Once upon a time, Victorian England had a reputation as such an arctic tundra of sexual frigidity that people believed the ridiculous claim that piano legs had to be covered with drapery to preserve decency; or that the typical mother’s nuptial advice was ‘Just lie back, dear, and think of Britain’. People in the grip of these ideas might have trouble recognising as Victorian a genuinely laissez-faire society in which every variety of mind-altering drug was readily available at the chemist, prostitutes (male and female) swarmed in certain well-known regions of London, condoms could be bought at barber shops, outwardly respectable paterfamiliases (Charles Dickens among them) maintained two separate households, and male homosexuals endured far less legal persecution than between the 1920s and the 1960s. The multi-talented explorer Richard Burton titillated respectable society with lurid reports of human sacrifice and genital mutilation in darkest Africa, scandalised the pious with unfavourable comparisons between Christianity and Islam, and prepared translations of salacious texts such as The Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra.
There were, of course, powerful pressures towards prudish conformity that strengthened as the century advanced, marked by such legal milestones as the Obscene Publications Act 1857, the prosecution of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for publishing in 1877 ‘a dirty, filthy book’ on contraception (Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy), and amendments to the criminal code in the 1880s that raised the age of consent, criminalised sexual activity between men, and banned nude bathing, indecent advertisements (particularly those relating to birth control) and much else besides. Respectable society was pro-reproduction and anti-sex, so much so that modern historians have characterised it as a culture of anti-sensualism or of abstinence.
But there were counter-currents, both an underground of exuberant sexual indulgence and a medical discourse that sought to make discussion of sexuality respectable. Steven Marcus drew attention to both in his rediscovery of the ‘other Victorians’,1 the first represented by Walter’s Secret Life, supposedly the reminiscences of an unflaggingly priapic pussy-hound (though more probably a pornographic fantasy that deliberately inverted the moral values of his day); the second by the amazingly explicit discussions of male sexuality in William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, first published in 1857. Acton was certainly on the side of sexual repression, and his text was largely an argument for male continence; but what Marcus did not realise is that Functions and Disorders was called into existence by its opposite, a daring manifesto of sexual liberation published a couple of years earlier. That book was Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, by ‘A Graduate’ [later, ‘A Doctor’] of Medicine’, in which the anonymous author argued for a new religion of reverence for the human body, condemned abstinence as unhealthy and productive of misery, called for an unfettered right to intercourse among the unmarried, and recommended regular use of contraception to guard against pregnancy and condoms to avoid venereal disease.
Echoing William Blake’s aphorism, ‘He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence’, the writer appreciated, long before Freud, that thwarted desire could poison both body and mind. Although his identity was never made public, it was widely suspected that the author was associated with the neo-Malthusians, a significant stream of sexual dissidents and freethinkers who agitated for birth control and secularism.
Although never named by the mainstream press, Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion (later retitled Elements of Social Science) had an immense impact on Victorian society, as an encouragement to libertarians and as a demonised Other against which the medical profession and other puritans developed arguments for sexual continence and male chastity. Despite its enormous length (600 pages of tiny print), Elements was incredibly popular, running through thirty-five editions and selling some 100 000 copies by 1905. Only then was it revealed that the (now deceased) Doctor of Medicine on the title page was George Drysdale, the reclusive brother of the well-known syphilis expert and birth control campaigner, Dr Charles Drysdale.
The most shadowy of all the Victorian iconoclasts, George Drysdale was a fascinating and paradoxical character – a sexually abstinent depressive, urging the joyous duty of sexual exercise on others. He might have been portrayed in the topsy-turvy world of Monty Python as an Old Testament prophet, castigating a chaste and god-fearing people for the scandalous neglect of their duty to have more sex, produce fewer children and cultivate less religiosity – just the sort of attitude that might have appealed to the easy-going settlers in the Antipodes.
Elements seems to have been readily available in Australia. The pioneer sex researcher Havelock Ellis reports that, while teaching in outback NSW in the late 1870s, he read ‘the notorious Elements of Social Science … which I had somehow heard of’ and that it ‘had an influence in stimulating the course of my thought away from Christianity’, even though he found the tone of the book ‘uncongenial’.2 The controversial Melbourne surgeon James George Beaney not only read Elements but, even more remarkably, named the book and found points with which to agree. His widely read The Generative System3 was heavily indebted to Acton’s Functions and Disorders, and he followed Acton in condemning doctors who counselled ‘physical intercourse as a remedy for the evils of continence’.
Unlike his reticent mentor, however, Beaney actually identified the source of this idea as ‘a work on Social Science which, from its extreme candour, has been given to the world with an anonymous authorship [and] gives certain ailments as the result of continence.’ He quoted a passage on the harm of abstinence, and, while insisting that he rejected the doctrine, wondered if it might be true. In support he cited some of Drysdale’s own evidence: a paragraph from Copland’s Medical Dictionary to the effect that prolonged disuse could cause the testicles to atrophy, and several entries in the Dictionnaire des Sciences Médicales that asserted explicitly that prolonged abstinence caused physical harm. Although Beaney felt that these claims were exaggerated, he sought to steer a middle course, conceding that abstinence could cause diseases such as hysteria and chlorosis in women, but not (as Elements claimed) in men.
His rejection of Drysdale’s thesis was on moral-consequentialist rather than physiological grounds:
Who will dare, among English physicians, save the writers of Elements of Social Science and kindred works, to propound ‘the law of exercise’, which is no other than unrecognised intercourse? … The great majority of medical men would, under no circumstances, follow the suggestions of the advocates of the law of exercise. To do so would be to sap the very foundations of modern society, and to introduce a laxity of conduct which would be eminently objectionable.4
Beaney gave cautious approval to Drysdale’s arguments for birth control, at least within marriage, because he believed that a fear of having too many children deterred many men from marrying and drove them to into the arms of prostitutes.5 Unlike Acton, who never uttered a word on birth control, he would seem to be in partial agreement with Drysdale that preventive intercourse would alleviate at least one of the primary social evils.
When news of the Bradlaugh/Besant trial reached Australia, the Melbourne freethinker Henry Keylock Rusden gave a lecture at the Trades Hall in which he stated that he already possessed several editions of Knowlton’s pamphlet on the facts of life but considered later works, notably Elements, superior.6 The book was widely sold in Australia, and often advertised in the back pages of other radical publications. An edition of Annie Besant’s Law of Population, published by the Melbourne Freethought Book Depot, printed a full-page advertisement under the heading ‘Social and Sexual Science’, and included extracts from reviews in English newspapers. The People’s Paper was the most admiring, describing Elements as ‘the Bible of the Body’, and urging husbands and wives to read it closely: ‘Had you, had your parents, read a book like this, a diseased and deteriorated race would not now be wasting away in our country … It is a blessing to the human race.’7 Such enthusiasm reflects both the thirst for sexual knowledge and the difficulty that ordinary people experienced in finding reliable information – a task made more difficult by eagle-eyed moral censors and the police, who denounced such material as obscene and prosecuted the booksellers.
In 1884 police in Sydney raided one bookshop and seized numerous subversive titles, including Elements. Giving evidence for the ensuing prosecution, Inspector Anderson read several passages and opined that if the principles advocated were followed, society would be overthrown. It was one of the most obscene books ever to have come to his attention: chastity in women was condemned, girls advised to disregard the definition of virtue, and prostitution held to be a benefit to society. The bookseller was duly fined and the books burned.
That would normally have been the end of the matter but, as it happened, a freethinkers’ conference was in session when the verdict was announced. It promptly passed a resolution that denounced ‘the repeated seizure of such books as The Elements of Social Science and The Fruits of Philosophy’ and declared ‘that a tribunal specially appointed for the purpose should alone have the power of declaring any publication obscene’. The newly-founded (and then contrarian) Bulletin also objected: ‘There is no indecency in propounding in good faith a philosophy or social system which fails to penetrate the intellect of a Methodist inspector of police.’8 Fine words, but ineffective: in the 1930s and 40s Victoria, Tasmania and NSW passed specific legislation that prohibited the advertising of contraceptives. It was not until the 1960s that it became entirely safe to distribute information on such a basic personal right, and it was only in the 1990s, largely in consequence of the HIV scare, that supermarkets regularly stocked condoms. Prosecutions for obscenity, particularly in novels, print media and art, continued right up until the mid-1980s.
