J Miriam Benn, The Predicaments of Love, Pluto Press, London, 1992, xiv + 304 pp, paperback, [no price given] ISBN 0-7453-0529-6
This excellent book is a study of the two generations of the Drysdale family associated with the Malthusian movement: George, author of the famous Elements of Social Science: Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, his brother Charles Robert and his common-law wife Alice Vickery, their son Charles Vickery, and his wife Bessie.
The paucity of surviving family papers has acted as a stimulus to Dr Benn's project. She has resourcefully pursued every possible clue and provides us with a great deal of hitherto un-gathered information about this unusual family group. She has meticulously studied the published writings of all the individuals concerned: at times a tedious and repetitious task, particularly as CR and Alice Vickery would slant essentially the same paper on the small family system and the benefits of birth control to a wide variety of audiences. The attention to context is one of the strengths of the work and (almost) more than compensates for the lack of intimate revelations on the sex-life of Malthusians, as we are shown the rivalries and alliances between a host of socially and sexually reformist groups of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.
This is not to ignore the important illumination of the Drysdales themselves, in particular the elusive character of George. Like so many sexual reformers, his work sprang out of personal crisis. "Preventive intercourse" was only an aspect of a more far-reaching agenda of sexual reform, and Elements of Social Science, kept in print (anonymously) for many years at a low price, actually lost him money. An irony apparently unnoticed by Benn is that Drysdale, whose own near-suicidal breakdown appears to have been precipitated by horror-mongering about "onanism", himself came to terrorise others: Havelock Ellis's surprising neglect of Drysdale's pioneering work was presumably due to the dismay he had experienced at Drysdale's claim that nocturnal emissions inevitably led to debilitating spermatorrhoea.
Light is also shed on the careers of Charles Robert Drysdale and Alice Vickery. That they were never married but living in free union is not deduced simply from the negative evidence of lack of marriage certificate or birth certificates for their children but from the rational explanation this equivocal status would provide for certain peculiarities of behaviour and attitude.
A valuable work, which sheds much light on Victorian "counter-culture", the early birth control movement, feminism, and sexual reform.
Lesley A Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine