Rules of Desire. Sex in Britain: World War I to the Present by Cate Haste. London: Chatto and Windus. 1992. xi + 356pp.
[NOTE Review is of the original 1992 edition, but the 2002 reissue, brief notice here, has not been updated in the slightest, not even to correct typos etc, in the original text.]
This book holds out considerable promise. It is high time someone turned their attention from the contemplation of Victorian sexuality to consider the twentieth century as more than just a coda to be glided through, if mentioned at all, in a final chapter. The attempted regulation of sexuality by law is always worth study. The complex connections (in the British context) between case-law and statute law would bear analysis. What are the questions raised by those sexual issues which within particular national contexts fail to become matters for legislative action? Haste mentions the lack of enthusiasm for designating lesbianism a crime in Britain, while recently in this very Journal (Volume 2 no 3, January 1992, pp. 422-438) John Macnicol has considered "The Voluntary Sterilization Campaign in Great Britain, 1918-1939", and its lack of success in obtaining the desired legislation.
The syncopated relationship between the law of the land and social custom is perhaps even more deserving of investigation: divorce in England though lawful from 1857 was widely frowned upon for a good hundred years after that, perhaps owing to the centrality of sexual misconduct as matrimonial offence under English law. Scottish divorce law was far easier: yet Scots frowned even more severely on the breaking of marriage. Such anomalies deserve further illumination, while popular (mis)conceptions of the law as it relates to sexual conduct are an almost untouched field. "Urban folklore/law" has held that the Government enforced inclusion of one dud in every packet of contraceptives to maintain population, yet many women would have been astounded to find endeavours to "bring on" menstruation defined by the law as abortion.
The "gap between private desire and society's rules" (p. ix) sounds particularly promising. Setting the formal and informal laws over desire in the context of the laws which desire itself is conceived of having at particular epochs in particular places must surely prove illuminating. What happens when desire itself is perceived as imperious: for example, among the "manly" Colonial recruits subject to the provocations of the teenage "harpies" allegedly infesting the streets of London in 1917?
Unfortunately although this book holds out promises of exploring these important questions, it doesn't. Appetite is whetted by the opening presentation of that perennial British theme, vice in high places, but the implied dichotomy between libertine conduct and sexually conservative political agendas is never really developed. Nor is any contrast made between this hypocrisy, and the countervailing incongruity of the respectable private lives of avowed sex reformers and free lovers (splendidly exemplified in J. Miriam Benn's new study of the Drysdales: Predicaments of Love, Pluto Press, London, 1992).
Haste claims to have spent "nearly five years" (p. ix) researching and writing the book. During that period she managed to avoid reading several works (primary and secondary) I would have considered essential, to eschew research in a number of highly pertinent archival collections (although it is possible that the Havelock Ellis papers at the British Library became available too late for her purposes), and to miss remarkable gems in the archives she did consult. It also seems that she has not read everything which appears in the Bibliography: Dame Mary Scharlieb's Reminiscences should have helped her avoid repeating Davenport-Hines's erroneous description ("unmarried") of a woman already married and a mother when she undertook medical training in the first class at the London School of Medicine for Women. Other primary sources appear to have been cited via secondary works.
There are numerous sloppy errors. "Allbutt" spelt "Allbut" might be forgivable, but how did Rose Witcop, anarchist birth controller, become "Rose Sitcup"? Killick Millard become "Killick Willard"? Marie Stopes's first Mothers' Clinic was in Marlborough Road, Holloway, not Holloway Road. Nitpicking, maybe, to point out such small matters, but these latter three errors, the false attribution of spinster status to Scharlieb, and the mis-spelling of (I suppose) "uterine" as "interine" within five pages did not conduce to charity. Such carelessness denotes lack of respect towards its subject, whether individual, institution, or idea. In the history of sexuality one is dealing with something normally regarded as the province of sensation and emotion rather than "hard facts"; but though the facts themselves are often difficult to establish, surely all accuracy possible in ascertainable facts is desirable.
The author also falls short in making clear distinctions between British works and works in English. Works cited in evidence of sexual attitudes should be demonstrably relevant to the society under discussion: was, for example, The Power of Sexual Surrender (cited in the US edition) even published in Britain or at least readily obtainable there? Whether survey data (e.g. Kinsey's) can be generalized across national differences needs careful thought (though it must be conceded that the idea of Kinsey was of considerable significance in the UK).
Some recent British studies in the field of the history of sexuality could be accused of quarrying the past for evidence supporting a preconceived thesis: an accusation which cannot be levelled at this book, which sprawls all over the place like a jelly-fish, a vague chronological progression the most apparent organizing principle. Connections between the material presented by the author and her occasional analytical comments are elusive. As English empiricism it lacks the inclusive breadth and intellectual rigor characteristic of that great British empiricist sexologist, Havelock Ellis.
Rules of Desire is, I regret to say, the kind of anecdotal work which does its subject disservice by failing to take it with sufficient seriousness. There are some good aperçus, and Haste has explored a few fresh and useful primary sources. But her light entertainment approach to the subject, though it steers clear of the giggling/sneering "we know better now" tone, and lacks the prurience of, say, George Ryley Scott, does not greatly advance the historiography of sexuality beyond the place where Scott abandoned it in the early 1950s. For 1992 this hardly seems adequate, while the book does not even succeed in being an enjoyably vulgar popular romp.
Lesley A Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine