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One correspondent rambles on for 24 pages. Others scrawl a few lines. There is poetry, personal history and a grey exercise book that records the sender’s sexual urges in minute detail. Pleading letters, insulting letters, lunatic letters, explicit letters, letters that deal with every aspect of sex, pregnancy and birth control: all of them piled up on the desk of Marie Stopes, pioneer of family planning in Britain.
When Stopes published Married Love in 1918, she had no idea of the upheaval it would cause in the nation’s bedrooms and beyond. By the mid-1920s it had sold half-a-million copies. The palaeobotanist who had been inspired to offer sex advice by her own failed marriage was now a household name: lauded and vilified in equal measure. Stopes was also subject to an avalanche of mail from fans, critics and information-seekers (about 40 per cent of her correspondents were male). Some of these 10,000 or so letters are going on display as part of a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.
For the modern reader, the requests for sex advice in immaculate copperplate handwriting are initially jarring. But contained in these faded sepia envelopes are the voices of a people undergoing a seismic change. Married Love and her other writings spoke to a Britain still emerging from the Victorian era and the first world war. For many, they were the first literature available that offered practical advice on birth control and suggested that female desire was natural. “I think one of the things that Stopes gave her readers was language to talk about things that they had not previously been able to articulate,” says Lesley Hall, senior archivist. “She gave them a language that felt clean, beautiful and scientific.”
The letters hail from all over the world. Some are anonymous – “My husband is living or I would give my name” reads one – but most are signed. Many contain cries from the heart. “Having reached the dreaded age of 35” writes one correspondent worried about her fertility. Another charts a family history of epilepsy. Should she have children? Although Stopes did eventually resort to the form response, some annotations appear. “I know a number of first children born to mothers of 40 and 42 and they are quite satisfactory,” she writes on one. “Scientific contraceptive methods of the right sort are perfectly wholesome and no reasonable objection can be taken to them,” she adds to another.
Stopes has a complicated legacy. Part of her advocacy for birth control stemmed from her support of the eugenics movement of the time. She was always keen to pick a fight. “I don’t think she was very good at being sisterly to women she saw as competitors but she was very sympathetic to working-class women,” says Hall. “I don’t think it’s true that she wanted them to stop having babies, she just wanted them to have fewer and be healthier.” She was also very good at knowing just how far she could push her mission without risking prosecution. Vociferously anti-abortion in public, she was known to suggest the names of doctors who might have a more flexible attitude in particularly difficult cases.
She certainly knew how to build up a relationship with her readers, becoming, for some, a sort of agony aunt to whom they would write at every stage of life. “First [they say], ‘I’m thinking of getting married’, then ‘We have these lovely babies and we want to give them a healthy sex education’, then ‘My wife is having the change’,” says Hall.
The faded pages Stopes left behind contain all human and sexual life: the happily married who want to share their secrets, those living in fear of abnormality and those who just want to get something off their chest. The sexual revolution may have moved on but, in their fears and joys, these long-dead correspondents are strangely familiar and moving figures. They are us.
The Institute of Sexology exhibition is at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1, Nov 20 2014-Sept 20 2015; wellcomecollection.org
Photographs: Rex; Alamy; Daily Mail
Typography by Alice Stevenson