There was a time when phrases like ‘sexual politics’, ‘male chauvinism’ and ‘phallogocentrism’ carried a certain paradoxical éclat, yoking, as they do, the private realm of sex with the public realms of politics and language. We have grown so accustomed to the merging of public and private that it is hard to feel the force of such conceits these days, hard to remember that getting married was not always an act of political defiance (or defeat) and having children was not invariably a part of ‘having it all’. Ruth Brandon’s intelligent study, The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question, focuses on a crucial stage in the politicisation of privacy, describing the personal involvements of social reformers in Britain between 1880 and 1914 as they enacted the Woman Question in their own lives.
The scene of this ideological soap opera is London, a genteel hotbed of reformist debate, despite the jailing of Oscar Wilde and the snail’s pace of women’s suffrage. Havelock Ellis contributed his scientific zeal to the Fellowship of the New Life, and Olive Schreiner enlivened the Men and Women’s Club. Eleanor Marx felt obliged to decline membership there for fear of shocking the ladies by her unmarried cohabitation with Edward Aveling. Perhaps not entirely genteel (Ellis marvelled at the intensity of her body odour on warm summer walks), she worked tirelessly for workers’ organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation. The Fabians, however, were indisputably genteel – the very personification of Samurai and New Republicans, reading all the new books, leading healthy country lives and belonging to gentlemen’s clubs. It was on the issue of private versus public reform that the Fabians and the New Lifers split. The New Lifers held that socialism could come only through the self-improvement of individuals, without which political action was useless; the Fabians believed that political action was the first priority. It is thus not surprising that the Woman Question loomed so large for both groups, since industrialism was propelling women out of the ‘natural’, private space of the home into the political world of the workplace. The question was: which of these was the proper sphere for women’s self-realisation?
Brandon does not spell out precisely what the Woman Question was for these reformers: in fact, male liberation and free love seem to have been just as much at issue. Young Havelock Ellis was transformed by James Hinton’s exhortations to men and women to open themselves to love. But interestingly, the preoccupation with free love produced not a private absorption in sex, an Eastern ars erotica, but a public scientia sexualis, a merging of objective observation with erotic subject-matter in a contradictory and sometimes disturbing discourse. Brandon quotes Michel Foucault on the significance of the sexual debate for the 19th century: ‘The “right” to life, to one’s body, to health, to happiness, to the satisfaction of needs, and ... the “right” to discover what one is and all that one can be, this “right” was the political response to all [the] new procedures of power.’ This theme of self-determination threads its way through Brandon’s book as the ‘nub of the Woman Question’. She uses the term ‘wife’ for a partner of either sex whose role is to promote self-realisation in the other.
However much male Victorians advocated this freedom for women, their Darwinian training taught them that women’s primary fulfilment came through motherhood. Free love conveniently produced this self-expressive state in women, and H. G. Wells could thus play ‘wife’ to many women. (He tended to flee from the noise and confusion of the children he fathered, however, allowing his women to discover themselves without him.) Convinced of women’s role as child-bearers, Wells went so far as to advocate the ‘Endowment of Motherhood’. ‘I want to see them bearing and rearing good children in the State as a generously rewarded public duty and service, choosing their husbands freely and discerningly.’ But insofar as they were mothers, women could not fulfil themselves in the spheres outside the home. And insofar as they realised themselves outside the home, they were denying the Darwinian analysis proposed by the very men who were advocating their freedom. When women like the reformist Margaret Sanger put their political lives before their husbands and children, they were acting too self-assertively for Wells’s taste, taking on the status of an ‘engine’ when they should be content to remain the ‘petrol’.
Brandon spends little time on the theories of the various movements, being more concerned with the private lives of her protagonists. She begins with a double ‘honeymoon’, a country idyll between Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner and their acquaintances Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex was to win him the title Sage of Sex, but despite his sagacity, he was sexually unresponsive if not impotent. ‘After all,’ he wrote, ‘it is the spectator who sees most of the game.’ He later married Edith Lees, mainly, his friends believed, because she was an interesting case. Theirs was ‘a union of affectionate comradeship, in which the specific emotions of sex had the smallest part’. Ellis believed that women’s greatest fulfilment came in motherhood, but would not give Edith a child because he thought her too unstable. At the same time, her lesbianism allowed him licence to involve himself with other women, much to her dismay. Brandon suggests that one of these entanglements precipitated her death.
