Review: When writing about contraception was banned

Review: When writing about contraception was banned

Another ‘trial of the century’ book! This one is a narrative account of events leading up to the 1877 prosecution of a feminist free-thinker, Annie Besant, together with her friend, the activist and liberal politician Charles Bradlaugh.

They had arranged for the publication of Charles Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy – a manual that dared to explain some of the basics of contraception to a British public then, apparently, still largely in ignorance of such facts.

The trial of Besant and Bradlaugh forms the heart of this amiable book. The great novelty for the American author of “bewigged” lawyers and other details of legal practice is obvious.

The trial judge was Sir Alexander Cockburn, then Lord Chief Justice of England, described in this book as “Britain’s highest-ranking judge”.

Much of the narration includes details of contemporary life, presumably to explain the different society of such a private prosecution. Some of the aspects around that trial that was then a private prosecution resonate with modern concerns.

The descriptions of law, lawyers and society in the mid-Victorian era appear to be designed to acquaint American readers and students with some of the social and legal conditions in Britain at various points then and developments later, ‘meanwhile over in Nazi Germany’.

The author is moved to describe, somewhat crassly, his heroine as “a badass”, and to insist that her trial “was to birth control writing what the [Sex] Pistols’ Lesser Free Trade Hall show was to the formation of new bands”.

From a legal perspective, the interest in the book is in the description of the trial of Besant and Bradlaugh. There may not be much new in the narrative but at least it keeps alive in its own terms the earlier political struggles that appeared to have been based on freedom of thought rather than party advantage.

A Dirty, Filthy Book: Sex, Scandal, and One Woman’s Fight in the Victorian Trial of the Century by Michael Meyer. Published WH Allen, 390pp, £25.

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