The Radiant Monster

Passionate Crusader: The Life of Marie Stopes

by Ruth Hall
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 351 pp., $14.95

If through a mist of awful fears
Your mind in anguish gropes
Dry up your panic-stricken tears
And fly to Marie Stopes.

Noel Coward met Marie Stopes on board a transatlantic liner in 1922, and they got on like a house on fire. It would make an excellent opening for a game of “Consequences”: what he said is the above (and more in the same vein); what she said, writing to her husband, was that

he is a dear…. He thinks you tremendously handsome…and he is hoping to use his power of laughter to help in social progress…. He told the people at my table that I am one of the greatest living intellects…. I have read two of his plays—one very good and one very bad—I told him it was “putrid” and he took it ever so nicely…. I think he was sent by Providence to re-open my interest in my dear old love the drama.

And the consequence was (to borrow a gambit from the game) that “the world laughed”—or rather that part of the world that reads Ruth Hall’s excellent biography of this preposterous woman today will be highly entertained. Another ironical consequence of Marie Stopes’s existence is that, preposterous or not, the sacred monster did a great deal of good.

The letter in which she describes the transatlantic encounter is typical Stopes in every line: the prodigious lack of humor (what a naughty Noel to tell her he planned to forward social progress with his plays!), the vanity, the confidence in her own opinions that assured her no one could mind having his play called putrid, and the egotism that assimilated everything to her own purposes—young Mr. Coward had been sent, obviously, to revive her own dramatic skills (she wrote several unperformed plays, but Ellen Terry advised her that the public would prefer “a little bit of fluff” and Bernard Shaw was heartless enough to use the words “irrelevant twaddle”). No doubt she lectured Mr. Coward on the need for hygienic birth control, and no doubt—for the corrupter of the nation’s morals remained remarkably naïve—it did not cross her mind that he was not the ideal recipient for her advice.

Marie Stopes was forty-two at this time and a household name, even a notorious one. The notoriety arose, of course, from her authorship of two books that had hit England like bomb-shells, Married Love and Wise Parenthood (Radiant Motherhood was more calmly received). Touted around for three years among publishers who refused to touch it, Married Love when finally published in 1918 sold 2,000 copies within the first fortnight of publication and had run through six editions before the end of a year. Couched in jeweled prose—“The half swooning sense of flux which overtakes the spirit in that eternal moment at the apex of rapture sweeps into its flaming tides the whole essence of the man and woman”—it was written by a virgin …

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