M. L. Bush, What is Love?: Richard Carlile's Philosophy of Sex London: Verso, 1998, 214 + x pp, ISBN 1859846516
The first half of the nineteenth century saw major changes in attitudes towards and the conceptualization of sexuality but has been much less analyzed than the Victorian era. It is thus extremely useful to have an account of this important early nineteenth century sex radical, not to mention the republication of his rare but much cited text, Every Woman's Book, or What is Love?, first published in 1826.
In a substantial introductory essay, and a succeeding account of the impact of Every Woman's Book, Bush recovers an often-occluded tradition of freethought, free love, and alternatives to accepted authority not only in the political sphere but in matters of health and personal relations. Carlile, something of a maverick figure even within this milieu, is embedded within the wider ferment of ideas and lifestyle experiment during the era between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the age of Chartism.
Like most sexual reformers, Carlile's concerns originated in personal history. Bush argues that the essay 'What is Love?' was triggered by the failure of Carlile's marriage and the enforced celibacy of a lengthy prison term for blasphemy. But Carlile's sexual shyness and diffidence with women strongly influenced his theories. Although he is often identified along with his associate Francis Place as an early neo-Malthusian, Bush indicates that Carlile was a late convert to 'preventive checks' (between, in fact, the first adumbration of his theories as 'What is Love' in his journal The Republican in May 1825, and the publication of Every Woman's Book) and that he was little concerned with the broader dimensions of the population question as opposed to the facilitation of free love.
The intended audience for this work is not clear. It is not a popular account - even though the blurb enticingly refers to Carlile's 'neglected shocker'. The inclusion of the full texts of 'What is Love?', and of the fourth edition (the earliest for which copies survive) of Every Woman's Book suggests that an academic audience is aimed at. However, if this is the case, it is regrettable that Bush neglects to locate Carlile's conceptualization of the sexed body within the historical debate about shifts in medical and scientific discourses of sexual difference. Bush mentions one of the major changes between 'What is Love?' and Every Woman's Book as the correction of 'a serious physiological error'. Carlile had initially assumed seminal secretion by both sexes and love the passion to do this reciprocally. Informed to the contrary, he then declared that 'the female has no seminal organs' but secretes mucus and altered the definition of love to 'desire for sexual intercourse' or 'physical love'. However, he did not moderate his view of sexual desire as equally powerful in both sexes. There is no discussion of how this might bear upon the arguments initiated by Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex (1990) on the shift around 1800 to a view of women's bodies as different to, rather than an inferior version of, men's, and the increasing occlusion of female sexual desire. Carlile, though radical in so many respects, could be said to have been operating within an old-fashioned and conservative image of the female body, not substantially affected by information which undercut this. This is surely something which deserves more consideration than it gets here.
Bush somewhat exaggerates the specific influence of Every Woman's Book on the British sex radical tradition which undoubtedly existed: continuities can be traced between the debates of the 1820s and 30s, the Malthusians of the 1860s and 70s, the British sexologists of the 1890s, and the new erotic vision of marriage propounded by Marie Stopes and others in the 1920s. However, I would be disinclined to place the whole weight of the evolution of the idea that sexual pleasure is a moral good rather than the ultimate sin on Carlile's work. He was an important figure within a persistent and neglected British tradition of positively valuing sexuality, but cannot bear its whole weight. It may even be argued that this manifested more or less independently at stages throughout the nineteenth century, in Carlile himself, George Drysdale, and Havelock Ellis, recurrently generated in opposition to the oppressive puritanism of British sexual culture,
This volume is therefore useful in making available an inaccessible early nineteenth century sexual text, and providing an account of Carlile's life and career, but it raises a number of issues which it fails to deal with satisfactorily.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine