The Reading Room

A Dirty, Filthy, Book Review

Book review: A Dirty, Filthy Book: Sex, Scandal, and One Woman's Fight in the Victorian Trial of the Century, by Michael Meyer, Penguin UK
Publication date: February 8 2024
“A very decided stop must be put to this tyrannical interference with our rights.” - Annie Besant
The 1877 obscenity trial that followed Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh's distribution of a reprinted birth control manual, The Fruits of Philosophy (1834), caused what would later be dubbed the Streisand Effect. Attempt to suppress information by bringing a court case, and far more people will learn about the very thing you're trying to hide than ever would have discovered it on their own. Besant's own estimate was that the pamphlet, which had quietly been selling 700 copies a year, exploded to over 133,000 copies in two months.

The core fight was not one of contraception, nor even obscenity itself, but morality. If women were allowed to control their own fertility, the argument went, they could engage in sexual immorality without pregnancy, and thus without social consequence. That the pamphlet threw in some token references to marriage was merely a smokescreen – anyone with sixpence could purchase the booklet from a “scampish hawker” in the street (147). If an unmarried woman had that knowledge, she might indulge her passions and choose not to bother with marriage at all. The result would be the corruption and breakdown of moral society.

Besant not only represented herself at her trial, but was the only woman allowed in the courtroom after the opening day. She argued that she was working on behalf of poor women who needed (and begged for) information that would save them from becoming worn out with endless childbearing. For Besant, the issue of access to information was fundamentally one of class. Women of the higher classes could afford to pay more than sixpence for authorised medical textbooks which provided the same facts, so why should poorer women be denied useful knowledge?

Of course, the class situation was more complex. Although it was certainly true that physicians knew ways of impeding pregnancy, Queen Victoria herself was unable to escape the horrors of unfettered fertility. She had nine children in seventeen years, and in a letter to her eldest daughter, admitted to worshipping her husband in the same breath as describing pregnancy as the “shadow side” of marriage (122).

This, the Queen and Empress shared with many of her subjects. Meyer offers a poignant glimpse of the reality that lay behind the sixpenny pamphlet when he comments that in over 650 diaries kept by working-class women of this period, not one “mentioned pleasurable marital sex, only unending seasons of pregnancy and childbirth” (183). For these women, their inability to control how many babies appeared and on what schedule meant constant fear, and a glut of under-nourished children.

In addition to being an excellent account of the trial and its implications, the book places this episode within its historical, political, and social contexts. It's a cliché to say that the location is a character, but the London of 1877 and beyond surrounds the reader, from birth announcements on the front page of The Times to urchins swarming the converging streets of Seven Dials. Queen Victoria, too, becomes a character; although she never met Annie Besant, and described Charles Bradlaugh as a “a horrible, immoral Atheist”, she's the nominative prosecutor of the court case, and her perceived disgruntlement hangs over the proceedings. Meyer integrates her into the narrative largely through tracking what she was writing in her private diaries, including (plus ça change) concerns about Russian warmongering. (In spite of this, she demonstrated her impeccable abilities as monarch by sending a birthday telegram to Czar Alexander II.)

The trial takes up the middle third of the book, and the subsequent narrative occasionally meanders while Meyer gamely tracks the post-trial lives of Besant and Bradlaugh. Both of them serve as reminders that a lack of religious belief wasn't a private matter, but was considered as potentially damaging to society as knowledge of birth control. Besant passed the five-day entrance exam for London University and was an excellent student, but her atheism eventually led to her expulsion. Bradlaugh became UK's first atheist Member of Parliament, and the conflicts around whether he could affirm his oath, rather than swear, caused an ongoing uproar that at one point saw him imprisoned in a room within Big Ben. It took eight lawsuits (and four elections from his supportive and patient constituency) before Bradlaugh was able to take his seat.
Although the two rebels appear to move in lockstep, their eventual divergence leaves Besant fighting the establishment while Bradlaugh, who at one point was physically thrown out of Parliament, is eventually embraced by Conservatives and Liberals alike. Besant becomes a Fabian socialist, takes up the cause of factory workers in what became known as the Match Girls' Strike, and – in a truly bizarre turnaround – gives up all her former beliefs in favor of mysticism. Her dramatic, crowning gesture? Newly convinced that sex should only be for procreation, she destroys the printing plates of her book on birth control.