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Sexual Progressives: Reimagining Intimacy in Scotland, 1880-1914 by Dr Tanya Cheadle

In our latest great blog we hear from Dr Tanya Cheadle about her new monograph: Sexual Progressives: Reimagining Intimacy in Scotland, 1880-1914

In October 1890, the feminist freethinker Jane Hume Clapperton and maverick scientist Patrick Geddes walked together through the insalubrious wynds and closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town, having an argument about sex. Geddes believed that sensuality was something humans would evolve out of; after all, the ‘vague sexual attraction’ present among the lowest organisms had developed in time to become the psychical and physical ‘sexual sympathy’ experienced by the average human. This therefore promised a future in which the emotions enjoyed by ‘the poet and his heroine’, those ‘rare fruits of an apparently more than earthly paradise of love’, would one day become the daily reality for all.[1]

Clapperton disagreed. The ‘animal nature of sexual passion’, she argued, did not imply unevolved brutality; rather, it had a purifying and ennobling effect, inspiring an individual tenderness which radiated out into society, leading ultimately to a ‘great increase of goodness’.[2] Physical pleasure then, was not something to evolve out of, but was rather an act which facilitated evolutionary progress, enabling the human race to develop emotions that were of ‘the highest, most purifying order’.[3] She believed that birth control, for which she was an early feminist advocate, should play a key role in ensuring this altruistic sex could be enjoyed by all without increasing the birth rate. Well aware of the transgressive nature of her views, she wrote afterwards to Geddes, ‘Does this shock you I wonder – I have reached the conclusion very slowly myself but the ascetic view of the sexual problem is not the right one, I am convinced’.[4]

Clapperton and Geddes’s debate was one of many taking place within politically radical circles in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The so-called ‘Sex Question’ animated those with a range of overlapping political, social and spiritual affiliations, including feminism, socialism, and anarchism, as well as freethought, theosophy and occultism. What united them was a desire to reform current sexual attitudes and behaviours – around marriage, birth control, sex work, and homosexuality – which they perceived as immoral and outdated. In the pages of avant-garde journals, feminist pamphlets and sociological treatises, in lecture halls and drawing rooms, as well as in Edinburgh alleyways, such individuals exchanged ideas, consolidated theories and built networks, seeking ultimately to precipitate the dawning of a new, more ‘authentic’ and egalitarian sexual morality. Some also became intimate with each other, forming passionate friendships, having sex and falling in and out of love.

The primary setting for this ‘anti-Victorian revolt’ is often presumed to be London, the city seen as providing the anonymity and critical mass of bohemian intellectuals necessary for staging a sexual revolution. This book switches the focus to Scotland, building on the scholarship of Sheila Rowbotham and others, by foregrounding the New Women, ‘free lovers’ and gay rights campaigners clustered in ‘dissident networks’ outside of metropolitan centres.[5] Offering the first, detailed, group portrait of Scotland’s sexual progressives, it maps the interplay between the intimate lives and sexual discourse of Clapperton and Geddes in Edinburgh, but also other fascinating and under-explored fin de siècle voices, including Glaswegian Bella Pearce, the editor of a feminist column in the socialist newspaper the Labour Leader, but also with her husband Charles, a key British disciple of the notorious, American-based Christian sexual mystic, Thomas Lake Harris.

This collective biographical approach brings into focus a number of insights on intimacy in this period. It highlights that a necessary precondition of radical thought on sex was the rejection of established religion, although it was not to unbelief, but rather to heterodox belief systems that sexual progressives turned, including positivism, theosophy, ‘religious agnosticism’ and the occult. It also questions the long-standard perception of the period as one of generational challenge: while Holbrook Jackson in his 1913 review of the 1890s may have described young men revelling in ‘smashing up the intellectual and moral furniture of their parents,’ the Scottish evidence highlights instead the ways in which ‘modern’ ideas on sex were linked to wider and above all older radicalisms.[6] Finally, while the rigour with which the establishment pursued its course of moral conservatism in this period is well documented, the book emphasizes the additional regulatory role played by feminist and socialist organisations, reluctant to reinscribe past associations between political radicalism and immorality. This meant that while Scotland’s radical voices on the Sex Question may have reimagined new forms of intimacy, living them proved rather more complicated.

Dr Tanya Cheadle is a lecturer in gender history at the University of Glasgow. A historian of modern sexuality and gender, she specialises in progressive and esoteric subcultures in fin de siècle Britain and her first book, Sexual Progressives: Reimagining Intimacy in Scotland, 1880-1914 has just been published by MUP (2020). She is now embarked upon a Carnegie-funded project on masculinity and power during the Victorian and Edwardian occult revival, examining the construction and experience of manhood and masculinities within organisations such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Society.

[1] P. Geddes and J. A. Thomson, The Evolution of Sex (London: Walter Scott, 1889), pp. 266-7.

[2] J. H. Clapperton, A Vision of the Future based on the Application of Ethical Principles (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1904), pp. 100, 103.

[3] J. H. Clapperton, Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1885), p. 173.

[4] Letter from J. H. Clapperton to Patrick Geddes, 15 October [1890], Geddes Papers, National Library of Scotland, MS10525.

[5] S. Rowbotham, Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States (London: Verso, 2016), p. 3; Dreamers of a New Day: Women who Invented the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 2010); Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (London: Verso, 2008).

[6] H. Jackson, The 1890s: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (London: Cresset, 1913, 1988), pp. 154.