- Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain by Lisa Z. Sigel
At the core of Lisa Sigel’s engaging book is an argument about sexology. Michel Foucault taught us about the prime importance of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sexologists in creating the sexual identities that we inhabit (more or less) today. But, in common with most other historians of sexuality in modern Britain, Sigel contends that it took many decades for even partial and distorted versions of sexology to filter down into popular discourse and understanding. So if not that, then what? Sigel’s argument is that, in interwar Britain, “popular culture” helped spread stories about sexuality: “Instead of psychology and sexology creating discourse that people adopted, this book suggests that popular culture allowed people to develop their own stories of sexuality. Popular culture gave people a wide access to such stories and created a method through which individuals could recirculate them” (177).
One could, for example, if one were so minded, read a great deal about sexual fetishes in the twenties and thirties. Sexologists like Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis covered the higher end of the market, purveying scientific speculation to concerned and discerning citizens, but comparatively few read them. Novelists such as Anthony Berkeley in his Silk Stocking Murders (1928), on the one hand, and magazines such as Silk Stockings, on the other, were considerably more accessible, catering to a broader and possibly more prurient and self-interested clientele. Sigel’s focus is upon this neglected market, discovering in the process a plethora of sexual narratives that bear only a passing resemblance to sexological categories.
Sigel opens with an excellent overview of the messages, censorship, distribution, and readership of magazines, novels, sexological works, and marriage manuals in an attempt to establish the extent and variety of sexual knowledge. She then proceeds to her inquiry into “popular culture,” limiting herself to three main sets of sources: letters to Marie Stopes; court cases and government documents in the National Archives devoted to whipping; and correspondence about rubber wear, stockings and corsets, tattoos and piercings, amputees, and girl boxing and wrestling, all contained in the letters pages of magazines like Bits of Fun and London Life. Her rationale for this seemingly eccentric selection is pragmatic: the material is very rich (there are around ten thousand letters in the Stopes cache, for example), it reached a large number of people (London Life sold tens of thousands of copies a week), and it was interactive (it details how ordinary people fashioned their own sexual stories in responding to what they read). And the book concentrates on the interwar period because it was only then that large numbers of people began to write about sex and because the impact of World War I profoundly influenced how and what they wrote. [End Page 170]
In her first case study, Sigel characterizes the letters written in response to Stopes’s popular marriage manual, Married Love (1918), as “an extraordinarily valuable way of seeing how individuals fashioned themselves as readers and writers, how they understood their histories and futures, and how they tried to explain their bodies and its sensibilities to others” (47). Desperate for sexual knowledge and crediting Stopes with providing it, correspondents struggled to comprehend their imperfect relationships, sexual incompatibilities, and disappointing experiences. Using a variety of rhetorical strategies, they sought advice on birth control, premature ejaculation, and much else besides, seeking to leave behind what they perceived as the grim Victorian past and the sexual traumas of the war in their optimistic quest for the Stopesian chimera: mutually ecstatic and transformative marital bliss.
Sigel’s second case study takes us into the world of kinky pleasures to be found in the pages of London Life. This was a mainstream publication, widely read, costing sixpence a week; but to a surprising extent letter writers scripted, indulged, and shared their sexual selves in its correspondence columns without being troubled by censors and under the radar of morality campaigners...