Another sign of Drysdale’s impact in Australia can be detected in the great Federation population debate,9 in which pro-natalists blamed the baneful influence of his book and its followers for the decline of the NSW birthrate during the 1890s. The Royal Commission appointed to investigate the problem in 1904 never had the slightest doubt that the decline had nothing to do with the severe depression and related drop in immigration, but was almost entirely the fault of increasing use of contraception by married couples, chiefly inspired by the circulation of explanatory literature on the subject, especially the Bradlaugh/Besant edition of Fruits of Philosophy. The neo-Malthusians were particularly blamed for the spread of contraceptive knowledge, and Drysdale’s brother Charles was named as the leader of this group: ‘Certain distinguished men, advanced thinkers, founded in 1877 the Malthusian League, with Dr Drysdale as its president.’10
The commissioners were particularly keen to find evidence that the popularity of birth control rose in response to the publicity surrounding the Bradlaugh/Besant trial in 1877 and surged further when the NSW Supreme Court ruled in 1888 that contraceptive information was not obscene and thus could be legally sold. This decision greatly displeased the commission, whose final report included a veiled but unmistakable recommendation that distribution of such material should be prohibited.
The commissioners refused to believe witnesses who stated that people practised birth control because they could not afford to raise more children and insisted, au contraire, that the causes were laziness, selfishness and irresponsibility, spurred in turn by lack of religious feeling. The ‘true reasons’, they said, were: (1) unwillingness to submit to the strain and worry of children; (2) a dislike of the interference with pleasure and comfort involved in child-bearing and child-rearing; (3) a desire to avoid the actual physical discomfort of gestation, parturition and lactation; and (4) a love of luxury and of social pleasures. The common factor in these reasons was ‘selfishness. They are, in fact, indicative of the desire of the individual to avoid his obligations to the community.’11
The ultimate blame for these ominous developments was laid squarely on the efforts of birth control reformers, and particularly the Drysdale-inspired neo-Malthusians, whose efforts attracted severe censure:
[D]uring the last quarter of the nineteenth century a wave of popular feeling spread over a great part of the civilised world, favourable to the individual control of the size of families; and with it there has been a general diffusion of the knowledge of methods by which restriction might be accomplished … with the result that marriage rates and birth rates have diverged in many parts of the world. This propaganda of limitation of families was followed by a traffic in the materials used for the purpose of prevention, which … has encouraged the popular tendency, and brought facilities for prevention within the knowledge and reach of a very large proportion of the community.12
The implications were clear: married couples must be awakened to a sense of their patriotic duty and social obligations; and the circulation of contraceptive information and devices must be stopped. For all the moralistic assumptions, the report was a tribute to the remarkable influence that Drysdale and his followers among the British birth-controllers had been able to achieve – all the more surprising in the context of such glowering establishment disapproval.
Perhaps on account of his anonymity and pathological shyness, George Drysdale has never received his due, neither in his own time, nor from posterity. Although he is often mentioned as an important influence and source of knowledge in general histories of contraception,13 there has been little appreciation that the range of his interests and reform program extended far more widely than just that; and it was not until the 1990s that any serious work on his life and his provocative text was carried out. Thanks to the brilliant and painstaking research of Miriam Benn in Predicaments of Love,14 we now know probably as much about his secretive life as we are ever likely, and her sensitive and detailed study of his thought has been complemented by Michael Mason’s perceptive and appreciative analysis in The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (1994).
Nonetheless, knowledge of Drysdale’s radical challenge to Victorian sexual mores has not spread far beyond specialist circles. Although Drysdale admired John Stuart Mill and devoted immense effort both to popularising his political economy and exaggerating the extent of his hero’s support for family limitation, he has received little or no attention in biographies of Mill.15 Despite Drysdale’s fervent advocacy of condom use as a prophylaxis against venereal disease, he is not mentioned in two recent histories of the condom, Jeannette Parisot’s Johnny Come Lately (1987) and Aine Collier, The Humble Little Condom: A History (2007);16 nor does he figure in general discussions of safe sex and STD prevention. In his study of Victorian moral regulation, Alan Hunt makes the erroneous statement that Drysdale wrote ‘self-consciously academic tomes’ in the 1880s and that they had no influence until the 1920s;17 on the contrary, Drysdale’s one major work (tome though it might have been) was anything but academic, and by the 1920s it was largely forgotten.