Olive Schreiner had become famous in radical circles through the publication of The Story of an African Farm, her novel about a woman who allowed herself to die rather than be dependent on a man. Olive did not manage quite so pure an independence in her own life. After Ellis she fell in love with Karl Pearson whose paper on ‘The Woman’s Question’ not only warned that suffrage would give women control of the government thanks to their numbers, but stated categorically that women were ‘naturally man’s intellectual inferior’, adding: ‘her prerogative function of child-bearing may possibly involve this.’ Pearson married another woman, had a famous scientific career and in old age regretted ignoring his wife and children.
Olive had a breakdown when Pearson did not reciprocate her love. She returned to her native South Africa, where she finally achieved a ‘petticoat’ power by marrying the politician Samuel Cron Cronwright. Already in her forties, her pregnancies ended in miscarriages and infant deaths, but she went on writing and campaigning.
Though Karl Marx never treated his daughter Eleanor as a full colleague, she spent her life carrying on his work. Brandon presents her as a ‘uniquely tragic and brave figure [who] ... dwarfs her contemporaries ... The depth and energy of her political commitment make introspective idealists like Havelock Ellis seem solipsistic to the point of triviality.’ She fell in love with the sponger, womaniser and Darwinian Edward Aveling, and considered herself his wife though they never married. He deceived her, stole from her and humiliated her until she took her own life.
This cast of brave new women and worthless old men goes on and on: to Margaret Sanger, who disseminated information about contraception despite being hounded by the US Government, and abandoned her husband and at times her children to fulfil her mission; to Beatrice Webb, who eschewed sex and children for politics; to Edith Bland (the children’s writer E. Nesbit), who reluctantly enlarged her household with her husband’s mistress and illegitimate daughter; to G. B. Shaw, who played ‘Sunday husband’ to a wide array of dissatisfied, superior women, but was appalled by unbridled passion and ‘thought any woman who set herself up in an open union with a man to whom she was not married ... was a fool.’
Brandon’s loose-knit group biography is strong on intrigue and stinging wit, and largely unconcerned with the political activities of the main characters. It reads like a denatured Tolstoyan panorama: endless complication without much grandeur or historical moment. This is a wry, ironic work with a rather simple ideological point to make. But the structure of the book is expressive. The collective life, fictive or historical, has a persistent connection with women’s writing. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, with its source in Flaubert’s Trois Contes, is one of the earliest and most important examples, but the genre has flowered in such contemporary works as Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, Alice Walker’s In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women and Alice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women. The multiple biography describes a population through the individual lives of its members. Instead of a broad generalisation characterising the group (an ‘intensive definition’, as the logicians would say), this is an additive, ‘extensive’ mode in which insight emerges from the cumulative impact of case-studies. Its significance for women’s writing derives from the claim that so many women’s lives have been ‘lost’, left unrecorded because they were deemed unhistorical. Since the controversy surrounding the Woman Question was crucial in transforming privacy into a public realm, Brandon furthers the process by telling a history of love lives.
Interestingly, Brandon berates Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex for having a similar cumulative structure. Ellis’s ‘exceedingly modern crusading tolerance’, she writes, ‘is grafted onto a technique of presentation which is entirely Victorian. The work, all seven volumes of it, is nothing more than an immense heap of piled-up examples, demonstrating by sheer force of numbers the absurdity of a concept of normality or abnormality ... What is so strange to the 20th-century mind is the absence of theory.’ But Brandon’s own treatment of Victorian love and sex is also an immense heap of piled-up examples. The difference is that Ellis sets out to destroy a norm by the diversity of cases and Brandon sets out to establish one by their conformity. Her point is that male reformers used the argument for sexual freedom and the New Woman to claim all the privileges of old-style patriarchs, leaving women caught in a double bind – overburdened, abandoned and outlawed if they chose to have sex, and hence children, outside marriage, or frustrated and disapproved if they chose to devote themselves solely to a cause. ‘Are the books we have written together worth ... the babies we might have had?’ asked Edith Ellis.
