Ruth BrandonThe New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex, and the Woman Question, Secker and Warburg, London, 1990, 294 + [viii] pp, illus, hardback, £16.95, ISBN 0-436-06722-6
This book is geared to the general reader rather than the specialist. It has the virtue of readability and raises, if it does not tackle in any great depth, a number of fascinating questions in its account of a group of 'New Thinkers, Fabians and social revolutionaries' active from the 1880s to the First World War.
'Why have so many remarkable girls/ Married impossible men?' asked the poet Robert Graves. Contemplating the unions--some lacking even the safeguards of marriage--presented in this work, it is a question which resonates in the mind. At this distance in time it seems completely incomprehensible what large numbers of intelligent, talented women, who surely did not lack for choice of lovers, saw in H G Wells, never mind in those repellent specimens Hubert Bland and Edward Aveling. While preaching rhetoric of sexual equality, they pursued a bohemianism which bore much more hardly upon the women involved than the men. Wells got inspiration for his novels and the women got babies, with all the additional burdens of being an unmarried mother in the Edwardian era.
Ruth Brandon attempts to analyse why the women discussed put up with and even pursued these men. Very late in her life Rebecca West suggested that the trouble with the relations between the sexes lay in the fact that there were far more women whom men found attractive than men whom women found attractive. The options open to women of reasonably 'liberated' views in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century bear consideration. Here Dorothy Richardson's novel sequence Pilgrimage is a valuable text which Brandon unfortunately does not mention, except in referring to Havelock Ellis's critique of it from his own particularly specialised viewpoint. Most contemporary and available men were even worse, we have to conclude, never conversing with women about anything but trivialities, and aiming at best at trapping them into stifling conventional marriage. Brandon, however, is so appalled by the men she describes it does not seem to have occurred to her that they could have been the best of a bad lot.
Caroline Heilbrun has suggested that up until very recently women who wanted to achieve anything beyond the conventional sphere found some kind of 'symbolic fall' a necessary part of their career, cutting them free from the demands of class and society. This would explain why the South African Olive Schreiner and the American Margaret Sanger were (in Brandon's eyes) the most successful of her heroines. They were outside the constraints of the British class system, and at least in Sanger's case it would appear that she took the pursuit of happiness as a goal she had every right to aim at. Brandon demonstrates the petty-bourgeois Germanic respectability which still held sway over Eleanor Marx, the most politically radical and the most independently politically active of her heroines, when it came to her private life.
The saddest figure is surely Edith Ellis, whose achievements live if at all as footnotes to Havelock Ellis's life and work. Brandon makes the interesting suggestion that the revelation of her lesbian inclinations, given the conceptualisation of 'inversion' as an inborn and exclusive condition, provided Ellis himself with an excuse to turn their marriage into one of companionship, sexual interests being pursued outside with other lovers.
We have to some extent been here before: the study rests heavily upon figures already
extensively biographised. Something is certainly gained by such a collective study, considering
how much these people were all involved in both the theory and the practice of the 'Woman
Question' as well as with each other, but it would have been nice to see how such ideas
affected--if they did--circles which were not in the noisy forefront of progressive thought.
Brandon does mention the Edith Lanchester case, in which a architect's socialist daughter who set
up house with an Irish railway clerk was kidnapped by her father and interred in a private lunatic
asylum. (She was subsequently released, went back to living with her lover, and had several
children by him). This suggests, as does perusal of the periodical The Adult, that querying
orthodox social conventions about the relations of the sexes, and attempts to live out new
life-styles, were not confined to a fairly prosperous literary circle. Those who did this are far less
easy to track down than those moving in early Fabian and socialist circles, but such a task would
not be impossible, and surely prove rewarding.
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine