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Monday 18 September 2023

Transnational abortion in times of illegality

I was delighted to see that Mexico recently decriminalised abortion, but I also went, wait, haven't I read novels, and maybe memoirs, from a much earlier period, involving women from the USA going across the border to obtain their terminations? I know I have a couple of citations in my Literary Abortion webpage, as well as a link to an article on the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws, which helped women travel outside the USA, pre-Roe, to Mexico (also Puerto Rico and Japan), giving referrals for safe though ellegal doctors.

There's also a trope in the earlier twentieth century of women from the UK going abroad to France (Paris in particular was much mentioned) or Switzerland or the Netherlands to obtain abortions, even though the situation was no more legal in those countries. Abortion remained illegal in France until the Manifesto of the 343 called for legalisation of abortion and access to contraception in the early 1970s. There must have been networks of information about sympathetic/competent doctors. In the laters 1930s abortion was legalised in Denmark and Sweden but it would very likely have been more difficult for the foreign visitor to access given the system of bureaucratic panels.

While delving into the novelist Ethel Mannin's letters of the 1930s to her friend and former lover Douglas Goldring I found one, writing from Vienna, in which she mentions her pregnancy (undated, naughty Ethel, but probably early 1930s) and her ambivalence about continuing it, and suggesting she might go to Prague to get it terminated but that would be inconvenient for various reasons (this would not have been actually legal in Czechoslovakia at the period) and then mentioning various UK doctors who might assist her if she returned there. But Ethel was very much in progressive sex reform circles (she had her Grafenberg ring fitted by Grafenberg himself, noting that it was cheaper even with the travel there than what Norman Haire charged in Harley Street).

I'm not sure how one would go about uncovering further details of this phenomenon. Women like the Labour politician Jennie Lee, who apparently horrified Nye Bevan's sister by declaring that if by some accident she fell pregnant she 'knew what to do' had £100 and would 'go to Holland' (where abortion was not legalised until 1984), did not expand on these tantalising hints of secret women's knowledge. Letters? diaries? would this even have been written down, or, if written down, preserved beyond immediate need?

There could have been reasons of discretion for going to distant places where they were not known if they could afford it.

Friday 1 September 2023

Colin Spencer (1933-2023): bisexual novelist of the 60s

Today I saw the Guardian obituary for Colin Spencer, treating him primarily as a food writer, which he became in the later part of his career. 

However, last year I did a re-reading (because they turned up during a reorganisation of some piles of books) of his quartet of autobiographical novels, Anarchists in Love (1963), The Tyranny of Love (1967), Lovers in War (1970)  and the rather later final volume which was not in my collection but available as ebook, The Victims of Love (1978). I'm not sure whether they have 'enduring literary value' but they are certainly of historical and sociological interest

As the obituary mentions, Spencer was an out bisexual, and this was very much expressed in these novels, though these days Reg might be considered pansexual: 'I just like sex, a lot'. And it is bisexuality, not attempts to 'go straight' or conceal homosexuality for prudential reasons. 

That said, there are extremely vivid scenes of gay life at various levels, from the alleys of artsy bohemian Brighton to posh London literary circles. On the Brighton scene, re-reading Anarchists in Love after, what, maybe 40 years, I realised why the Brighton section of Queer Beyond London seemed somehow familiar!

There's also a good deal of wider relevance for the historian of sex at the period (and indeed, society in general during this time of change) - there's a certain amount on STIs, from Eddie's panic when he discovers his mistress's husband is dying of tertiary syphilis, to Matthew's experiences as a VD orderly when doing his National Service. There's also mention of contraception ('cock-socks') and abortion.

The bisexuality, however, is primarily male: while Sundy and Jane both admit to some lesbian experience (though in Jane's case possibly on an emotional rather than physical level) this appears to be 'just a phase' in primarily heterosexual lives. 

I felt that there were certain rather period gendered attitudes to Jane as a female academic - and particularly in the later volumes considerable misogyny, but given that she was based on his first wife and they had a bitter divorce during which his bisexuality was invoked over child custody, that was perhaps more individual than generic. Sundy is on the whole a sympathetic figure and indeed in his autobiography, first volume of a planned trilogy (the rest has not yet appeared), Backing Into Light: My Father's Son (2013) Spencer claims that Sundy as well as Matthew was based on himself.

The tetralogy has been reissued with introductions by Spencer in paperback and ebook by Faber Finds.