Edith’s response was to make her marriage her career, writing about it in lectures and essays. In this way she did what all the members of her set were doing: turning their lives into demonstrations of principle. Beatrice Potter was physically revolted by Sidney Webb, but married him because their principles were a perfect match. When Hubert Bland berated H. G. Wells for trying to run off with his illegitimate daughter, Wells noted indignantly that his seductions were a matter of principle, whereas Bland’s many adventures were simply and unrepentantly pleasurable. As Brandon wryly notes, ‘Wells thought ... he was persuading women that the world was well lost for principle. But in fact all he succeeded in doing was to persuade them that the world would be well lost for Wells.’
The picture Ruth Brandon paints is of gifted women possessed of an ideology that would allow them to assert themselves, but almost universally undone by less talented and less generous men:
it is remarkable how few of these brilliant, forceful, ambitious women ... managed to avoid living their lives on the terms of a male lover or husband. Eleanor Marx, Edith Ellis, Amber Reeves, even such obviously successful women as Beatrice Webb and Rebecca West – none of them managed to live their lives as they would have done had they been entirely free agents. And if it is argued that none of us are free agents, then one need only compare their lives with those of the men they were involved with. H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, Edward Aveling lived according to their own plans.
We are left to wonder how it is that the men whose scholarship and polemic were meant to improve the lot of women should have been so destructive of the ones they knew.
Brandon concludes that the men in this circle were able to live free of compromise because of women’s guilt and ‘its intimate ally, principle’. Thanks to principle, those who achieved personal freedom were able to displace their guilt onto others, justifying any selfishness or cruelty on the grounds of self-realisation. For Brandon, however, the only good principle is a dead one. When Margaret Sanger finally married a millionaire, she did so without guilt, despite the amazement of her friends. ‘Pragmatic to the end, she was not about to allow the principle that marriage was not suitable for a woman like her to stand between her and the possibilities offered ... And, uniquely among the protagonists of this book, she did indeed live happily ever after.’
This fairy-tale ending concludes what are otherwise chronicles of defeat – an Anita Brookner version of woman’s history, full of unhappiness, hardship, confusion, unfulfilment and self-destruction. But if only one out of all these women was ‘happy’ it might be worth questioning the notion of happiness rather than automatically blaming men or the system for preventing it. The measure of Margaret Sanger’s contentment seems to be her doing what she wanted, despite the needs of the husband she dropped and the sick child she did not see for a year and who died soon after her return. Her freedom and self-expression were thus very much of the order of H. G. Wells’s, as Brandon notes. But Brandon cannot condemn Wells and admire Sanger for the same single-minded attention to their own wishes. Surely there is no point in resurrecting a double standard, even if it gives women the advantage.
Moreover, it seems too simple to conclude that these women failed only because of the double binds imposed by the New Men. The situation of liberated women is necessarily contradictory, for fully-realised women exist in two inconsistent economic modes. The public world of politics and work is an exchange economy. ‘Women’s work’, in contrast, lies outside the world of exchange. What it produces – children and the rituals of the home – has no market value: it is priceless, unparalleled, of consuming interest to only one set of consumers. The rhetoric surrounding the New Woman confused these two kinds of economy. The basis of the argument was women’s connection to nature. Women were to free themselves for the possibility of full self-expression. This liberation implied in each case a unique subject now free to realise all that her specificity implied. But women’s nature was also defined generically and deterministically as a biological role in Nature. For the New Lifers and the Fabians women’s freedom was a ‘licence’ to participate both in the economic and political spheres outside the home and in the shadow-economy and shadow-politics of motherhood and the household.
The liberation of women has ever since entailed an ambiguity in the terms ‘nature’ and ‘work’. To hope that one day work in the private sphere of the home will be remunerated like any other form of labour is to forget that the conditions in each case are very different. Work stoppages, working-to-rule, lockouts and strikes mean something quite different in the home from what they mean in the factory. And that difference is not a matter of sentimentality or oppression. Women negotiate the inconsistency of public and private spheres as a trying matter of course. The difficulty comes in making New Men see that their lives, too, are governed by these contradictions.