Preventive Intercourse

Michael Mason

  • Predicaments of Love by Miriam Benn
    Pluto, 342 pp, £35.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 7453 0528 8
  • Love in the Time of Victoria by Françoise Barret-Ducrocq, translated by John Howe
    Verso, 225 pp, £24.95, August 1992, ISBN 0 86091 325 2

I had been aware of Miriam Benn for some years, because I kept coming across her trail in libraries: her borrower’s slips between the pages of books, her signature as a user of special collections, librarians’ memories of an Australian woman scholar spending her vacations researching in Britain. Unhappily for me, she was obviously investigating that enormously important, mysterious and unexplored Victorian figure: George Drysdale. She was certainly doing this as well as I was – perhaps much better. Worst of all, the spoor was old, the campfire ashes long extinguished. It appeared that any minute the world would hear, if not the whole truth about George Drysdale, then at least a great part of it.

Last year, by chance, I learned Miriam Benn’s address in England, and was able to make contact and enquire about the progress of her work. Her book had just gone to press. It seemed to have been a long time in the writing, but it transpired that it was not only about George Drysdale. Miriam Benn had tackled two generations of remarkable Drysdales and their partners: George, his brother Charles Robert, the latter’s mistress and intellectual colleague Alice Vickery, their son Charles Vickery Drysdale, and his wife Bessie. And when I saw the proofs I realised that she had indeed researched her subject profoundly. Her discoveries about the personal life of George Drysdale, in particular, were of great significance and, in view of the exceptional secrecy surrounding him, a brilliant piece of detective work. George remains, structurally and conceptually, Mrs Benn’s primary subject in Predicaments of Love. The other figures in this group portrait were notable workers for reform on medico-social issues – prostitution, women’s medical training and treatment, and above all birth control – but the indispensable impetus, operating at first invisibly but with compelling effect on Charles, and then via him on his partner and son, seems to have come from the extraordinary George Drysdale.

He was born in 1824, the second youngest son of Sir William Drysdale, a leading Edinburgh citizen and one-time City Treasurer. ‘Our idolised boy’, as his sister called him, had a dazzling career at Edinburgh Academy, and in 1841 embarked with no less lustre on a Classics degree at Glasgow. Then the darkness and mystery falls on George Drysdale’s life, which was never to be lifted. Sir William died in 1843, aged 62. George suspended his studies at Glasgow; nothing is known of his activities in the next year except that he undertook a couple of walking-tours on the Continent, the second with his younger brother Charles. In August 1844 the family were appalled to hear that George had drowned in the Danube at Vienna.

But he was not dead. The evidence is that even his brother – traumatically, it must be guessed – believed in the drowning; it is quite unclear how George’s Harry Lime-like ‘death’ came to be attested. Just over eighteen months later George returned to his joyful family. They gathered that in the meantime he had ‘travelled to Hungary’ and found employment as an English tutor in a noble family, whence he had walked the hundreds of miles home once the ‘pressure on the brain, occasioned by overstudy’ had ‘subsided’. For the next three years he seems to have been inactive, recovering from or still a victim of this psychological collapse. But in 1847 he resumed university studies, this time as a medical student – first of all at Trinity College, Dublin and then at his home university of Edinburgh.

Whatever happened to George Drysdale between 1844 and 1847 had something importantly to do with sex. He interrupted his final work for his medical degree to write an astonishing, emotionally-charged polemic against sexual continence, Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, which was published anonymously in 1854 or 1855 (it is better known by the title it acquired with its second issue, The Elements of Social Science). The book’s insistent attack on continence is largely couched in medical terms, and I imagine that Drysdale resumed study at university when he perceived that medicine would provide the groundwork for the ideas about sexuality which had grown out of his breakdown in 1844.

Miriam Benn argues that we can learn from the book in some detail about Drysdale’s experiences in and around the years 1844-7 if we attend to the solitary case-history of male sexual disorder given there, and see that it must be ‘autobiographical confession’. This case-history occupies a full five pages, quite early on in the Elements, and it does harmonise in a striking way with the young career of George Drysdale, as unearthed by Mrs Benn. The ‘case’ is ‘a young man about fifteen years of age, of active, studious and erotic disposition’, a star pupil at his school, who had been much troubled by sexual urges until he discovered to his delight the expedient of masturbation. For about a year he had masturbated two or three times a day. But he then became worried by certain supposed symptoms of ill-health – including nocturnal discharges – and this worry turned into hysterical panic when he read ‘an article on Onanism in the Encyclopedia, written by some antiquated horror-monger’.

He consulted a doctor, who prescribed ‘counter-irritant ointment, and a course of tonic medicines’. These did help his symptoms, and he gave up masturbation through an effort of sheer will. But, observes Drysdale, this was really a disastrously false cure, and the beginning of a long series of mistaken treatments of the young man’s condition, for which the doctor should instead have prescribed ‘regulated sexual exercise’ – that is, fairly frequent intercourse. When the symptoms came back, supplemented by ‘a growing confusion of mind’, the young man threw up his school work although ‘high honours awaited him.’ and was treated by his doctor with the much more drastic remedy of urethral cauterisation with caustic.

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