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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 327-329

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Book Review

Sex, Gender, and Social Change in Britain since 1880

Sex, Gender, and Social Change in Britain since 1880. By Lesley A. Hall. European Culture and Society Series. London: Macmillan Press, 2000. Pp. ix + 254. $60.00 (cloth).

The closing of the millennium has had a positive effect on the history of sexuality. Recently, Angus McLaren published his general survey, Twentieth-Century Sexuality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999); in the same vein, but with a more specialized focus, is the subject of this review--Lesley Hall's Sex, Gender, and Social Change in Britain since 1880--which offers an extremely readable discussion of the history of sexuality in Britain from the crucial watershed of 1880 to the present. Both of these books provide erudite accounts of the changing nature of sexuality in society. In Sex, Gender, and Social Change, Hall brings her specialist knowledge of medical and social history to an excellent synthesis, which sets new standards in the historiography of English sexuality for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These new standards are created predominantly because of the bigger picture that Hall sketches and fills out with both wit and detail.

Over the last thirty years, historical interest in sexuality has expanded at a rapid pace. This has developed partially from feminist history and partially from Foucaultian interests in the history of sexuality. However, there have been other influences, including more Freudian-styled histories (like Steven Marcus's seminal The Other Victorians [New York: Basic Books, 1966]). A key focus of these historical works has been a detailed [End Page 327] study of Victorian sexuality. How could it not be so? We all knew that the Victorians were uptight about sex, dressed their table legs in lace underwear, and put Oscar Wilde in prison for being homosexual. Thankfully, an abundance of detailed historical attention challenged our ignorance, although it encouraged great debate about what the Victorians actually did do between the sheets (from writers such as Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience, I: Education of the Senses [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985], and Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexuality and the Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994]). But what we did not have, until Hall's work and to a lesser extent, McLaren's above-mentioned book, has been an historically sophisticated discussion of how British, twentieth-century understandings of sexuality (in its protean forms) developed from the morass of weird, scary, sometimes boring, and often amusing practices and discourses that were perpetuated in the Victorian period. Did the British, for instance, ever abruptly escape the long Victorian shadow of hypocrisy the way that Lytton Strachey hoped, by shooting beams of light into the dark recesses of his parents' age? Or has twentieth-century sexuality, however conceived on the sceptered isle, grown out of its Victorian heritage? In addressing these questions, Hall puts a lot of contemporary historical research to the test in order to construct a detailed narrative where no outline had previously existed.

Of course, as her many readers are aware, Hall has already contributed mightily to the existing history and historiography of English sexuality with her groundbreaking research on the letters written to Marie Stopes by terrified and confused men, on Stella Browne and the radical feminist birth controllers, on eugenics, on the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, and on sex advice after 1800. Much of her work in the present overview fills in spaces left between her other publications. Some of this is done with her skilled handling of archival material from the Mass Observation survey, the Ellis archives at the British Library, the Carpenter archives at Sheffield Public Library, the Norman Haire papers at Sydney University, and the British Social Hygiene Council archives at the Wellcome Library in London, to name but a few. Hall also extracts the best from existing secondary accounts of such topics as abortion, marriage and divorce, homosexuality, and psychoanalysis.

Behind Hall's discussion of sexuality lies...


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