was widespread until about twenty years after the outbreak of World-War II. This cliché coexists with an older chronological model, which locates the end of repression around 1900. It is still orthodox to call repressive sexual attitudes 'Victorian', even whe n they are detected in the 1950s. Szreter's book is not an annexe to the new view, or at least is not conceived by him to be such. To start with, he insists that his 'culture of abstinence' was not driven by negative feelings about sex, such as guilt, fea r, or disgust. As I have explained, for him abstinence was the English way of adjusting fertility in response to the perceived relative costs of having children.
Secondly, he seeks to erase the Victorian/20th century divide more thoroughly than is ever envisaged in the popular demonizing accounts of 20th-century sexuality before P.J. Proby and Christine Keeler. His book may be thought of as an 'anti-1911' text in three respects. As well as debunking '1911', in the narrow sense of the fertility census, on ideological and statistical grounds, Szreter would also like to draw a radical corollary from the fallaciousness of Stevenson which has been somewhat shunned. Szreter wants to insist that the Stevensonian account is a fantasy, about past, present and future in 1911. He is convincing on how investigations which appeared to confirm Stevenson - most notably the Royal Commission on Population of 1944-9 - fa iled to pick up the true extent of English couples' resort to mere refraining from intercourse and coitus interruptus. Nothing at all happened in 1911, according to Szreter. The failure of historians who should know better to face this thought is p erhaps linked to the continuing general prestige of the 'modern' moment represented by the pre-Great War years. This is when Cubism, Dada, Relativity and Quantum Theory, The Rite of Spring, Sons and Lovers, and so on, all happened. We can't quite shake off the conviction that there was a revolution in sexuality too.
It is important to grasp what Szreter means by 'abstinence'. He thinks of it as closely affiliated to marriage-postponement, as I have mentioned. He also thinks of it as essentially the same kind of behaviour as coitus interruptus, the la tter being a compromise arrived at by couples when an intention to abstain was not found achievable: 'couples in British society who engaged in a regime of coitus interruptus were involved in essentially the same "game" of sexual self-restraint as those p ractising the various forms of conscious abstinence'. This is an unorthodox and arresting way to see the matter, but surprisingly persuasive.
Couples do not have to be all that abstinent, in order to achieve a useful reduction in fertility. We perhaps tend to think of coital frequency as involving a threshold, as far as the chances of conception go. We assume that some sex is just as likely to produce a conception as a lot of sex. This is a fallacy. The relation between quantity of sex and conceiving is continuous. Even if you only manage to restrict yourself to sex once a week you will still manage to postpone conception by eight months fro m when it could be expected if you have sex four times a week. If you can bring the rate down to once a fortnight you are buying eighteen conception-free months.
So in many respects Szreter's 'abstinence' fits readily into his whole account. It was not an obsessive, overly stringent, or even completely binding sexual regime. It is feasible that it survived for about a century, not coming into collision either w ith militant sexual rigour as represented by the Social Purity movement, or with sexual emancipation as represented by Bloomsbury an its heirs. It is perhaps feasible that it was deployed to achieve reduced fertility when the perceived relative costs of c hildren made this desirable. But there must be doubts about this crucial point of convergence in Szreter's whole structure of argument. Will you be abstemious in sex, even in the qualified way outlined by Szreter, simply to achieve fertility-contro l? Does there not need also to be cultural encouragement from a climate of antagonism to sex?
I quote Szreter discussing why 'a culture of sexual disinclination' was not a prerequisite for his 'culture of abstinence': "the balance of the demographic and cultural evidence appears to point to the greater importance of deliberate, negotiated birth regulation as a positive motive, albeit one that was mediated through a culture of anti-sexuality". There is something fudging about the last clause. What is it to 'negotiate' sexual abstinence 'through' anti-sexuality ? Either couples agreed to refrain from doing something they both liked because they didn't want too many children, or they felt (perhaps mutually and explicitly, perhaps not) that sex was a bit repugnant. Szreter's combination of the two kinds of behaviour does not seem workable. One cannot imagine a contribution from 'anti-sexuality' which would not exclude or at least inhibit 'negotiation'.
