My Website

Monday, 25 April 2011

Nicky Hallett, Lesbian Lives: Identity and Auto/Biography in the Twentieth Century (1999)

This book is perfectly okay for what it does, but I'm not sure it's a book of particular relevance to my particular purposes at this moment. It's much more about lesbian representation/self-representation in various texts. In some cases I was not entirely persuaded that certain imagery clusters or tropes are quite as specific to woman-woman relationships as she suggests, or at least, I would have liked a bit of compare/contrast as to how certain metaphors played out differently in self-consciously lesbian texts.

It was published before work by Laura Doan, Alison Oram, Martha Vicinus and Deborah Cohler which have substantially nuanced our own understanding of historical understandings of female same-sex desire and relationships and lesbian self-fashioning, and significantly queried the extent to which sexological categories were in play.
 
It contains a confusing citation to a work of 1928 on Sexual Inversion by John Addington Symonds as if this were contemporaneous with The Well of Loneliness and JAS suffering from 'the paranoia of the imperialist' apropos homosexuality (rather than an early homophile advocate). Whatever text it was that was published in New York in 1928, and reprinted in 1984, if it was really by JAS it was written before 1893 (when he died) and one would like to know why, how, and by whom it was being republished at that date, given that Symonds' family and literary executors had taken enormous pains to persuade Havelock Ellis to remove the traces of Symonds' collaboration from their jointly-authored version of Sexual Inversion. It appears to have been the volume Studies in Sexual Inversion Embodying a Study in Greek Ethics and a Study in Modern Ethics published in 1928, but I am not sure what the impetus was behind issuing an omnibus edition. This was one of a number of points where I felt the close-reading focus was perhaps leaving out significant contextual matter or chronology. But that may be to do with the sort of thing I am looking for at the moment.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Stella Browne: some family background stuff

Her grandfather, William Lindsay Browne, was in the Navy, served in the first Opium War in 1842 and was awarded a campaign medal. He was also employed on anti-slave trade patrols during the 1820s and a range of other duties throughout the range of the British Empire, literally from China to Peru. William's father and grandfather were RN men also, it is believed: his grandfather died in the defence of Savannah during the American War of Independence, and his father served with great distinction during the Napoleonic period.

Maybe this was why she found the Battle of Jutland so inspiring, or so she wrote to Margaret Sanger in 1916:
the news of the North Sea Battle makes me feel very British again. That cruiser squadron which fought the whole German High Sea Fleet for seven  hours, till Jellicoe's main squadron came along, and the Germans bolted for Kiel! 
although she followed this outbreak of enthusiasm with the perhaps more characteristic comment:
all the men dead and on both sides: and for what? Junker tyranny over there and Northcliffe dictatorship here--or so it seems.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Voluntary action history

Yesterday I attended an event run by the Voluntary Action History Society to celebrate its 20th anniversary and launch two books in the area recently published.

Take-away thoughts:

How very broad the remit is, once one considers that it includes mutual aid initiatives as well as philanthropy, and in both area covers a huge range of endeavours (two things that wouldn't have immediately sprung to my own mind were adult education and restoration of waterways).

How very cynical/perturbed historians who actually work on voluntary action are about the nostalgic and simplistic invocation of 'volunteerism' by the current government and how complex and intricately imbricated relations between state and voluntarism have been.

Is it really true that the British concept of voluntary action has been widely exported (outside the bits that used to part of the Empire)? The call for more transnational work might nuance that considerably.

Made the point myself about the endangered status of archives of voluntary bodies. There is no statutory obligation on such bodies to retain records, they may not have permanent offices (and the early informal stages at their inception may well be very sparsely documented), they may be subject to recurrent 'clear-outs', the historical significance of their documentation is not necessarily recognised. Also, except in certain subject areas (e.g. the Wellcome Library for health-related organisations)  or for locally-based bodies (in which the local record office may be interested), there is often no obvious repository which might be acquiring them.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

More undiscovered Stella Browne

A correspondent has very kindly drawn my attention to (and sent me a copy of) a letter written by Stella to Alex Comfort in February 1951, praising his Authority & Deliquency in the Modern State and a letter he had written to the New Statesman about the Society for Social Responsibility in Science. She compares his work with that of Wilhelm Reich - she wrote enthusiatically about Reich and the Sex-Pol group during the 1930s.

It is clear from what she writes to Comfort that she was missing London very much, and finding Merseyside very uncongenial - it had always been in my mind that somewhere with such a high Irish/Roman Catholic demographic would probably not have been somewhere she found very sympathetic and this letter confirms that supposition. She also mourns the decline of 'The more enlightened principled and responsible big “industrials”' of the city, by which I take her to mean families such as the Rathbones who were using their wealth in philanthropy and social activism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As was suggested by her slightly earlier letter to Olaf Stapledon in 1949, she found the work for peace one of the most pressing issues of the present time.

A very welcome addition to my knowledge of a relatively sparsely documented period of her life.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Barbara Tate, West End Girls: the real lives, loves and friendships of 1940s Soho and its working girls

This was a wonderful little study of the world of Soho prostitution in the late 1940s, by someone who became quite by chance a 'participant observer' through working as a prostitute's maid. This, it's clear, was necessitated by the laws on brothels (i.e. more than one prostitute working out of the same premises) and poncing - a man would have been assumed to be living on immoral earnings. Someone to take the money and look after it and be a deterrent to the client getting violent or trying to get away without paying. Also to run out and buy condoms etc as necessary.

Things notable: the sheer daily turnover of business, well into double figures, in really sordid surroundings - even after Babs had cleaned and tidied Mae's premises it all sounds very basic and lacking in amenities. And clearly, the act itself was no frills and over fast - use of pornographic postcards to get them rapidly to the point, and later, the two-way mirror for voyeurism. Use of condoms (gossiping against other prostitutes tended to invoke not using them). Men waiting their turn in the kitchen. Oral sex doesn't seem to have featured, except as something that, again, was an accusation against someone else ('takes it in her mouth'. Mae did do quite a lot of kinky trade, even having several masochists at a time tied up in various corners of the flat. But not all of them did.

Distinctions between Soho and other areas such as Shepherd Market - the girls were independent operators who lived outside the area and commuted in to their Soho flats. Elsewhere the ponces owned the flats and put girls in them. In Soho the ponces weren't involved with the business (except for, in many probably most cases, exploiting the girls they were in a relationship with) and they liked to live right outside the district so as not to fall foul of the police.

The police had a worked out system of the women being taken to court and fined at regular intervals. But in between they would be let alone. Even though the women tended not to solicit actively but just stand around, glance, jangle their keys, or possibly mention a 'nice time' - some of them were, it sounds, more aggressive than that - but on the whole they didn't need to.

Mae seems to have been getting round about £1 a time, at least to start with, for the straight act, and Babs was getting a tip of around 2/6 on that.

This more or less meshes with other evidence on the subject.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Reproduction and the Sciences, Cambridge, 8 April, conference notes

This was an excellent and remarkably wide-ranging conference given the apparently delimited conference theme. For example, the trade in bodies and body parts around the turn of the C19th/C20th both as to how anatomists obtained them and the intraprofessional trade system. Or the importance of marsupial reproductive biology and its cryptic nature (at least from a mammalian perspective) in the development of anthropology in the earlier part of the C20th and the pre-eminent theme of kinship therein.

One thing that segued from paper to paper was the significance of networks, and the importance of women (often without any formal academic/official position, and not infrequently occluded in the later narratives) within those networks. And on women, one thing that came out of the paper on anthropology was the impact of late C20th reproductive technology (IVF etc) on reviving Kinship Studies (previously, while fatherhood had been conceived as a social construction, maternity was still pretty much essentialised and seen as 'natural').

Life-cycle narrative themes: why did Sir Alan Parkes return to Cambridge very late in life. What were the facts. ma'am, about Robert Edwards, Patrick Steptoe and the development of IVF as opposed to Edwards' several versions about how and when they met and their mutual influence.

The full programme is here.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Reproduction and the Sciences

Am in Cambridge, to attend this conference.

It feels slightly weird, and also rather restful, to be attending a conference I'm not actually speaking at, after something of a flurry of the latter.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Marcus Collins, Modern Love: An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth Century Britain

Okay, it's not really an 'intimate history' in the way that Szreter and Fisher's Sex before the Sexual Revolution is, or Kate Fisher's early work on birth control, or even, dare I venture, my own Hidden Anxieties. It's a touch distanced, it's more about rhetoric and reports and representations than lived (hetero)sexual experence.

There are some good useful case-studies in this book. Collins has delved into the archives of organisations offering various forms of marital counselling to rather different constituencies in more or less the immediately post-war era (though he doesn't seem to know that the Marriage Guidance Council started in the 1930s, though it went on hiatus during the early war years),  and found some fascinating material. I also greatly liked his investigation into the phenomena of same-sex and mixed sex youth clubs and the shifts and changes and unforeseen outcomes of various developments (though is he serious about somewhat marking down girls in the 50s for not somehow militantly reclaiming the space within mixed clubs that was taken over by boys and their interests?) But there's valuable material there. His analysis of the short period in the rise of glossy soft-porn men's mags when they were pro some kind of women's lib is intriguing, particularly in the light of some of the material in Mort's Capital Offenses about new ideas of womanhood.

However, I am not convinced by his rather rigid lump categorisation of people writing about marriage. I'm not sure 'radical feminism' is a helpful way of thinking about social purity feminism (which was hardly monolithic), and I am simply bewildered by the people he plonks into the interwar classifications of 'Christian mutualists' and 'sex reformers'. Given that quite a lot of the mutualists were not Christian (Collins specifically describes the secularist, Jewish by origin, Eustace Chesser, as a 'Christian': and there were elements in Chesser's rather diverse agenda which allied him with the interwar sex reformers as much as with e.g. Griffith or Mace of the Marriage Guidance Council) and that some of the prominent 'reformers' were just as much about mutualism, but a mutualism of both partners having other lovers, this seems unduly simplistic, even as a heuristic device.

Also, it's all very hetero, which is perhaps reasonable, but if you are looking at mutualism, a case can be made that writers on marriage were often quite benign on the subject of female-female couples, who were seen as embodying an ideal egalitarian form of relationship. This focus becomes particularly egregious in the concluding section, given that the C21st has seen, it may be argued, the spreading of the mutualist couple ideal to same-sex couples via civil partnership. I also felt the work as a whole rather ignored the impact on sexual mores of STDs - the burgeoning sexual revolution of the 60s/70s was underpinned by penicillin as much as the Pill, and the retreat from it from the early 80s surely owed something to the rise of herpes, the AIDS/HIV panic, the awareness of a range of other STDs, and the development of the paradism of safe, or safer sex.

However, useful, both for the case studies, and for provoking thoughts and ideas around the subject.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Slightly behindhand with this

I intended to post on Saturday for the centenary of the Great Census Boycott of 1911 undertaken by suffragettes as an act of protest. There was a piece in the Guardian on Friday, and on the Saturday there was a guided walk of Kensington under the auspices of the Women's Library.

My own impression has been that it was largely an action of the Women's Freedom League in line with their policy of non-violent (but nonetheless significantly disruptive) protests, but it does seem to have extended well beyond that particular organisation.

There is a nice story by Laurence Housman, the male suffragist, playwright and sex reformer, about leaving his own residence for census night so that an interdeterminate number of women suffragists could stay there. They had departed by the time he returned, but left him a cooked breakfast.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Frank Mort, Capital Affairs: The Making of the Permissive Society (2010)

This was an excellent book, and I found it a compelling read (I came across a couple of reviews in the mainstream press which accused it of having swathes of academic theoretical jargon and either they have a very low tolerance for the slightest degree of theoretical analysis and just wanted more scandal and sensationalism, or I have become desensitised over the course of the years). It does some extremely useful things, not least of which is to draw attention to the continuing significance of class alongside sex and race in the issues under discussion.

It also drew attention to reconstructions of masculinity - and the continuation of certain forms of elite homosociability - in the period under discussion, which both hearked back, at least stylistically, to earlier periods, and incorporated elements of modernity. This productive intersection between the modern and tradition also feature strongly in the discussion of continuities and changes in the specific urban spaces of Soho.

Obviously there is a lot more that could be written about the 50s/early 60s, that period of apparent deadly conformity and tremblors of instability every so often shaking the complacent surface, but this is a solid and focused study that by its concentration shines spotlights into hitherto underexplored areas.

Still thinking through many of the points it raises.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Probably rather brief media appearance

Last year I recorded an interview for this programme, BBC4: Time Shift: Crime and Punishment - The Story of Corporal Punishment.

As they've just rung me up to alert me to its being shown on Monday at 9 pm, I guess they've included at least some of my thoughts on the subject.