Even though Drysdale, with his vision of sexual activity decoupled from reproduction and freed from fear of disease, was truly the prophet of the transformation analysed so convincingly by Hera Cook in The Long Sexual Revolution (2004), she gives him no more than half a dozen lines, and cruelly misrepresents him as being opposed to condom use and uninterested in female sexual pleasure. If there were two points on which Elements insisted above all others, it was that condoms were the best protection against venereal disease and that women needed, could enjoy and were entitled to as much sexual pleasure as men. That such grievous misunderstandings as these can be published so soon after the work of Benn and Mason suggests that more effort is needed to bring Drysdale’s arguments and vision into the public arena.
It is time, then, to winkle George Drysdale out of his self-imposed obscurity, to bring his radical, daring and (in its day) unmentionable book before a wider audience. It is time to confront those who still think that a return to Victorian values means abstinence and the nanny state with his inspiring vision of a free society in which reverence for the human body and understanding of its needs has banished sexual guilt and ignorance. His analysis of the causes and cure of social evils is as much a work of literature as of sociology, fuelled by his agonised perception of a people sunk in misery by want of love: many passages of Elements reach heights of impassioned eloquence that recall the poetry of William Blake or Percy Bysshe Shelley.
A return to Drysdale’s own words will cast a fresh light on the old terrain of Victorian sexuality, and suddenly reveal it as much less clichéd than legend and the satires of Lytton Strachey would have us believe. Drysdale’s arguments are not merely of historical interest, however, but point forward with remarkable foresight to contemporary debates about sex education, control of venereal disease, sexual morality, and the roles of science and religion both in society and in our personal lives. Anyone who reads Elements of Social Science today will not only find another Other Victorian dissident with a deeply humane sensibility, but discover, with a shock of recognition, a remarkably modern mind.
The Elements of Social Science: Physical, Sexual, and Natural Religion: A Classic Treatise on Victorian Sexuality, edited with an introduction by Robert Darby, Prometheus, New York, 2011, ISBN 978-1-61614-179-0
1 Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1966.
2 Havelock Ellis, My Life, Neville Spearman, London, 1967, p. 91.
3 James George Beaney, The Generative System and Its Functions in Health and Disease, 4th edn, George Robertson, Melbourne, 1883. In most respects the book was a standard Victorian warning against venereal disease, sexual excess and of course masturbation, recommending that boys be circumcised for both moral and physical hygiene.
4 Beaney, pp. 55–66.
5 Beaney, pp. 176–7, 184, 187.
6 Frank Foster, ‘Birth control in Australia: Henry Keylock Rusden and Knowlton’s “Fruits of Philosophy”’ in Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 50, 1979, pp. 237–42. Rusden (1826–1910) was a civil servant and secretary of the Royal Society of Victoria.
7 Annie Besant, The Prosecuted Work: The Law of Population: Its Consequences and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals, Australian edn, Freethought Book Depot, Melbourne, n.d. [c. 1880s]. Copy in Harry Hastings Pearce Collection, National Library of Australia (HHP8662).
8 Peter Coleman, Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition: 100 Years of Censorship in Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1974, pp. 50–2.
9 Neville Hicks, This Sin and Scandal: Australia’s Population Debate 1891–1911, ANU Press, Canberra, 1978.
10 New South Wales, Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth Rate, Minutes of Evidence, Para 6587; evidence of Dr R H Todd.
11 Report, Paras 83–84.
12 Report, Para. 85.
13 Such as Norman Himes, Medical History of Contraception (1936), Peter Fryer, The Birth Controllers (1965) and Angus McLaren, Birth Control in Nineteenth Century England (1979).
14 J Miriam Benn, Predicaments of Love, Pluto, London, 1992.
15 Drysdale is not mentioned in Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand, Atlantic Books, London, 2007.
16 The fact that Parisot is French is no excuse, as Drysdale’s work was well known in France and his book was translated into French and many other European languages.
17 Alan Hunt, Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 101.