- Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain by Lisa Z. Sigel
A lot of recent writing on sexuality in Britain by people like Judy Giles, Matt Houlbrook, Richard Hornsey and Kate Fisher has tended towards locating particular identities in certain classes, practices, circumstances or physical locations—in short, in places and spaces. That’s not to say that they ignore the significance of story-telling or life stories in the making of sexuality, but that they tend towards a kind of “situatedness” as opposed to the disembodied, the fantastic or the imaginary. In this book, however, Lisa Sigel reaffirms the significance of this type of narrative in the making of sexual identities in interwar Britain. She aims to show how letter-writing, in particular missives written to Marie Stopes by her readers, to the correspondence columns of the racy periodical London Life by its readers, and those penned by dealers in illicit books and often unhinged poison-pen-writing fantasists, reveal a great deal about how certain kinds of sexual identity were made at this time. Specifically, the book is mainly about how a certain kind of perverse sexuality—that related to whipping, tight-lacing, rubber wear, corporal punishment and other forms of fetishism—was given expression in the pages of London Life and in a broader culture.
This was the golden age of popular reading—oneinwhichreadingofallkinds for all classes was almost universal. A significant element of this was inevitably sexual, as the vibrant market in popular print demonstrated, containing as it did everything from pulp magazines, popular editions of educational or eugenic texts, “erotic classics,” histories, nudism and sunbathing treatises, and fetishistic “whipping stories” dealing with the adventures of daringly modern girls or “unruly flappers.” Sigel wants to demonstrate that popular reading of this kind was far more important than sexual science or psychoanalysis in making modern sexuality, and that the readers of this material frequently formed reading communities—and identities—via correspondence columns, private contacts or personal ads.
The book starts by giving us an account of Stopes’ readership, as revealed by her readers’ letters. These show that this exchange was a way of remaking the self, of narrating it, and of making a new vocabulary of sexual exchange. Sigel then goes on to analyse the fetish letters received over a long period by the weekly London Life, many of which dealt with sado-masochistic motifs such as tight-lacing, corsets, high heels, rubber wear, wearing bridles (being a “human pony”), or that eroticised the imagined power and confidence of the “modern girl” by dwelling on matters like women’s wrestling, boxing, or physical culture. These [End Page 456] letters, as well as articles on these subjects in the magazine, provided a way of making a collective identity for their writers and readers. While these may have been fantasies, the next two sections set out ways in which such identities might have been lived out—specifically by the book dealer and part time female impersonator Mervyn Hyde, and by one Frederick Holeman, who wrote a series of anonymous pornographic letters (often on the subject of corporal punishment, whipping of naughty and forward girls, etc) to his neighbours in south London between 1930 and 1938. Sigel reads the latter (and the more general fascination with whipping that this material reveals) in the context of corporal punishment employed by the state, usually against sex offenders. As awareness of this “kink”, as it was called, became more general in the 1930s, the state turned away from corporal punishment as it was increasingly seen as reproducing the perversity of the crime, or at least encouraging it in spectators.
There is some fascinating material here (though much has been used before in making broadly similar points) that poses many difficulties for the historian—not least of which is determining whether letters to London Life were actually from real readers. The life of Hyde tends to show that they were, so that conundrum is solved. However, the idea that sexology of the Ellis...