Back in 1877, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh found themselves in front of the Lord Chief Justice, defending their publication of a small book in a trial that was described as ‘one of the most critical in the history of our liberties’. The book, entitled The Fruits of Philosophy, had originally been written by an American doctor named Knowlton, and was a pamphlet that informed its public gently, and so euphemistically in places as to have probably been quite opaque, about the possibilities of birth control. For their troubles, Besant and Bradlaugh stood in the dock accused of circulating obscene material calculated to deprave public morals and faced the likelihood of a lengthy stretch in jail.
This was not going to happen if Annie Besant had anything to say about it. The decision to publish had been essentially hers, and as a campaigner for women’s rights, for social reform and for helping all the poor underdogs of the world, she had many excellent reasons why she wanted that pamphlet in circulation. Besant had decided to conduct her own defence, and for two days she spoke eloquently and compellingly about the reasons for its existence. There had to be some education for the poor, she argued, who suffered a terrible burden with over-large families. Fathers fell on hard times through unemployment or falling wages and had to struggle with the guilt of failing their families, women were exhausted and ill from too-frequent child bearing, and the infant rate of mortality was shocking amongst the poor. ‘Gentlemen, do you know the fate of so many of these children? – the little ones half starved because there is food enough for two but not enough for twelve; half clothed because the mother, no matter what her skill and care, cannot clothe them with the money brought home by the breadwinner of the family; brought up in ignorance, and ignorance means pauperism and crime.’ The members of the jury, she maintained, lived in happier circumstances, and did not know what family life was like under such harsh conditions. ‘I hold that it is more moral to prevent the birth of children than it is after they are born to murder them as you do today by want of food, and air, and clothing and sustenance.’
In the heart of the Victorian era, this stirring campaign ought to have heralded a relaxing of the kind of constrictions that troubled all classes. Middle and upper class families had their own reasons, too, for wanting to restrict the size of their families, and in these times of extreme delicacy about sexual matters, men were supposed to embrace abstinence in the face of their womenfolk’s distaste for the pleasures of the flesh. What happened instead, as we now know today, was the boom of the prostitution industry, with numbers in London indicating that there was one prostitute for every dozen men in the local population. Hidden it may all have been, under a veil as dense and choking as the London peasouper fogs, but the reliance on prostitutes was a major cause of contagious disease as well as the source of confused relations between men and women. So much would have been eased and improved in the Victorian way of life, had birth control been readily available, but it outraged and offended polite society, seeming to interfere in unacceptable ways with the innocence of women, the demands of religion and the contract between husband and wife. Indeed, one of the great disadvantages the defendants faced in this trial was that the most eloquent speaker and the most committed reformer was a woman, who dared to speak out this way to her male audience.
Annie Besant had been through her own troubles. She had divorced her minister husband after a brief but deeply unhappy marriage, nursed a child through a life-threatening illness and recently lost her mother. These events had conspired to make her lose her faith, by no means a simple matter in her society. She had joined the Freethinkers, the group who preached (and the word is accurate) in opposition to established religion, and who involved themselves with many social causes. Annie’s extraordinary talent for writing tracts and pamphlets, and for public speaking, had taken her to the head of the organization and to an abiding friendship with its leader, Charles Besant. But for all that, she was beyond the pale of society, an anti-Christian, a divorced woman and a suffragette, too (in fact the woman’s movement wouldn’t have her, as too dangerously tainted goods).
After her rousing speech, Bradlaugh spoke briefly and then the Lord Chief Justice summed up. He damned the histrionic rhetoric of the prosecution (who had called the book ‘indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene’ – when it fact it began by outlining the economic theories of Malthus) and gave a fair and just account of proceedings. But when the jury returned, a strange verdict was brought. Two members had remained exceedingly hostile to the case, and because of their refusal to compromise the jury declared: ‘We are unanimously of the opinion that the book in question is calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time we entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.’ What this meant was a ‘guilty’ verdict, a fine and six months in jail. But the judge relented, and told the pair they could avoid prison if they agreed not to publish. Besant and Bradlaugh agreed not to publish, and at least won their liberty.
Or so it would seem. The notoriety of the trial allowed Annie’s vindictive ex-husband to make another attempt to take their children away from her. This trial was a done deal, with a judge who was harsh and prejudiced. He was horrified by the idea of a woman defending herself in court and declared that Annie’s daughter ‘would be outcast in this life and damned in the next’. Sole custody was granted to her father and for another fifteen years, Annie Besant saw neither of her children again. The irony that she had fought for every woman’s right not to have more children than she could manage, and lost her own in the process, was clear and bitter to her. She had been punished severely for rising above her assigned social place, and for speaking out against the accepted regulations of her time and culture. But the one thing she did not do – could not do – was abandon the cause. In fact, in order to distract herself from her intolerable loss she threw herself even more deeply into work, and one of the things she did was rewrite that pamphlet on birth control. Since the trial had at least started public discussion and a gradual acceptance of the principle, she published it, and it sold over one hundred thousand copies.
I wanted to write about Annie Besant primarily because I admired her for her courage. She fought and won and lost all at the same time, and went on to have a life that was filled to the end with courageous struggles on behalf of the poor and voiceless. But when Emily asked all her blog friends to talk about health reform, I couldn’t help but feel an analogy between this moment in the history of Victorian England, and the current situation in the States. I don’t know enough about it to talk in any detail, but in both cases, a proposition is made for health reform that looks in theory as if it should benefit large numbers of people. But the proposed change cuts to the heart of a deep and dearly held ideology, a belief of how things should be, how they ought to be organized. Even if people are not entirely happy with the current situation, there is much fear and disinclination surrounding the thought of change. Then as now, ideology deploys stubborn tentacles that dig deep; it is never lightly held. However angry one might feel at those hostile members of the jury, they were only doing what they thought right and proper. And that’s the problem with big changes when they attack underlying ideological thought – it takes a long time to implement them, as it takes a long time for people to change what they believe. The real problem with Annie Besant’s story here is not that people held differing views, but that what was different was demonised, a punishable offence. Whatever America decides, it will do better to make its decisions with respect and compassion towards all deeply held views, and a willingness to see all sides. At least in America you have the mighty Obama, endowed with both heart and brain, to see you through whatever difficult period of transition lies ahead.
(Details of Annie Besant’s life taken from her biography by Rosemary Dinnage)