Saturday, 26 June 2010

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose

Over fifty years after her death, Marie Stopes's name remains synonymous with contraception.  There is a chain of private sexual health clinics in the UK that is still called after her.  Most people will also be aware of her pioneering work in sexual guidance, which first articulated for a mass audience idea that good sexual relations were at the heart of happy marriages, and indicated frankly how these were to be achieved.  This book contextualises her work on sexuality and fertility control among her other achievements and her complex personal life.

Marie's mother, Charlotte Carmichael, was a suffragette and a scholar in her own right, although unable, during her own youth, to undertake formal study at a university.  Charlotte was in some ways a detached mother, with exacting standards that Marie found impossible to satisfy, but committed to the education of her daughters. Affection came more from Marie's father Henry, but her parents' marriage was not harmonious and Henry died when Marie was in her early twenties.  Marie was something of an academic prodigy; she completed her undergraduate degree in Botany and Geology at the University of London in two years, moved to Munich to undertake a PhD, and followed this up with a Doctor of Science again in London; at the time she was the youngest person in Britain to gain this award. Her specialism was paleobotany, in particular the fossils to be found in coal, and this specialism took her down many coal mines and on a research trip to Japan where she undertook long and arduous journeys in search of specimens.

Working in Manchester as a lecturer, with several complex romantic entanglements involving both sexes behind her, Marie began to write poetry and prose with a strongly autobiographical tone.  June Rose quotes enough of her poetry to give the reader a sense that, despite her facility with rhyme and metre, poetry was not really her metier, but at this time she was already working on a text that would eventually become Married Love.  Invited to Canada to study the carboniferous flora of New Brunswick, she met, and within a few days had agreed to marry, Reginald Ruggles Gates, a fellow scientist specialising in genetics.  Their marriage was unsuccessful, both emotionally and successfully, and was eventually annulled, but in its aftermath, and drawing on both her scientific knowledge and her own personal experience of unsuccessful marriage, Marie published Married Love to instant acclaim. Shortly afterwards she married the wealthy Humphrey Roe, who was to support her writing career and her crusading zeal for contraceptive advice with money, time and unconditional affection.

Rose is very good at evoking Marie's immense self-possession and overweening self-confidence.  She had no respect for the boundaries that kept women out of politics and science, and crossed many of them herself, but this was achieved only by maintaining a self-belief that can seem unbearable or ridiculous.  She can also be self-serving, making use of people and organisations while it is of advantage to her, and passing on from them when her need or interest has faded.  This tendency is perhaps at its most acute in her relationship with her son Harry.  Marie had longed for a child for years and, after giving birth to a stillborn baby, was overjoyed at Harry's birth when she was 44.  She was an attentive, if sometimes eccentric, mother. Until he went to boarding school, Harry wore only knitted trousers or kilts, because Marie believed ordinary trousers would damage the development of his genitals.  But when Harry proposed to marry a girl Marie disapproved of, for an entirely petty reason, she cut him out of her life.

The biography is very fair, however, in identifying Marie's achievements and recognising that her less attractive characteristics enabled her to break new ground and contribute hugely to the conditions of women's lives.  Her unbearable self-confidence was necessary to allow her to write, as a woman in the early 20th century, about contraception and women's entitlement to sexual pleasure.  It also allowed her to withstand and to counter criticism from such establishment forces as the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the British Medical Association.  Even if she had been self-deprecating and kind, her enthusiasm for eugenics and the improvement of "the Race" would make today's readers uncomfortable.  However, her books changed many people's lives greatly for the better, helping women take control of their fertility, and heterosexual couples achieve happier sex lives; June Rose includes many letters of thanks from enlightened readers.  Marie's sexual radicalism ended there.  Despite some emotionally charged relationships with women, she characterised homosexuality as a disease, and was at endless pains to demonstrate that her advice and guidance was for married people.

Rose's book is well-crafted and gives a balanced, nuanced reading of Marie's life, her successes and her failures. It presents her as a flawed but determined individual, sometimes using her grandiose ideas to propel her to greater achievements, sometimes going too far and doing damage to her own reputation.  Rose is particularly good at understanding and explaining the rather mystical nature of Marie's attitudes to sex, which led her to announce herself as a prophet and to publish A New Gospel, which she claimed had been dictated to her by God.  If I have one criticism it is that the latter part of Marie's life is given less attention than her early years; but to be fair, her early years are so packed with incident that it would be difficult to summarise.  The book is also very entertaining, particularly when Marie's self-assurance leads to unusually egregious acts of self-promotion.  It also gives a very good introduction to the context for Marie's work, particularly in terms of political, religious and social attitudes to sex and contraception.

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