The book “A Dirty, Filthy Book” by Michael Meyer is reviewed as a combination of sex and self-righteousness.
Ninety years prior to the trial of Lady Chatterley, the Old Bailey was struggling to determine if The Fruits of Philosophy had the potential to corrupt wives and servants. The book, written by an American doctor in straightforward language, explained contraception methods, primarily through the use of a spermicidal douche after sexual intercourse. The tone was practical and efficient, far from being seductive.
Despite British authorities’ perspective, the idea of married couples having sex for reasons other than procreation was considered extremely indecent. The greatest concern, too unpleasant to be discussed in polite settings, was that women would use contraception to avoid pregnancy and therefore reject the obligations of marriage while indulging in their own sensual desires. This was a practice that men had been engaging in for centuries with the assistance of sex workers, without anyone questioning the stability of society.
Annie Besant, a charming and intelligent clergyman’s wife known for her civic-mindedness, stood in the dock. She, along with her co-defendant Charles Bradlaugh, faced charges for distributing The Fruits of Philosophy at a reasonable price of six pence, making it accessible to all in need. Besant confidently represented herself in court and called upon medical experts to testify to the plight of working-class families who were unable to control their fertility.
The issue was not just having too many people to feed, but also the consequences of overcrowding – diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis, and even incestuous relationships. Additionally, women suffered from frequent childbirth, experiencing painful prolapses and infections. In a calm and eloquent manner, Besant presented a terrifying scenario to the court, describing a Malthusian nightmare where countless malnourished children died each year from illness and hunger. It would be more effective to prevent this suffering from occurring in the first place.
The Fruits of Philosophy trial is a significant event in Victorian social history, bringing together all of its main themes and symbols. The court scene has a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan, with Sir Alexander Cockburn as the lord chief justice who could easily play a comedic baritone. The jury is a group of sensible men who initially come prepared to condemn the scandalous book, but end up falling for the charming and pure Besant. Even Besant’s co-defendant, Bradlaugh, is a virtuous man who rose from humble beginnings through hard work and education. However, if this were a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Bradlaugh would have discovered in the final moments that he was actually born into nobility. This was not the case, although he did eventually become a member of parliament.
Michael Meyer perpetuates these stereotypes and adds his own comedic commentary. However, this attempt to seem relevant is unnecessary. Besant’s story is powerful enough without all the extra embellishments. Despite her popular appearance in court, she and Bradlaugh lost their case due to a technicality. The following year, Besant’s legally separated husband successfully took away her beloved daughter, claiming she was an unfit mother. Her ability to endure and thrive in these oppressive circumstances makes her too fascinating and admirable to be reduced to a clumsy modern label. In a time when reproductive rights are being restricted globally, and even in our own backyard, her story must be retold until its message is firmly ingrained.