A Tale of Two Books

This week has mostly involved two books - one I loved, one I hated.  I’m going to talk about the one I hated first, so I can get the negativity out of the way.  I’ll also say less about it as I want this blog to be positive (and not like essay criticism where there seems to be a rule that the negative paragraph has to be the same length as the positive one, however minor the criticisms are!).

I’m not going to name the book I hated as this criticism isn’t really constructive.  What I will say is that it was about the history of the eugenics movement.  It’s for use in my literature review, where I talk about the gaps I’m trying to fill with my research.  Obviously if it was too relevant to my work I’d be in trouble, but I skimmed through 300+ pages and only got two and a half A4 sides of notes from it.  And it just wasn’t really my kind of history book.  I’m generally not very interested in the history of organisations - I’ve struggled with similar books about the histories of Mass Observation and The EEC.  I prefer books about lots of ordinary people rather than a small number of leaders arguing about their ideologies and changing the name and direction of an organisation.  This book sapped the energy from me so much I’m considering downing tools for Christmas early, or at least having a break from secondary reading.

On the other hand, Sex Before The Sexual Revolution, by Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher **(Cambridge, 2010) was a delight, and the kind of book I’d love to write as an historian.  I was a bit sceptical about whether I’d like it - I wasn’t keen on Szreter’s demographic work.  But I’m pleased to report it’s the subject and not the author that’s the problem in that case.  Don’t get me wrong - I like the results of historical demography, and playing with the variables myself, but long-winded explanations of how a conclusion was reached aren’t for me.  Anyway, **Sex Before The Sexual Revolution is based on oral history interviews and much related to my field, if more in method rather than actual subject.  Here’s a breakdown about what I liked about it.

  • Fisher and Szreter got 387 pages from 88 interviewees.  I’m hoping to use 40 interviews from the **British Library **(I found 120 only children among the oral histories there but that’s a bit excessive work- and travel-wise) and this gives me confidence that I can get a PhD out of them, alongside autobiographies and contemporary comment.

  • The interviewees weren’t shy about talking about controversial subjects.  Not only did this make the book very enlightening, but it makes me optimistic that the people whose stories I re-use will be just as forthcoming.

  • It challenges ideas about sex before the 1960s.  Most of the husbands interviewed were keen to ensure their wives enjoyed themselves, and while wives saw sex as a duty, it was one they regarded positively.  The subject of petting before marriage also arose, and I don’t remember coming across that in history before - the authors put this down to lack of terminology.

  • The chapter most relevant to me was about birth control - a couple of interviewees gave details about why they stopped at one child - information I can use in my thesis!  In fact, quite a few couples were described as having one child, possibly indicating a disregard for the negativity only children were afforded during this period.  Many interviewees saw sex as such a private thing that they avoided comparing themselves with others **and **advice manuals.  Maybe they took a similar approach to family size?

I liked this book not only for the above reasons, but the sweeping reason of human interest.  I’m interested in how people lived and related to each other and this book very much satisfied my interest.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, editor of web content, haver of PhD

Colchester, UK https://www.draliceviolett.com