Making modern love

Photo, Sailor Reading in His Bunk Aboard the USS Capelin at Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, August 1943, Naval Photographic Center, Original in the National Archives
"Sailor Reading in His Bunk Aboard the USS Capelin at Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, August 1943," National Archives.

We take for granted that reading has an impact on who we are as people and that reading about sex and love affects how we can imagine ourselves in relationships. Finding evidence of this, however, and explaining exactly how reading affects a person, is incredibly hard, especially when referring to reading in the past. Even when you know what was written and read, you don’t really know how people read it. Anyone who has been part of a book group or graded a paper will know that there are huge differences in how people read and understand a piece of writing.

In my most recent book, Making Modern Love, I use a vast trove of writings to develop a history of how people used reading to imagine themselves as lovers and sexual beings. I explore how people in the UK read about sex and love, and how that reading shaped their sense of themselves, between the end of World War I and the start of World War II.

To do this research, I started by looking to see where people got their information. What affected men and women most were the materials thought least important in society. Few people could read great books or serious medical science to learn about love and sex. Instead, they read popular literature by authors like Edgar Wallace (of King Kong fame), Sax Rohmer (author of the Dr. Fu Manchu stories), and Edith Hull (author of The Sheik). They read popular science like Marie Stopes’s best-seller Married Love, and they enjoyed magazines like Silk Stockings, Ranch Romances, and London Life. People made mysteries and romances into the mainstays of lending libraries and then they modeled their ideas of sex, glamour, love, and relationships from these sorts of sources.

Dedication, from Married Love, Marie Carmichael Stopes, 1919, A.C. Fifield, Internet Archive

Dedication, from Married Love, Marie Carmichael Stopes, 1919.

In order to understand how they read, I turned to the letters these readers then wrote in response. I have tracked down tens of thousands of letters that people sent to doctors, popular magazines, and each other in Britain and across the empire and dominions. Men and women wrote these letters for a lot of different reasons. They wrote to explain themselves, to communicate with others, to ask for information, and to testify to their own existence. Imagine being in the middle of the South African countryside and thinking that there’s something wrong with either your body or your relationship because, if your husband doesn’t caress you during intercourse, you can’t orgasm. Or imagine being in the middle of Australia in the 1920s and trying to find someone who shares your love of high heels—an experience shared by many women, and even a few men.

The letters I found were often incredibly touching. Soldiers in the trenches read sex books that explained how to have good marital relations and wrote letters to authorities asking for pointers on how to make their wives happy, even though there was a good chance they might not survive the next offensive, let alone the war. “When I joined the army at the beginning of the war I became engaged to a girl,” one man wrote for advice. “For some mysterious reason I now have what I believe is called sexual anaesthesia—a complete absence of sexual feeling. As my fiancé is a healthy athletic girl and presumably normally sexed, I dread that this loss of sexual feeling on my part will lead to marital unhappiness.” Women wrote about their husbands’ mutilated bodies and asked how to keep their husbands sexually interested.

Reading allowed people to understand themselves and writing allowed them to respond, both by asking for information and by creating communities. As one person wrote to a glamour magazine in 1939: “My favorite section is the correspondence section. Until quite recently I thought—and so have many of my friends—that I was one of the queerest and the only one of my kind in the world.”

Through these letters, I began to see people grasping for ways to make their world modern and leave behind what they saw as the cramped sexual lives of their parents. Though some of their concerns might seem laughable now—the widespread fear, for example, that masturbation saps sexual vitality—, many still resonate, and the basic impulse of self-improvement and self-fashioning seems very current. Making Modern Love shows the impact that popular materials have long had on people’s ideas of sex and love, and how everyday people used those ideas from popular culture to remake themselves. As they did, they set directions for sex and love that continue to affect us almost a century later, not least as writers, readers, and scholars of romance.

Lisa Sigel

Lisa Z. Sigel is an associate professor at the Department of History, DePaul University where she teaches on British history, historical methods, women's history, and the history of consumerism. Her book, Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain, has just been published by Temple University Press. She has previously published on the history of pornography (Governing Pleasures and International Exposure) as well as the history of censorship. Find out more about Lisa Sigel.

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