How Dottissima?

Review of Marie Stopes by Ruth Hall, London, André Deutsch, 1977

The New Review, Vol. 4, 44, November 1977


   In 1935 a number of American acad­emics were asked to list the 25 most influential books of the previous fifty years. Married Love came 16th out of the 25 ‑ just behind Das Kapital, The Golden Bough and Havelock Ellis's Psy­chology of Sex, but ahead of Einstein's Relativity, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Hitler's Mein Kampf and Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace. This is a fair measure of the book's contemporary importance. It sig­nalled and itself powerfully promoted a great step forward in the liberation of women.

   Marie Stopes had great difficulty in finding a publisher for Married Love. Stanley Unwin nearly took it, but didn't, and suffered anguish afterwards seeing it sell off more than a million copies in quick time. Its message, anathema to the Christian churches, was that sexual in­tercourse had a value of its own, irres­pective of any thought of procreation; that the sexual urge was as imperious in woman as in man, but needed arousal; that the man must learn to woo his partner. This was forbidden doctrine in Britain and America: no decent woman had sexual thoughts or desired sexual pleasure; she was the passive instrument of self‑relief for her husband. The sooner the sex act was over the better; slam, bang, thank you ma'am.

   Wise Parenthood, also published in 1918, spread the gospel of the check pessary, informing women of measures they could take themselves to guard against unwanted pregnancy. In Marie's mind it was probably even more import­ant to free love‑making from tension and fear than to unshackle married life from the burden of too many children. This knowledge also was taboo; and for the Roman Catholic Church she became a public enemy. In 1926 the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland published its report on 'evil literature'. Following the Society's recommendations, the Eire government two years later brought in a bill outlaw­ing all books, newspapers and period­icals advocating or advertising birth con­trol. Marie found herself banned from the national newspapers, because issues of the paper with one of her letters or advertisements reaching Eire would cer­tainly be impounded by the customs. Her enemies were indeed implacable. When after 38 years of virginity, in her second marriage, Marie bore a son, The Times refused to allow her husband an an­nouncement in the births column.

   Nevertheless her campaign prospered. She loved public speaking and impressed her audience with her femininity and her frankness, clarity and common sense. Her books sold, as much by their presen­tation as by their matter, the astonishing combination of practical sense, explicit words and flowery language:

The half‑swooning sense of flux which overtakes the spirit in that eternal mom­ent at the apex of rapture sweeps into its flaming tides the whole essence of the man and woman, and as it were, the heat of the contact vaporises their consciousness so that it fills the whole of cosmic space.  

   Marie kept a note, a kind of mini­thesaurus, of lush poetic words to use when the occasion arose. Bernard Shaw called her 'Dottissima'; but just how dotty was she? One cannot wonder at her belief that she was subject to systematic persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. She was. It is a bit dottier to believe, as she did, that Goering had given personal orders to the Luftwaffe to bomb her home during the war. She believed that she could feel and sometimes see another person's aura. She believed she would live to the age of 120. She hoarded every scrap of paper she received, including bus‑tickets and menu cards, to the point that it took a three‑ton truck to transport her personal papers to the British Library after her death. These are mere eccentricities. More interesting is the evidence her life shows of occasional depressive mood swings with thoughts of suicide punct­uating a lifetime of hypomania. It all came on when she was a rather dull­witted adolescent schoolgirl. There suc­ceeded an awakening into intense appli­cation and a prodigal outpouring of energy that brought her two doctorates at the universities of Munich and London (she was then the youngest Doctor of Science in England) and made her at 31 one of the leading palaeobotanists of her time. At Munich she bulldozed her way through all academic obstacles into the laboratory of the Professor, once there working a twelve‑hour day starting at 8 a.m. and at weekends sometimes for 30 hours at a stretch. With government support she continued with distinguished work on coal research into her forties, even after the books that made her famous had appeared. She managed an enormous correspondence, wrote vol­umes of poetry, eight plays, a musical comedy and a film scenario, distributed questionnaires on their sex lives and contraceptive practices to doctors and clergy, bombarded parliamentary can­didates and chief constables with circu­lar letters, and prime ministers with advice on how to run the nation.

   It is not surprising that there were difficulties in her own sex life from start to finish. Her love relationships were based on a curious immaturity, happiest in a daughter relationship with an older, preferably famous man. Ruth Hall tells us that she and her father adored one another. But on the day of his death she was so overcome by the news of her exam success that she seems not to have spared him a thought. She had a dour struggle with an unloving bluestocking mother, determined not to be impressed by any success of her daughter's. Her self‑con­fidence was steeled, rather than sapped, and the lesson she learned was to push the harder the more she was resisted. There was a strong masculine trait; physically, her voluptuous bosom was offset by a rock‑like chin. 'Why do I always fall in love with women?', she wrote; and she conducted a stormy re­lationship with two women through the medium of passionate love‑letters. She dominated her men‑folk and sometimes wrecked them. She was so ignorant of sex that at 31 she was married for a year before she realised her husband was impotent and the marriage had not been consummated. Her second husband did not fight her the way the first one had. But he was required to give her a signed carte blanche of sexual freedom, and pushed out of their home and told he need not return. A woman doctor who had known the couple in 1918 was horrified on meeting them again in 1928 to find Marie suffering from 'paranoia and megalomania' and Humphrey re­duced to a gramophone record. She dressed her only son as a girl, and was so besottedly possessive a mother that he had in the end to run out. When he fell in love with a short‑sighted girl, she ran a campaign against the marriage, and when it went through she cut him out of her will.

   With the energy and intellect of a man she combined the undeveloped emotion­ality of a child. When she went to Munich at the age of 23 she packed and took with her her favourite doll. In her own eyes she remained ever young, ma­rooned in the middle‑twenties till she had passed the middle fifties. Even at 73 she had fallen in love again, and was sure the perfect love had come at last. We must not underestimate her for her oddities. Though none of her ideas was original, it was she who gave them their punch. If it is society that has to readjust, it needs the maladjusted to make it do so. No round peg in its snug round hole ever prised the timbers apart. It was Marie Stopes who powered a movement that has liberated both women and men from a slave and slave‑master mentality. Her greatest gift was a dauntless, indeed heroic courage. Her greatest defect, if we need to remember it, was a lack of generosity to those who worked with her and supported her.

   Ruth Hall has written a splendid biography, from which we get a full picture of the woman, in her larger than life stature, and in the many telling details that reveal the limitations, the quirks, the inner motivations, full of insight, then, and of a friendly objective sympathy. One could not ask for better in the lucid orderly presentation and the wit and irony with which it is graced.