This important awkwardness in Szreter's argument is, it must be said, a result of one of the most impressive and exciting features of his whole procedure. This is a book of astonishingly wide compass in the variety of information it contrives to bring together. It ranges from the technicalities of population statistics through to an up-to-date and comprehensive review of the literature on the qualitative aspects of English sexuality in the 19th and 20th centuries (with an important piece of civil servi ce history thrown in for good measure). I can think of no book which goes so far to break down the formidable barriers between the various approaches to the history of family sexuality. Here is a trained statistician who is also completely versed in the n on-quantitative literature, and eager to bring the two into connection.
Szreter could simply have ducked the problem of how late 19th-century 'anti-sexuality' bears on his picture of abstinence 'negotiated' between partners in the interests of an affordable number of conceptions. He could have quietly skipped over the Soci al Purity movement and the associated literature, but this would have been foreign to his voracious, embracing style. This is a militant book, but also very generous-minded for the way in which so many co-workers in the field, some of them writing in a ve ry different vein, are warmly cited and accommodated in its argument. In such a catholic atmosphere one must be struck by inutility of Michel Foucault, whose History of Sexuality is not once cited. I am sure this is not a mischievous omissi on, but simply the fault of the vacuousness of that celebrated but little-read book.
All scholars are pleased when their toils receive critical appreciation from respected colleagues and I am most grateful to Michael Mason for his generous response to my work. In replying, it may first be relevant to mention how my approach to the sub ject arose. As an undergraduate I took the paper in demographic and family history taught by the staff of the Cambridge Group. From this I learned how important it is to scrutinise the way in which the necessarily statistical evidence of demographic chang e has been constructed and to question its presentation in any particular form or model. I also learned that the goal of understanding fertility change is one of the great interdisciplinary intellectual challenges. There needs to be a full, open and criti cal dialogue between both the fruits of quantitative analysis and the insights of qualitative methods of research, embracing a knowledge of behaviours, attitudes, ideas and institutions. I have endeavoured to deliver a study of this sort and the result ha s inevitably been a rather long book. For those who are uncomfortable with this catholic approach and prefer to give priority to a more restricted range of evidence, my book is no doubt too wide in scope to make easy reading.
Michael Mason is most certainly not one of these, as his own work in this difficult terrain, The Making of Victorian Sexuality and the The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes , clearly shows. He has refounded the historiography of the so cial history of Victorian sexualities on a far more extensive and systematic reading of the available plebeian source materials for the period 1815-1870 than any previous scholar attempted. To Mason's credit, his aim was the reconstruction of a fully s ocial history of the emergence of 'Victorian' sexual codes. This was an exacting and ambitious intellectual goal, which required him to examine and sift a variety of categories of evidence, relating to behaviour as well as ideas; institutions as well as discourses.
Following Foucault's intervention in the field, the fashionable approach among historians of sexuality has tended towards a focus only on the last of these. The study of discourses typically produces stimulating insights, and almost always shows us how complex, rich and frequently paradoxical is the dialectic of debate and the continual interpretative battle for understanding in human affairs. The second volume of Michael Mason's work and much of Part II of my own study contain substantial and extended interpretations of various discourses, drawn from the relevant sources, which are of strategic importance to the main interests of our respective books. However, the elucidation of discourses, per se, has its limits as a method of historical inquiry. Dis courses need to be carefully and critically related to our knowledge of the historical contexts, the social, political, economic and cultural changes which they reflected and were attempting to influence. Too little attention to context can produce readin gs of texts from the past which are primarily interesting in terms of current intellectual preoccupations and much less valid as readings of ideas and motives that were there in the past.
For instance, it critically affects our capacities for historical understanding of the significance and meaning to those involved at the time in, say, the campaigns for the repeal of the contagious diseases acts, the child protection movement, and the female suffrage movement or in the literature on the 'New Woman' or of sexual dysfunction and psychology, when we know that what was happening in terms of the marriage practices and fertility of these generations of the upper and middle classes was histor ically extraordinary. Sources of information on changing behaviour, suitably analysed, can show us in some detail that the generations which found these political and cultural issues so vital and compelling were experiencing novel and extreme difficulties in accommodating their childrearing and sexual inclinations with their aspirational desires. Without knowing this to be the case from the demographic evidence, it would be impossible to conjure a reliable evaluation of its overwhelming and widespread imp ortance, as a largely unspoken oppressive condition of existence, only through inference from the linguistic evidence of the period, with all its euphemism and ambiguity in this area. Mason has been one of the few cultural historians to try to integrate a s fully as possible the results of studying other kinds of historical material, including the detailed findings of demographic and social historians. It does make an important difference to our historical understanding and the numerous strengths of Mason' s work exemplify the interpretative gains which can be had from such a methodologically open approach.
In his review Mason has summarised with lucidity many of the central arguments and themes I have worked to convey. In particular he has spent a lot of time carefully explaining some of the important nuances concerning the notion of 'perceived relative costs of childrearing' and the thesis of a 'culture of abstinence'. He has also offered an obvious departure point for a reply, by placing an interesting question-mark towards the end of the review. He focuses upon my attempt to adjudicate between the rel ative importance of cultural influences, as against the personal and immediate 'costs' faced by couples in accounting for reduced marital fertility. As Mason points out this interpretative issue arises from my attempt to consider explicitly the relationsh ip between cultural precepts and agents' intentions, rather than simply assuming the priority of one or the other. Mason wonders, however, whether I am not fudging here. I hope not, so let me explain.
In the section from which Mason quotes, pp.413-20, I was addressing the question of whether the well-documented emergence, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, of a culture of negative attitudes and fear towards sexuality (the social purity m ovement, feminist disquiet over V.D., the enhanced perception in all quarters of the dangers of childbirth, etc) could be considered the main cause of the reduction in sexual intercourse which, I argue, reduced marital fertility? This is important because such 'a cultural explanation for reduced coital frequency might, therefore, short circuit the sphere of personal, conscious choice' (p.417). Smaller families would have resulted not because couples found childrearing more burdensome and tried to do somet hing about it, but because their culture put them off sex sufficiently that they refrained from intercourse and happened to have smaller families as a result. As an historical explanation for the whole process of falling fertility, this would then require the further argument that once they had become accustomed to the relatively small families which occurred as a byproduct of the culture of sexual restraint, they rather preferred them; and so a new social norm of the small family would have been born wit hout there having been conscious intent to bring it about.
After cross-examining other relevant evidence, I rejected such an exclusively 'cultural explanation' as being sufficient, in and of itself, to account for reduced marital fertility. However, I did not, either, wish to argue that spouses' conscious, pur poseful choice to reduce fertility could, alone, have accounted for all the sexual restraint necessary to have produced such a sustained fall in the birth-rate. I therefore agree with Michael Mason when he asks, 'Does there not need also to be cultural encouragement from a climate of antagonism to sex?' I am trying to argue that both were important- each necessary and neither, alone, sufficient- in order to bring into existence and to maintain for several decades the regime of attemp ted abstinence. The perception of the escalating 'costs' of childrearing provided the conscious motivation to control births. But it was the anti-sexual culture which was both conducive to the use of abstinence as the method to achieve that goal and, also , essential, in providing married men and women with a legitimating, anti-sexual rationale, which enabled them to stick to their task.
In particular, there was the complication that the capacity to enjoy sexual pleasure (or the acceptability of expressing its enjoyment) was not commonly believed to be equally distributed between the two sexes throughout much of this period. Male initi ation of sexual activity was the convention in the marriage bed. While the married couple may have jointly and consciously agreed to limit their fertility, it was primarily the husband's responsibility to 'behave himself', in order to carry through this r esolution. In this asymmetry of responsibility lay much scope for sexual frustration, misunderstanding, loneliness and physical separation between partners, despite their shared aim of a small family. Many women only found sex repugnant or a chore (especi ally, of course, where their husbands proceeded on the assumption that their wives wouldn't enjoy it) and had little sympathy for husbands who couldn't desist after childbearing was complete. It was almost worse for a wife who was interested, since she co uld principally help her partner stick to his resolve by making herself unavailable, a torture to both parties, as many of the letters to Marie Stopes record. A more consolatory tactic, which some couples favoured, was to subscribe to the sentiment that t heir pleasure was heightened by saving themselves up for more occasional passion. It was not all gloom, then; but it was all very difficult.
I would, incidentally, like to put in a very good word for Dr T.H.C. Stevenson, the medically-trained Superintendent of Statistics at the G.R.O. who was the architect and original analyst of the 1911 fertility census. In making his review highly readab le, I fear that Michael Mason may have given the opposite impression of my opinions. I have nothing but humble admiration for Stevenson's achievement in successfully directing the most colossal and important enquiry into human fertility that had ever been conducted. I hope that, by putting his work into its proper context it can be seen that Stevenson's professional model of diffusion was a clever solution to the most pressing questions which he faced. My quarrel is not with Stevenson, but with the supine acceptance of his model ever since, by generations of scholars for whom Stevenson's intellectual agenda is past history. In my opinion this has amounted to an enormous intellectual opportunity cost, since other, less tidy and more complex ways of looking at the evidence have not been pursued sufficiently.
Here, then, we come to the question of profitable future directions for research. Michael Mason and I share the perception that the history of sexuality (which I understand to be a collective noun embracing all inclinations) and the history of fertilit y (also widely interpreted, to include marriage and its alternatives, non-marital fertility, and infertility) cannot be understood without intimate reference to each other. I hope that this dialogue between the study of demographic change and changing sex ualities continues to flourish. Our respective researches have identified wide-ranging and substantial diversity in fertilities and sexualities. It is also clear, from the work of Judith Walkowitz, Elaine Showalter, John Maynard, A.J. Hammerton, John Tosh , Lucy Bland, Lesley Hall and many others, that 'Victorian sexuality' never was a stable, monolithic condition, but a dialectically evolving set of pretexts and rules, frequently under forceful challenge, as in the 1860s, 1890s and 1920s. Nevertherless, d espite the rebellious strugglings of sections of the intelligentsia, something more powerful was maintaining the 'hold' of Victorian values over popular sexual culture and behaviour right through to the middle of the twentieth century. Although the regim e of attempted abstinence was probably at its most prevalent as a general practice during the period 1870-1920, it cast a long cultural shadow.
My own research on the detailed behavioural patterns has indicated a plethora of distinct, changing fertility-and-nuptiality regimes among Britain's diverse 'communication communities', as I have termed them, during the period 1860-1940. Michael Mason' s investigations have uncovered an equally complex plethora of changing sexual ideologies among the many congregations and religious communities extant in the period 1815-1870. Further research is needed to explore these and other dimensions of variety, b oth in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.
The concept of a 'communication community', which I have tried to develop, is based on the argument that it was groups sharing the same 'language'- in terms of the expected responsibilities and roles of a mother, father, child- which shared the same se t of fertility and nuptiality patterns and that this resulted in a diversity of fertility (and sexuality) regimes. Michael Mason's work emphasises religious ideology as a primary source of the social roles and identities which would distinguish communicat ion communities from each other, whereas my own work has tended to focus more on the gendering and age-structuring of labour markets and related familial roles in accounting for diversity. I will be interested to see whether this concept of 'communication communities' can be productively developed in future research and to what extent religious and other ideological influences, along with economic and institutional forces, appear to be important in forming and sustaining these social groups and identities .
An obvious priority for research in this field is to deploy the techniques of oral history to study the relationship between sexuality and fertility during the earlier part of this century, before the sources of evidence literally disappear on us. We c an bemoan the lack of direct testimony on the experience of sexuality in the nineteenth century, but as potential oral historians, we only have ourselves to blame for a continuing absence of this kind of evidence for the twentieth century. A number of des ervedly-successful television documentary series have begun to address questions of sexuality in our recent past, but this is not always the best medium for investigation of the more sensitive and subtle aspects of the subject; and it is notable that ther e has been virtually no oral history research, which has attempted to probe sexuality within marriage! This remains something which we still know remarkably little about in detail because of the prevailing conventions of public reserve until the mid-1960s .
Finally, I would like to emphasise that there is still plenty of research to be done to refine further our understanding of the demography of falling fertility. In terms of the stopping, spacing and starting debate, the analysis presented in Fertili ty, Class and Gender conclusively rules-out the classic 'stopping' thesis (and associated notions of 'diffusion'), as a general and exclusive explanation; and it indicates that 'spacing' was of primary significance. But, as I stated in the section of the book on further research, we need careful examination of detailed, parity distribution information (not available in the 1911 census publications), in order now to carry the analysis further: to assess what form spacing took, how important was 'starti ng' (long delays before a first child), and whether there was also, mixed-in, some forms of stopping as well. Indeed, I strongly suspect that further research will in due course show that there was great variation between different communiciation communit ies and that the concepts of spacing, stopping and starting are in fact too crude and categorical to capture the full complexity of couples' fertility behaviour during this period of unprecedented variation and change. But that all lies in the future for this field.