I had been aware of Miriam Benn for some years, because I kept coming across her trail in libraries: her borrower’s slips between the pages of books, her signature as a user of special collections, librarians’ memories of an Australian woman scholar spending her vacations researching in Britain. Unhappily for me, she was obviously investigating that enormously important, mysterious and unexplored Victorian figure: George Drysdale. She was certainly doing this as well as I was – perhaps much better. Worst of all, the spoor was old, the campfire ashes long extinguished. It appeared that any minute the world would hear, if not the whole truth about George Drysdale, then at least a great part of it.
Last year, by chance, I learned Miriam Benn’s address in England, and was able to make contact and enquire about the progress of her work. Her book had just gone to press. It seemed to have been a long time in the writing, but it transpired that it was not only about George Drysdale. Miriam Benn had tackled two generations of remarkable Drysdales and their partners: George, his brother Charles Robert, the latter’s mistress and intellectual colleague Alice Vickery, their son Charles Vickery Drysdale, and his wife Bessie. And when I saw the proofs I realised that she had indeed researched her subject profoundly. Her discoveries about the personal life of George Drysdale, in particular, were of great significance and, in view of the exceptional secrecy surrounding him, a brilliant piece of detective work. George remains, structurally and conceptually, Mrs Benn’s primary subject in Predicaments of Love. The other figures in this group portrait were notable workers for reform on medico-social issues – prostitution, women’s medical training and treatment, and above all birth control – but the indispensable impetus, operating at first invisibly but with compelling effect on Charles, and then via him on his partner and son, seems to have come from the extraordinary George Drysdale.
He was born in 1824, the second youngest son of Sir William Drysdale, a leading Edinburgh citizen and one-time City Treasurer. ‘Our idolised boy’, as his sister called him, had a dazzling career at Edinburgh Academy, and in 1841 embarked with no less lustre on a Classics degree at Glasgow. Then the darkness and mystery falls on George Drysdale’s life, which was never to be lifted. Sir William died in 1843, aged 62. George suspended his studies at Glasgow; nothing is known of his activities in the next year except that he undertook a couple of walking-tours on the Continent, the second with his younger brother Charles. In August 1844 the family were appalled to hear that George had drowned in the Danube at Vienna.
But he was not dead. The evidence is that even his brother – traumatically, it must be guessed – believed in the drowning; it is quite unclear how George’s Harry Lime-like ‘death’ came to be attested. Just over eighteen months later George returned to his joyful family. They gathered that in the meantime he had ‘travelled to Hungary’ and found employment as an English tutor in a noble family, whence he had walked the hundreds of miles home once the ‘pressure on the brain, occasioned by overstudy’ had ‘subsided’. For the next three years he seems to have been inactive, recovering from or still a victim of this psychological collapse. But in 1847 he resumed university studies, this time as a medical student – first of all at Trinity College, Dublin and then at his home university of Edinburgh.
Whatever happened to George Drysdale between 1844 and 1847 had something importantly to do with sex. He interrupted his final work for his medical degree to write an astonishing, emotionally-charged polemic against sexual continence, Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, which was published anonymously in 1854 or 1855 (it is better known by the title it acquired with its second issue, The Elements of Social Science). The book’s insistent attack on continence is largely couched in medical terms, and I imagine that Drysdale resumed study at university when he perceived that medicine would provide the groundwork for the ideas about sexuality which had grown out of his breakdown in 1844.
Miriam Benn argues that we can learn from the book in some detail about Drysdale’s experiences in and around the years 1844-7 if we attend to the solitary case-history of male sexual disorder given there, and see that it must be ‘autobiographical confession’. This case-history occupies a full five pages, quite early on in the Elements, and it does harmonise in a striking way with the young career of George Drysdale, as unearthed by Mrs Benn. The ‘case’ is ‘a young man about fifteen years of age, of active, studious and erotic disposition’, a star pupil at his school, who had been much troubled by sexual urges until he discovered to his delight the expedient of masturbation. For about a year he had masturbated two or three times a day. But he then became worried by certain supposed symptoms of ill-health – including nocturnal discharges – and this worry turned into hysterical panic when he read ‘an article on Onanism in the Encyclopedia, written by some antiquated horror-monger’.
He consulted a doctor, who prescribed ‘counter-irritant ointment, and a course of tonic medicines’. These did help his symptoms, and he gave up masturbation through an effort of sheer will. But, observes Drysdale, this was really a disastrously false cure, and the beginning of a long series of mistaken treatments of the young man’s condition, for which the doctor should instead have prescribed ‘regulated sexual exercise’ – that is, fairly frequent intercourse. When the symptoms came back, supplemented by ‘a growing confusion of mind’, the young man threw up his school work although ‘high honours awaited him.’ and was treated by his doctor with the much more drastic remedy of urethral cauterisation with caustic.
The young man became locked into an appalling cycle of painful cauterisation, catheterisation for urinary retention, renewed ‘symptoms’, renewed panic, more cauterisation. He undertook a couple of ‘pedestrian tours’ which seemed to boost his health, and he settled for two years on the Continent where he even ‘ventured to fall in timid love’. But his brain, in particular, seemed to be still dismayingly weak, and he embarked in ‘solitary moodiness’ on an eight-hundred-mile walk. Later, at home, his mood improved under the influence of ‘a new attachment’ and aspirations ‘to do some good to others even with his impotent brain’. He was still periodically dashed into depression, however, until he came across the book Des pertes seminales involontaires by the distinguished French physician Claude François Lallemand – from which he realised that the cure for his condition was regular intercourse.
But it took two consultations with Lallemand in Paris before the young man’s ‘insuperable bashfulness’ about adopting this remedy was overcome. He then embarked on a programme of ‘preventive intercourse’, starting moderately at ‘only once a week’. Despite the further distresses of treatment for a urethral stricture, and a dose of gonorrhoea, he slowly improved. Now, reports Drysdale, ‘under the constant use of the natural means of health ... he has been able to enter on a profession, and to study with energy and vigour.’
This is indeed all remarkably consistent with the few known facts about George Drysdale’s young life. There is even room for the two visits to Lallemand’s surgery – in the form of a pair of Continental excursions which seem to have been undertaken by Drysdale in 1846 and 1847. Miriam Benn has also established (and this is perhaps her outstanding discovery) that Drysdale put himself in the way of having ‘regulated sexual exercise’, at least from his late forties, by cohabiting with a woman of humble origins in his house in Penge. Letitia Radley, born like Drysdale in 1824, was the daughter of an agricultural worker from Suffolk. She had been briefly married to a local man, but was widowed in 1852. It is not apparent when, or how, Drysdale met her.
Such facts are never easy to come by in the English 19th century, but cracking the privacy of George Drysdale is a particularly remarkable achievement, for he was quite exceptionally secretive. In 1888, a generation after its first publication, ‘as much mystery’ was said still to attach to the authorship of the Elements as had attached to that of The Vestiges of Creation in 1840. No one seems to have suspected George Drysdale (while those who were in on the secret may have numbered no more than half a dozen).
Drysdale was not a candidate for suspicion, in the sense that not many people even knew of his existence. He moved to London in the mid-1850s, and is listed at various Central London addresses in the Medical Directory. But these are almost all the business addresses of his well-known and active medical brother Charles. George Drysdale seems never to have practised, he never added to his Edinburgh MD, and he never published in the medical literature. He is never recorded as participating in the work of any of the progressive bodies whose opinions he certainly supported. There is not a single reference to him in a social capacity in the published memoirs, diaries and letters of the period. One portrait survives, but dating probably from his beardless adolescence (one of his ‘physical religion’ principles was that men should not shave).
Drysdale’s reclusiveness creates puzzles about his life after 1855, and is itself a puzzle. He said in the Elements that he was publishing anonymously to spare the feelings of a ‘relation’, and after his death Charles explained that this relation was their mother, Lady Drysdale. Miriam Benn doubts whether tenderness for his mother’s sensibilities can really have been the motive for George’s determined anonymity, on the grounds that Lady Drysdale was quite thick-skinned about sex. I am not convinced by her evidence here, but it is striking that Charles was widely supposed to be the author of the Elements and seems to have been happy to deflect suspicion from his brother as a result. Charles actually had strong motives for keeping his sexual slate clean. It is another of Miriam Benn’s discoveries that he and Alice Vickery not only never married but bore two children while purporting to be living at separate addresses: Charles Vickery (who has always been known about as a birth-control campaigner) and the hitherto unknown George Vickery. The couple eventually let it be understood that they were married by starting to cohabit in 1895, but at any stage the truth could have been a deadly weapon for enemies of Alice Vickery the pioneer of women’s medical training, or of Charles Drysdale the neo-Malthusian.
One must suppose that Charles had a passionate loyalty towards his brother and the doctrines of the Elements, and it is still possible for the modern reader to feel the compelling character of George Drysdale’s mind in the pages of his book. It opens with a wonderful clarion call of a sentence, which deserves a place in any dictionary of quotations: ‘There is nothing from which mankind in the present suffers more, than from the want of reverence for the human body.’ The Elements is an intensely and anguishedly serious book – a quality which much disconcerted its detractors, who could not find in it the mischievousness which glints, at least, in all previous 19th-century libertarian discourse. But it is not pompously pro-sensual, mere Victorian earnestness turned on its head. We may be lulled into thinking this when we read formulations such as ‘every individual should make it his conscientious aim that he or she should have a sufficiency of love to satisfy the sexual demands of his nature, and that others around him should have the same.’ We must shake ourselves awake, and grasp Drysdale’s astonishing point here: every sexually capable person has a duty to promote his or her own sexual satisfaction and that of others.
This particular remark, moreover, concerns young people, of both sexes. The Elements is very novel in its celebration of the era of late adolescence/young adulthood and its erotic rewards. Its ‘reverence’ for the body is unqualified, and embraces all phases of our physical being in its ideal of ‘a physiologically perfect life, perfect in every stage, perfect in its natural termination’. Drysdale’s ideas on medicine are thus in some respects strange (he believed that all dead bodies should be reverently dissected), but also impressive to the modern reader for their emphasis on the prevention of disease, as opposed to patching up its effects. But the most remarkable moment of reverence in the Elements must be its calm and kind discussion of sodomy and lesbianism, which makes Bentham’s (privately expressed) tolerance of sexual deviance, itself very advanced in its day, seem quite grudging.
Drysdale’s vision has its dark, nightmarishly dark, side. The Elements proclaims both the ideal of reverence for the body, and the fact of intense current suffering due to abuses of sexuality. Drysdale was an uncompromising Malthusian, at a time when most opinion doubted Malthus’s claim that a mushrooming of population was only prevented by ‘misery’, ‘vice’ and ‘moral restraint’. He was haunted by the Malthusian misery – the physical wretchedness – of the working class. So there are twin horrors in Drysdale’s world, which he writes about in language which resembles that of Blake: working-class suffering, and ‘the sexual disappointments and anxieties’ which ‘darken the whole sexual atmosphere’. It follows that birth control is doubly urgent: to render unproblematic frequent intercourse, by all persons, from puberty, and to end the vicious struggle for resources in the population.
The seriousness of its author’s temperament is at once the strategic strength of the Elements, and a weakness. For the intellectual scaffolding of his libertarian vision seems to have become more and more important for Drysdale, and when he expanded his book in various later editions he simply weighted it further (and it was a long text from the outset) with economic and social theory. The practical discussion of sexual morality and behaviour was never actively revisited, being reproduced unchanged and virtually unsupplemented in successive editions for fifty years. Charles Drysdale remembered his brother making ‘copious notes’ on the classic political economists while he was a medical student – in other words, around and perhaps even after the time of writing the Elements. George himself implies a shift in interests and allegiances away from Lallemand and the problems of sex, in this recollection: ‘long before I read the works of Mr Malthus and Mr Mill, my mind was absorbed in the evils I saw and read of, from sexual abstinence, and other sexual difficulties and diseases.’
Drysdale’s next project, after he moved to London, was a short-lived penny periodical, of eight pages, called The Political Economist and Journal of Social Science. Here was more heavy-going popularisation of social theory (which its editor persisted in despite being urged by one reader to write, instead, a cheap pamphlet of sexual advice shorn of intellectual trappings). The periodical folded after a few issues. Drysdale then found a ready channel for his ideas in the pages of the secularist magazine, the National Reformer, under the editorship of Charles Bradlaugh in the 1860s. He used the initials ‘G.R.’ for his many contributions to this journal, and it was commonly suspected that G.R. was also the author of the Elements.
Occasionally the old (that is, the youthful) Drysdale of the book flashes out in the National Reformer. G.R. mentions the ‘law of exercise’ of the sexual organs, and the ‘spiritual castration of our times’, but there is not much of this, while there is actually a good deal of diplomatic agreement, in the interests of furthering the cause of birth control, with correspondents voicing anti-sensual views which were anathema to George Drysdale. Birth control, grounded in Malthusian demography, remained a burning priority, and under Drysdale’s influence Bradlaugh’s allegiance to the cause was confirmed, to the point where he founded the first Malthusian League. Our last glimpse of George Drysdale is as the author of the scanty medical notes with which Bradlaugh and Annie Besant furnished their epochal new edition of the birth-control booklet, Charles Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy, in 1877. It is also true that many of G.R.’s articles in the National Reformer are boring digests of John Stuart Mill, Drysdale’s new intellectual hero, not only on economics but also on epistemology and ethics.
The Elements of Social Science continued to prosper in the marketplace, however. It sold as well as, or slightly better than The Fruits of Philosophy and Robert Dale Owen’s Moral Physiology, and with the same profile: a steady small sale until the mid-1870s, and thereafter a much higher rate, of several thousand copies a year. By Drysdale’s death in 1904 the total quantity disposed of fell a little short of a hundred thousand copies. By this measure alone the Elements is an important Victorian book, especially as the constraints on its power to reach the public were so great. It was never reviewed in the respectable press, never stocked by a bookshop, and was publicised and sold entirely by secularist agencies – and even some of these repudiated it as obscene. Given what it has to say, and how it says it, the Elements is more than important: it is a major text of its era. So why is it scarcely ever cited, let alone discussed, by historians of Victorian culture? Why has there been a silence, until now, on the life and thought of its author?
Miriam Benn has taken on an important subject, and found out rather more about it than might have been hoped. Historians, humanly enough, tend to take on subjects because they know there is an unexploited body of information in existence; and, again humanly, they do not spend time drawing our attention to the important subjects on which they have no information. There is no life of Drysdale’s contemporary William Acton, for example, because of the lack of materials for it. On the other hand, Acton’s views are cited ad nauseam in modern treatments of Victorian sexuality: so one must conclude that it is not the obscurity of Drysdale which has kept him out of the historiography, but the inconvenient character of his ideas.
Even if one were to decide that Acton was good evidence about opinion in the period and Drysdale was not (which would be an extremely dogmatic decision), it is necessary to know about the latter in order to understand the former. Acton’s celebrated Functions and Disorders of 1857 is partly conceived as a counterblast to Drysdale’s treatise of two years earlier – one doctor writing to correct the dangerous teachings of another. Acton’s strategy is interesting: to seek a biological foundation for the period’s confidence that human sex drives, as observed at the behavioural level, were susceptible of modification (specifically, reduction). If he could do this, the whole Drysdalean logic of the need to exercise the sexual organs to avert atrophy, and worse, would collapse. Acton devises the hybrid theory of ‘semi-continence’: in effect, that sexual drives are promoted by environmental factors, and unless and until they are so promoted need not be satisfied.
As I have said, this was to bring into the medical domain a kind of thinking that was fashionable in another framework (being a standard feature of attacks on Malthus, for example), and it did not fit with the tendency of traditional medicine. Acton himself later conceded that physiological theory did not support the idea of plasticity in the libido. The interesting corollary, which is correct, is that Drysdale’s attack on the evils of sexual restraint was in some measure conservative: Victorian medicine did incline to the view that celibacy, in either sex, was unhealthy. This might seem to reduce the inconvenience and embarrassment which the libertarianism of the Elements creates for modern prejudices about Victorian sexual culture, suggesting the thought that the book can be safely mined for nuggets of Victorian preposterousness after all. And it is true that Drysdale’s brand of libertarianism was very different from our 20th-century variety. His emphasis on the physical damage caused by sexual continence nowadays must seem grotesque (in the Elements an absurd range of genital and peri-genital conditions, in both sexes, is ascribed to lack of intercourse). He was a firm believer in the evils of masturbation, and in the reality of that fantastic disease ‘spermatorrhoea’ in its canonical, intransigent, Gallic version.
But it would be folly to try to domesticate Drysdale like this. The Elements is indeed fatal to modern prejudices about the Victorian. Its conservatism, medically and demographically (that is, its adherence to Malthus), was subversive in its implications for sexual codes because of the progressive position on these matters. William Acton and the other anti-sensual enemies of the Elements on the whole thought of themselves as progressives (I have mentioned the anger the book aroused within the secularist camp). Again and again one encounters the note of modernity, of confidence in being at the forefront of things, in the anti-sensualism of the day: to hope for, and believe in the possibility of, a reduced role for sex in human affairs goes along with doubting God, supporting the cause of women, working for democracy, and emancipating the working class. The progressive mentality is the dynamo of 19th-century anti-sensualism: not, as the half-baked platitude would have it, ‘evangelicalism’ (whatever that difficult term might denote).
The great historical significance of Drysdale’s Elements was that for the first time in the century progressive opinion did not spontaneously quench a libertarian initiative within its own ranks (the contrast with the Owenite sexual experiment thirty years earlier is especially illuminating). Charles Bradlaugh stood by Drysdale’s book, ‘law of exercise’ and all, and carried the day against a most venomous attack from within his party. Thus was forged the modern link between radicalism and libertarianism, and a century-old link between radicalism and ideals of sexual restraint broken. It might not have happened if the radicalism of this moment had not been somewhat muted, tinged with the non-progressive: it all took place in the quiet post-Chartist, pre-Labour years, and Drysdale and Bradlaugh were no socialists.
The neglect of Drysdale and his book exposes, I believe, the dismally unadventurous state of Victorian cultural studies. Current academic writing on the period often seems adventurous by virtue of a novel and ambitious idiom, but scarcely less often the underlying argument is indistinguishable from the crudest saloon-bar moral triumphalism: ‘Hurrah for 20th-century sexual emancipation!’, ‘Boo to Victorian sexual repression!’ The wisdom of the saloon-bar should be the academic’s first enemy. Better the tyranny of political correctness than this tyranny. Victorian sexual studies suffer the worst of both worlds: the academic ascendancy of political correctness deployed on behalf of vulgar historical ignorance.
It is a pity that most people in the street would doubt the following three propositions about 19th-century England. It is a disgrace that most academics would doubt them too. 1. Large numbers of married couples, in all ranks of society, were resorting to birth control from at least 1860. 2. The number of prostitutes in English cities either held level or declined throughout the century (either way, there was a decline relative to the population). 3. Most women and most orthodox general practitioners believed that the female orgasm promoted conception. These are not coat-trailing hypotheses about the period, won against the grain of the evidence, but perfectly certain facts, which the evidence supports in the plainest way.
Happily there are several recent honourable exceptions to the rule that the historian mustn’t rock the boat of cliché and stereotype about Victorian sexual culture. Miriam Benn’s book is one such exception. Another is Lesley Hall’s Hidden Anxieties, published last year and recently reviewed, and justly praised, in the London Review (24 September). A third admirable study is Françoise Barret-Ducrocq’s Love in the Time of Victoria. This book reconstructs from the records of the Coram’s Fields Foundling Hospital the experiences of London lower-middle-class and working-class girls, and their partners, whose liaisons produced illegitimate children. The resulting picture is often hard to recognise as ‘Victorian’. For example, middle-class employers were commonly unvigilant on the sex-lives of their servants, and even kindly towards them when they became pregnant (while the girls’ own working-class kin, however lowly, could be moralistic and harsh).
Each of these three books approaches Victorian sexual culture along its own distinct axis, and each encounters neglect or distortion of the truth about the subject. The current deficiencies of academic curiosity and independence of mind are evidently an all-round problem.