D. H. Lawrence and Tabloids of Compressed Liberty
“Knowledge is, of course, liberty,” said Mattheson.
“In compressed tabloids,” said Birkin, looking at the dry, stiff little body of the Baronet. Immediately Gudrun saw the famous sociologist as a flat bottle, containing tabloids of compressed liberty. That pleased her.
So goes a minor interaction during a party at an English aristocratic estate in D. H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel Women in Love. Lawrence had a sometimes dangerous habit of caricaturing members of his larger social group in his fiction, and also of repaying lingering grudges against quondam friends. In this case, the fictional sociologist Sir Mattheson stands in for the noted (and later Nobel Prize-winning) philosopher Bertrand Russell, whom Lawrence had met in 1915. Despite initially getting on famously, their friendship foundered when the two attempted to collaborate on a series of lectures about the future of society. Russell was a die-hard rationalist, while Lawrence sought in his fiction and his life forms of knowledge that went beyond reason. Russell believed in preservation of social democracy as an ideal, whereas Lawrence believed, as he wrote to Russell in February, 1916, “One must be an outlaw these days, not a teacher or preacher. One must retire out of the herd & then fire bombs into it.”
So goes the background to this squib, with Birkin (largely a fictionalized version of Lawrence himself) calling Mattheson to task to the amusement of Gudrun, one of the novel’s titular women. But what’s the tenor of the imagery of “tabloids of compressed liberty”? We tend to think of tabloids as being smaller than full-sized newspapers that often contain a hyperbolic and exaggerated reporting of current events. We might think that Birkin is dismissing the Baronet as a purveyor of rushed, or even, yellow journalism. But we come up short once we realize that a bottle is involved—for it would be the strange bottle indeed that could contain newspapers of any size.
In fact, we’d be misunderstanding the image. Tabloid newspapers didn’t come into being until 1920-- the year of the publication of Women in Love—and they were named by analogy to the tabloids in actual question: an invention of the late-19th century pharmaceutical industry. “Tabloid” was a trademark registered in 1884 by the Burroughs Wellcome company of London as a neologism formed from the words “tablet” and “alkaloid,” to refer to a new process of condensing medication into regulated and stable dosages. As a Burroughs Wellcome catalog of the time claims, “Purity and reliability of medicament, high accuracy of dosage, and excellence of finish are among the valuable features by which ‘Tabloid’ Brand products are distinguished.” They continue to note their advantages over manual powders compounded by pharmacists: “They are much more condensed then their medicinal equivalents in old-fashioned form; they are issued in accurately-divided doses, and save the trouble of weighing or measuring; exact doses can be instantly administered; and they keep well in any climate.” So popular did tabloid medication prove that Burroughs Wellcome had to fend off legally the use of the term by competing manufacturers, although the term “tabloid” eventually entered the language to refer to almost anything offered in compressed form—including the short items of news later to be found in small-format newspapers.
But in Lawrence’s time the original tabloids also had political connotations. That tabloids kept well in any climate meant they could be used on expeditions into all parts of the British Empire, and as far as the Congo and the Antarctic—Burroughs Wellcome made special Tabloid Medical Chests for use in exploration and warfare to house their signature flat bottles. Tabloids were an emblem of British national pride. Many pharmaceuticals before the War were imported from Germany, and in the UK during war-time drug embargos Wellcome had the home-court advantage. Even the names of the Wellcome products suggested their connection to empire. The name “Empirin,” a form of aspirin mixed with caffeine, speaks for itself. Burroughs Wellcome also marketed the unlikely-monikered tabloid “Forced March,” which contained both caffeine and cocaine (“the combined active principles of Kola Nut and Coca Leaves”), as a useful gift for friends in need of extra energy. But it was also widely used in the front lines during First World War to suppress soldiers’ appetites and to increase their endurance, until the British army banned the use of narcotic concoctions in 1916.
So when Birkin accuses Mattheson of offering “tabloids of compressed liberty” he’s not just accusing him of oversimplification. He’s aligning him with mass production, Victorian colonial values disguising themselves as “modern,” the offer of rationality as a kind of palliative and addictive drug –- almost literally opium for the masses. Lawrence portrays him (and therefore Russell) as an esteemed intellectual who repeats the bromides of empire while thinking of himself as progressive. For Lawrence, in other words, if you oversimplify a subject as complex as liberty, you may think you’re dispensing timeless medicine—but you may, in fact, merely be acting like a pill (if not a whole bottle of them).
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Michael John Luff
I'm not an avid reader of Lawrence, but I find this information fascinating.