June Rose, Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution, London, Faber and Faber, 1992, £14.99, pp xiv + 272, ISBN 0-571-1620-6
It hardly needs saying that Marie Stopes was a key figure in popularizing birth control and redefining female sexuality in the early twentieth century. This is not the first biography, which appeared in 1924, authored (dare one suggest, 'ghost-written') by her close friend Aylmer Maude. Another, shortly after her death, was also by a male friend with whom she had enjoyed one of her recurrent ambiguous relationships, perhaps describable as 'amitié amoureuse' (and perhaps not). Ruth Hall, in 1977, took a less indulgent attitude, but did not have access to all the material June Rose has consulted. None of these former biographies deal as searchingly with the extent of Stopes's construction of the myth of her own life. It is easy to become bemused by the amount of documentation: the enormous collection in the British Library, additional material in the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre at the Wellcome Institute, further papers still in the hands of Stopes's son. Surely, in this mass, 'truth' must reside? But as Rose points out, in spite of this apparently comprehensive preservation, there are significant gaps where Stopes destroyed (actively or by neglect) important groups of correspondence. In her play Vectia she mythicized her relationship with Aylmer Maude, who actually lodged with Marie and her first husband during the tense period leading up to the collapse of their marriage, as 'a pure and straightforward relationship' without 'the smallest hint of flirtation or love-making'. Her surviving letters to him do not entirely bear this out, but since his own to her do not survive, a haze of conjecture still shrouds the relationship. Even her most famous personal myth--that she married Ruggles Gates in complete sexual ignorance and took years, and a course of study in the 'Cupboard' in the British Museum, to realise that the marriage was unconsummated--subjected to scrutiny is seen to lie at some angle to the truth. (Interesting questions are raised by the way Stopes dowered her alter-ego 'Vectia' with 'healthy natural desires' for normal marriage and motherhood, but could not permit a virtuous woman technical knowledge of what was wrong with her marriage.) This capacity to create herself was fundamental to Stopes's success: 'without her urgent day-dreams, she might never have headed a great campaign' (p. 147). But unless she could head, or see herself as a leader, Stopes was not greatly interested in working for causes which did not benefit herself: her influence in the birth control movement waned in the 1930s as organisation took over from taboo-breaching propaganda as the task of the hour. This is an illuminating biography of a woman who made history: but now, perhaps, attention should be turned to the quieter heroines of the birth control movement, and the stories of 'those who have no historian' as Stopes herself described them: the thousands of grateful and desperate souls helped by her writings.
Lesley A Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine