Larkin was right, more or less

Michael Mason

  • Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860-1940 by Simon Szreter
    Cambridge, 704 pp, £50.00, January 1996, ISBN 0 521 34343 7

Historians prefer not to think about coincidence. It threatens their generalising if the resemblances between events are just accidental. Simon Szreter’s remarkable and very important book argues, in effect, that coincidence has deceived the historians of family sexuality in the period 1860-1960 – and moreover that sometimes the historians connived in their own deception. The birth-rate per family in England and Wales declined ever more steeply in this hundred-year period, and it declined with roughly the same timing and speed in most other European countries. One can see how historians would dearly love the whole story to be one unitary phenomenon – which is how it is normally understood. But Simon Szreter now argues that their cherished unitary fertility decline is riddled with coincidence. The appearance of one effect linking bedrooms of 1860 with those of 1960, and English bedrooms with those in Finland and Spain, is illusory, according to Szreter. If he is right, he has completely rewritten this tract of English social history, and created a model for enquiry into the subject.

It is possible to exaggerate the degree of belief, among historians, in a unitary fertility decline. For a long time it was indeed supposed that around 1860 married couples had started doing most of the things to prevent conception which they do for that purpose nowadays: that is, they had prevented sperm ejaculated in the vagina from reaching an ovum by blocking it or killing it or washing it out. But more recently, historians have come to doubt if late 19th-century birth-control was in fact achieved by such barrier methods. They have also performed close studies of particular groups which suggest a great diversity within the courtship and bedroom practices in English society at any one time, and which point to birth control as a strategy resorted to, under certain conditions, for as far back as the historical record stretches.

As Szreter points out, such developments in the historians’ thinking should have shaken the whole theoretical edifice of a pan-European homogeneous fertility decline to its foundations. We now recognise that pre-20th-century birth-control was not a matter of modern-minded couples taking advantage of newly available rubber goods and chemicals, but we still assume that the greater part of the fertility decline (at least from around the beginning of this century down to our present) was such a phenomenon. The appeal of this story has much to do with its contemporary relevance – that is, its relevance to the world’s currently developing countries – and the power of the international agencies concerned with promoting birth-control in these countries.

The whole mistaken picture of a monolithic uptake of birth-control across modern Europe goes back to a celebrated early official attempt to demonstrate that there had been a steady and beneficial diffusion of such techniques through English society. The census of 1911 is often called the ‘fertility census’, because (as with the attempt in the 1851 census to assess patterns of religious observance) the census-forms contained special additional questions. Households had to report on how many children had so far been born into unions. The staff at the General Register Office, under the direction of Dr T.H.C. Stevenson, superintendent of statistics, worked on these data over the next decade or so. Stevenson sought to analyse the figures according to a particular categorisation of English social classes. This class-scheme was to prove momentous beyond anything he could have foreseen; at the time, its relation to fertility was simply a very pleasing confirmation (almost ironically complete, in fact) of what he already believed about the nation’s sex-life.

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