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Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Lucy Bland, Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper (Manchester University Press, 2013)

I have fallen sadly behind in writing up my reading of recent months, but hope to repair this omission. Starting at perhaps the wrong end, i.e. the most recent book bearing on my general research interests read.

Lucy Bland's long-awaited follow-up to her classic and pioneering Banishing the Beast, Modern Women on Trial, does not disappoint. While some of the material may be familiar from the various articles and chapters she has previously published, this is not just one of those volumes which appear to consist of lightly-edited articles put together within one cover, and with the gentle reader apparently expected to draw out the connections between them. It is  a very good thing to have Bland's insights altogether in one volume and not to have to chase up  the original articles, but this book is a good deal more value-added than that. Modern Women on Trial effectively links the matter in the separate chapters together throughout, not just in a brief covering introduction or conclusion, by emphasising the common themes and threads that join these scandals and causes celebres of the period 1918-1924.

It is a very good read: I was reading it in the interstices and the aftermath of a fairly intense conference but still found it compellingly engaging.

The various cases dealt with are the Maud Allan 'Cult of the Clitoris' libel suit against the sleazoid journalist Pemberton Billing; the flurry of concern, focusing around the drug-related, or allegedly drug-related, deaths of two young women, the actress Billie Carleton and the dancer Freda Kempton, over 'white women' associating with 'Chinamen' as well as narcotic use by women; the well known trial of Edith Thompson and Freddie Bywaters for the murder of her husband; the shooting of her Egyptian husband by Madame Fahmy; and the extraordinary convolutions of the Russell divorce case. Several of these have been the subject of rather sensationalist popular accounts, but Bland provides a deeper analysis of the responses to these cases across a range of voices, and the resonances with wider social concerns of the time, in particular the changing roles of women, the allure and the threat of modern life, and the continuing impact of  the Great War upon British masculinity.

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