Marie Stopes
Marie Stopes; drawing by David Levine

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; and (reputedly, at least) shocked the country to the core. Its argument, that women were capable of sexual pleasure and should be given a chance by their husbands to experience it, was not the sole cause of offense: among the jewels there was quite a lot of down-to-earth information not all previously compiled in book form (“You certainly get in a lot of important points—menstruation, positions, ejaculation without penetration, birth control, insemination etc,” enthused a supporter).

Wise Parenthood, much of it devoted to the eugenic benefits to civilization of the cervical cap, went so far as to state that sexual enjoyment—only within marriage—was “of supreme value” quite apart from the procreation of children. A reviewer wrote that Arnold Bennett’s introduction to “her filthy book is a disgrace to him and to his profession.” At the Lambeth Conference the Church passed a resolution against any teaching which “encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself.” Free copies sent to Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra remained unacknowledged; and even Lloyd George, a much more obviously suitable recipient, would not jeopardize his career by backing the Stopes propaganda for birth control. Noel Coward may have been tickled to death by the Stopes phenomenon—but for the public, when the press had had its way, rubber goods, Stopes, and animal lust were inextricably associated.

The origin of the phenomenon, of the chaste lady scientist who became, in her own eyes, “a kind of priest and prophet mixed,” who wanted to replace Christianity by a new religion based on Christ’s wholesome love of sex, who loved lilies because they “reveal to the delighted eyes of mankind not merely the outer vestibules of sex but their very organs,” and at fifty-eight was outraged when asked to write on “Facing the Forties” because, she said, scientific diagnosis put her age at twenty-six—the origin lay, conventionally enough, in her curious childhood. It was an unhappy one and its elements reappeared in reverse and parody in Marie Stopes’s adult career.


The family was “intellectual”: her parents met at a scientific meeting, and her father was a distinguished amateur palaeontologist and archaeologist (Marie was to become the first woman paleobotanist). Her mother, thirty-nine on her marriage, was an accepted Shakespearian scholar and the first woman in Scotland to complete a university course. She believed in Rational Dress, permitted no smoking in her presence, and was a passionate suffragette. She also had a Calvinistic horror of the flesh. On her death an old friend wrote to Marie that “it is a long sad story—your mother’s married life and yours and Winnie’s girlhood…if ever there was a born old maid your mother was that woman—she should never have married.” A letter quoted to her husband on his deathbed is scarcely credible—“the sensual look has passed away from your face that so pained me,” she wrote, “and you seem to have regained the chastened expression of your youth, which made me trust you.”

For her father, a gentle man given to childish jokes and unwise financial speculations, Marie naturally felt much more affection. He had, it seemed, begged his wife to “put from you the teachings of your splendid brain” and find some affection for him, but in vain, and the marriage became an overtly unhappy one. In this household the two children were kept secluded, Marie being taught by her mother until she went to school at twelve; a picture of the little girls shows two small replicas of their mother, but with expressions of blank distress rather than her dour self-satisfaction.

From her mother Marie must have got her passion for emotional chastity which for years combined oddly with revolt against the taboos of physical chastity; from the relationship with her father her undaunted belief in an ideal partnership and also her penchant for marrying ineffectual, overgrown schoolboys. Under the self-centered megalomania that grew with the years she carried from her childhood a burden of insecurity; and there is something about the gush and gabble of her writing which suggests an underlying emotional incapacity which only disappeared when she was involved in practical battles.

Her first love, perhaps, was genuine. Having gained outstanding honors at university and a research scholarship, followed by a doctorate in paleobotany from Munich (and this was 1904), she fell in love with a diminutive, married, middle-aged Japanese professor. She was much taken up at the time with the idea that a kiss was as binding as a marriage vow—logical enough in view of the fact that she had never heard of any other consummation to marriage—and once the deed was done considered herself irrevocably committed. Something could be arranged about his wife. Marie Stopes was a pretty woman and the professor, too, felt “mysteriously electrified till the minutest points,” he wrote, at the very thought of her. She managed to get a grant to study in Japan; but Professor Fujii cooled and disappeared, leaving Marie a hurt and angry woman at twenty-eight.

Nor was she much luckier in her two marriages. She was the kind of forceful woman who attracts weak men, and on her part she was not one for scrutinizing the genuineness of her own feelings with much interest. Though she scarcely knew her first husband when they married in 1911, she broke the news to her sister with “except that he has a stupid little nose he seems absolutely perfect! I couldn’t have made him better myself”—more the description of a new cushion-cover than a new husband. Anyway, he had the essential qualification that he had never kissed another woman.

The tragicomic story of the non-consummation of Marie Stopes’s first marriage, of the fact that she did not, at thirty-one, realize for at least a year that there was anything unusual about her state, of the marriage’s eventual dissolution and the writing of Married Love to enlighten other innocent wives, is well known. But there is something exceptional, even for those far-off days, about her extreme ignorance. She was a scientist, had worked as a lone woman among men for years, and by the standards of the time was almost a middle-aged bride; there must have been many younger and more sheltered girls who went chastely but not in utter ignorance into marriage, even then. Mrs. Stopes’s upbringing had certainly left its mark; but the story also suggests an egotistic absorption in her own preconceptions that was typical of Marie Stopes—and perhaps an isolation, an absence of ordinary gossipy friendship with other women.


Such was the background to Married Love and its historic consequences. The second marriage, in May 1918 to Humphrey Roe, was consummated and there were two children, one stillborn. But it is clear from letters quoted here from the couple’s doctor that the apex of rapture and its flaming tides were not easily achieved; Humphrey Roe, in fact, had “problems,” and after a few years Tiger Humphlekins began to be more and more of a nuisance to his Wood Nymph, and he died banished to a seedy bed-sitting-room; his position was already foreshadowed when he wrote during the engagement, “you could have captured anyone you wanted. Yet little me has won this great prize.” There is, it seems, a curious inverse ratio between writing about sex and actual experience of it: not only Marie Stopes, but Annie Besant, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, even, it seems, Freud with his six children, all had cramped or odd sex lives.

Roe, however, was useful to his wife in the early days in other ways than by giving her a child: with his money and personal support he helped her open the Mothers’ Clinic for Constructive Birth Control in a working-class area of London. Contraceptive advice was given free, the clinic and its staff of midwives being paid for out of the couple’s own pockets. Although it was never as besieged with clients as Marie Stopes liked to claim, it undoubtedly—taken together with the books and the constant flow of Stopes publicity—did much to alleviate ignorance and distress. Part of the enormous archive of Stopes papers that she bequeathed to the British Library consists of letters from an army of correspondents, all of whom received personal answers. “When I first saw you at a meeting about 25 years ago you looked to me like a beautiful Goddess, preaching a sermon of hope to a girl like myself 25 and allready a mother of 5…. My gratitude goes out to you. I might easily have been the mother of 12,” runs a typical letter.

A paradox is thus involved in the attempt to sum up the good and the bad achieved in such a lifetime. Lacking all the virtues we currently admire—honesty, imagination, generosity, and even common sense—in her private life Marie Stopes hardly brought sunshine to those associated with her. She very deliberately detached engaged men from their fiancées because it suited her, despised and discarded two rather pathetic husbands; having brought her son up in skirts (trousers might injure the growing genitals) she quarreled irrevocably with him when he married a short-sighted girl (“the awful curse will carry on and I have the horror of our line being so contaminated”); she brought in a series of adopted “brothers” for him and discarded them when they did not come up to specification. She was anti-Semitic, right-wing, and more concerned in her campaigning to breed the “C3” strain out of the population than to ameliorate its lot. A ridiculous and really rather dreadful woman—who in her public work did much good, although she was not quite the lone pioneer she claimed to be. And when we read her assertion in 1942 to Clement Attlee that “the whole peace of the world depends on my work being available and rightly presented to the backward peoples,” do we now laugh or not?

This biography is also interesting in throwing light on a particular aspect of social attitudes. While there was certainly considerable support from progressives for the birth control campaign, we also read here of a symposium published in 1920 in which various contributors deplored the unnaturalness of contraception; of an official medical discussion in 1921 expressing similar views; of the prosecution and conviction in 1923 of the authors of a too graphically illustrated birth control pamphlet.

Now the 1920s was the decade in which I was conceived—indeed I see that in the month of my birth Marie Stopes was in court attending a libel action in which prosecuting counsel described her as “an author who has devoted a considerable amount of time and study to the arresting and interesting proposition of how to achieve sexual satisfaction while at the same time avoiding the attending inconvenience of having children.” Few of my contemporaries from the respectable middle-class university circles my parents belonged to have more than one or two siblings, and indeed I remember my mother’s attitude to those university families where there were a lot of children: they were liable to go in for eccentricities like nude bathing and Greek for girls. Only the poor and the aristocratic (like the Mitfords) casually bred. The check pessary or some such thing must have been as accepted, therefore, though less visibly so, as the silver cruet on the mahogany dining table: an interesting sidelight on the time lag between public and private attitudes. Whether we take her book as food for thought or as entertainment, Ruth Hall has made a splendidly professional job out of the three tons of Stopesiana left by the lady to posterity.

This Issue

November 10, 1977