Annie Besant: #FreeThinking For BBC Radio 3

So I’ve spent the last few months in a hermit-like existence writing ‘A Victorian Guide To Sex’ and ignoring everything else, especially my blog. But, now that the manuscript is finally in at its publishers, and just before I drown under the myriad of edits and rewrites (oh, and also get around to finishing the PhD, that would also be good) there was time to experience the insane, intense, and (yes, a lot of adjectives – IT WAS THAT GOOD) intellectually-explosive weekend that was Radio 3’s #FreeThinking Festival at the Sage, in Gateshead, as one of their ‘New Generation Thinkers’ for 2013.

BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, launch a yearly search to find 10 young academics, at the start of their careers, to showcase their research and areas of expertise to a wider audience. After a selection process which saw us flex our argument and opinion muscles, as well as coming up with, and pitching, ideas and subjects that would make great radio programmes, the final ten are named the AHRC’s and BBC Radio 3’s ‘New Generation Thinkers’ . Being selected as one of this year’s ’10’ has been an amazing experience, from taking part in Nightwaves debates, to The Essay, and having the chance to pitch ideas in Radio 3’s commissioning rounds. The first half of our year has been leading up to ‘The Festival of Ideas’, a great weekend of debate and discussion where we each presented an extended version of ‘The Essay’ on our own research, based around the festival’s theme of ‘Who Is In Control?’. It is also a great excuse to go out for a curry at 10 p.m at night, and stay up until 2 a.m talking about Doctor Who.

One of the things I knew I wanted to tackle was the preconception many of us still seem to have that the Victorians, and the 19thC as a whole, was pretty much a dry tumbleweed of sexual prudery or rampantly disowned deviance. Obviously both of those poles did exist, just like in our own society, but something that often gets ignored in our retelling of history is the attitudes and sexual norms of a historical period, in favour of the extremes. Having researched ‘A Victorian Guide to Sex’ for the last year, I’ve come across loads of exciting and surprising facts about the Victorians and Sex, as well as some truly unique stories, one of which I chose as for my #FreeThinking talk, ‘False Conception: Female Sexuality in Victorian England’ – which sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but is basically the story of one woman’s fight for contraception and sex education in the nineteenth century.  There, see, like I said, SURPRISING.

In 1877, Victorian society was rocked by the reports of the Bradlaugh-Besant obscenity trial. Arrested for publishing an immoral or obscene book, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh (who doesn’t really get that much of a look-in in my talk – Sorry Charles, your time will come, I promise), both editors of The National Reformer, had recently reprinted an American pamphlet from the 1830s, by Dr Charles Knowlton. Fruits of Philosophy’ set out every possible form of contraception available in the 19thC, as well as the methods and benefits they would give to the ‘Young Married Couples’ for which it was intended. The debates that this created are hugely important to our understanding of the Victorians and their attitudes to sex, as well as the persisting double standard between men and women at this time. Charles Bradlaugh held on to his parliamentary seat after the scandal, but in 1879 Annie lost the custody of her young daughter, Mabel, as the courts decided that there was to much of a risk that she might ‘grow up to be the writer and publisher of such [similar] works’ as her mother.

English: Photo of the social reformer Annie Be...

English: Photo of the social reformer Annie Besant (1847-1933) during the 1880s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Annie is a controversial figure, both in her own time, and now. After ‘False Conception’ first aired, one academic argued she was ‘a Malthusian, racialist & eugenicist’ and that I had conducted an ‘astonishing whitewash’ of Annie’s life. Which are pretty horrifying terms to be connected to, and all the more important to address. So let’s unpack this a little. To begin, Annie was not a Malthusian. She was a Neo-Malthusian, which means she disagreed with the Malthusian religious ideas of delayed marriage and abstinence, and instead advocated early marriage and the use of birth control methods. But, she did agree with the premise of Malthusianism – the subject of population control, and the fear that a growing population would be unable to be support itself. It’s an 18thC idea that was seen as highly controversial in its day, and throughout the 19thC. For Annie, it was also an intensely personal issue. Papers from her divorce case state that ‘her efforts to impress upon her husband their duty to limit their family within their means had been a source of friction between them.’ For Annie, the creation of children who would be born into a life of poverty and early death was akin to murder, and yet at the same time she seems to have possessed a uniquely practical outlook on the human condition – people want to have sex. More importantly, people are going to have sex, and unless you are going to educate them about how to have it safely, the most common result will be an unplanned and unsupported pregnancy. It’s an argument that is still going on today, as you can see from this epic smackdown delivered by Hilary Clinton in 2009.

Now for the terms racialist and eugenicist. I don’t think anyone can hear those two words together and not immediately think of the horrors of the Holocaust, or the atrocities and genocide that seems to reoccur in modern warfare. Eugenics – a term first coined in 1883 – and ideas of race are interwoven into many debates from the Victorian period, from the hilarious bad science of phrenology, to the awful beliefs and arguments for racial supremacy that persisted into the 20thC. So was Annie Besant a racialist and a Eugenicist?

Well, one of the joys of being a phd student is that you can’t – and wouldn’t – claim to know everything, and my research into Annie is still ongoing. But what I do know is this: Although born in England, Annie’s family were Irish and it is something of which she was intensely proud, saying that while, ‘her blood was three quarters Irish, her heart was 100% Irish’. Throughout her life she was known as a huge supporter of Irish Nationalism and the Home Rule movement, and marched as part of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration on the 13th of November, 1887. By the turn of the century, and now living in India, she became a passionate advocator of Indian Independence, publishing a weekly newspaper arguing for freedom from British Rule:

“We claim an open path for Indians to every post in their native land, as promised by the Proclamation of 1858, and the abolition of every law, that places them in a position inferior to that enjoyed by the English. We ask that capacity and high character shall determine all appointments to office, and that colour and religion shall be entirely disregarded as qualifications.”

– Annie Besant, Commonweal, 1914

These are not statements commonly linked to those who support racialist or eugenic doctrines. The 1877 trial is uniquely important to our understanding of sex, sex education and sexual attitudes during Victoria’s reign, and the wider Victorian ideas of true love, respect and mutual physical pleasure that I talk about in ‘False Conception’ exist in the majority of the marriage guides and manuals that I have read in the course of my research. This is the backdrop against which Annie Besant published ‘Fruits of Philosophy’, to a 19thC public as intrigued and as interested as we are in the experience and realities of sex. It was also a society concerned with eugenics, Darwinism, civil war, anarchists, socialists, slavery and science. And as always, is far more complex than it first appears. 12 minutes is not enough time to express all of those points, and so I’ve tried to address them here. I believe Annie Besant deserves greater investigation, she was a passionate campaigner for worker’s rights, the rights of women and personal freedom. Her advocacy of birth control in a society that refused to discuss it publicly cost her her daughter, and yet she was undaunted. She traveled the world, well educated, heavily politicized and extremely eloquent – an incredible nineteenth century woman, and a unique subject for research.

*N.B. Anyone interested in further reading should check out ‘Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England’ by J.A. and Olive Banks, which is a great book on the subject. Also Joanne Stafford Mortimer’s ‘Annie Besant and India 1913-1917’ in the Journal of Contemporary History, and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time: Annie Besant featuring Dr Lawrence Goldman, Dr David Stack, and Dr Yasmin Kahn.