"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
This article outlines six books that touch on the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial (1923-24).
Marie Stopes Her Work and Her Play was the second edition of The Authorized Life of Marie C. Stopes first published in 1924. Bearing in mind that the case was heard in November of that year, the first edition did not mention the trial. Maude was well-known in his day as the biographer, translator and friend of Leo Tolstoy.
The book provides some anecdotes about the Stopes v. Sutherland (1924). It discusses the opposition to the Mothers’ Clinic in general and Catholic opposition in particular. It purports to reveal what happened in the jury room that led to the verdict in the High Court in 1923. It also attacks Professor Louise McIlroy as a hypocrite: Maude tells a story in which Stopes (in disguise) visited McIlroy at the Royal Free Hospital some years after the trial. According to Maude, Stopes was fitted with a cervical cap, the same device about which McIlroy had been so critical in 1923.
Maude’s book is of interest to glean some anecdotes of the case from Stopes’ point of view, but it should not be taken as an objective account. Firstly, it is likely that Stopes herself wrote much of the book[*] and the story about Professor McIlroy has been debunked here and here. Further, Maude’s relationship with Stopes was intimate and, if they were not actually lovers, it was not for want of effort on his part.
[*] In Passionate Crusader (1977) Ruth Hall explains that when the first edition was panned by critics (“The book is a panegyric not a biography” opined The Spectator), Stopes blamed Maude for its poor sales. Maude countered: “You so impressed on me the importance of getting the Life out quickly, and I evidently rushed it to the point of scamping it and failed to correct some of the errors in your rough draft.”
Chapter 12 God Fights Back deals with the background to the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial while Chapter 13 The Great Trial deals with the trial itself. The book presents the essentials of the case, including some of the exchanges between the barristers and the witnesses.
Hall’s book includes a well-written account of the case so is hard to fault, nonetheless there is a confusing statement on pages 213-4 that should be clarified. Hall quoted the defamatory words that were at the centre of the libel trial, referring to them as “the full passage in Halliday Sutherland’s book that Marie complained of”. The problem is that the full passage of Sutherland’s book and the part that Stopes complained about are different things. The full passage in Sutherland’s book is shown below; the text struck through were excluded from Stopes statement of claim (and from Passionate Crusader).
Exposing the Poor to Experiment. Secondly, the ordinary decent instincts of the poor are against these practices; and, indeed, they have used them less than any other class. But, owing to their poverty, lack of learning, and helplessness, the poor are natural victims of those who seek to make experiments on their fellows. In the midst of a London slum a woman, who is a doctor of German philosophy (Munich), has opened a Birth Control Clinic, where working women are instructed in a method of contraception described by Professor McIlroy as ‘The most harmful method of which I have had experience’.Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians (1922) by Dr. Halliday Sutherland.
When we remember that millions are being spent by the Ministry of Health and by Local Authorities – on pure milk for necessitous expectant and nursing mothers, on Maternity Clinics to guard the health of mothers before and after childbirth, for the provision of skilled midwives, and on Infant Welfare Centres –it is truly amazing that this monstrous campaign of birth control should be tolerated by the Home Secretary. Charles Bradlaugh was condemned to jail for a less serious crime. [Emphasis added]
This is not mere nit-picking: Serjeant Alexander Sullivan K.C. barrister for do-defendant Harding & More argued that the omission of those words made the libel appear to be worse than it in fact had been, and because it has confused at least one other biographer.
In a note at the back of the book, Rose commented on the difficulties faced by biographers of Stopes:
Marie Stopes also wrote of her own life in both fiction and fact, and the two are not always easy to distinguish. Her first two ‘authorized’ biographies were written during her lifetime and virtually dictated by her to close friend and biography Aylmer Maude. Her third, posthumous, biography was written by Keith Briant, an intimate friend of her later years. Ruth Hall’s 1977 biography revealed new insights and proved an invaluable guide.Notes on page 247 of Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution (1992) by June Rose, Faber and Faber, London.
Rose built on Hall’s work and was no doubt helped by the by the passage or time that enabled archivists of the British and Wellcome Libraries to catalogue Stopes’ papers. She produced a biography which was the most critical to date. For instance, on page 77, she debunked one of Stopes’ most famous myths: that during her marriage to Reginald Ruggles-Gates, she was a sexual ingénue and only learned that he was impotent after reading books in a locked cupboard in the British Museum. For all of Rose’s openness, however, it is likely that she self-censored her account on the basis that she feared becoming known as the person who toppled Stopes from her pedestal. In an interview, Rose also revealed that she had omitted at least one anecdote on the grounds that it was “too distasteful”.
Chapter 8 Conflict outlines Stopes v. Sutherland and it contains brief excerpts of the exchanges during the trial. In providing Dr. Sutherland’s biographical details, Rose did not disclose the link between his work as a tuberculosis specialist, his disdain for eugenics, and subsequently to his opposition to Stopes. In fairness, it is a flaw shared by all of the biographies of Stopes. Rose concluded that the Jury’s decision was “a confusing verdict on a confusing case” is disingenuous given that it is the job of the author to clarify these issues.
Muriel Box was an accomplished British screenplay writer who won an Academy Award in 1946 and was the founder of Femina Books. This book has two sections. The first is a 30-page introduction written by Box, followed by 350-pages which includes the transcript of the first trial in the High Court in 1923, the judgements in the Court of Appeal (1923) and House of Lords (1924).
There are many aspects of this book that are likely to mislead its reader, starting with a title that suggests Dr. Stopes was put on trial – she wasn’t. Stopes was the plaintiff and it was her who placed Dr. Sutherland on trial. The first line of Box’s introduction asks: “What crime did Marie Stopes commit?”, again misleading because the case was a civil matter, not a criminal one. Box’s statement that Stopes was on trial “not only for her freedom, but everything she had worked for and achieved during her professional career” is again nonsense, evidenced by the fact that when she lost the case in the High Court in 1923 and in the House of Lords in 1924, she was free to go. These are merely two of the many misstatements in Box’s introduction.
Things improve from page 43 onwards, when the transcript of the trial from the shorthand notes of Mr. William Rogers, the stenographer appointed by Stopes, begins. It reads like a play, though with little or nothing in the way of stage direction. As an authentic record of proceedings in the High Court, it reflects the tension and drama involved in the trial, though it may not be apparent to the reader who is not familiar with the background, the legal issues or the rules of evidence in the case. As an authentic record of the trial, commissioned by Stopes, it is worth its weight in gold. There is only one better source, namely Rogers’ original typed transcript held in the Wellcome Institute’s Stopes Collection in London which include Dr. Stopes’ written comments in the margin.
1934 Geoffrey Bles, no index, no pictures.
A Time to Keep was the 1934 sequel to Dr. Sutherland’s autobiographical 1933 bestseller Arches of the Years. In it, he outlined his legal battle against Dr. Stopes. The account was written almost ten years after his victory in the High Court and, as Dr. Sutherland wrote, he avoided the more bitter aspects of the trial. Nonetheless, it does carry Dr. Sutherland’s sketches of the case, including his dealing with his legal representatives, of giving evidence and of waiting for the Jury’s verdict.
2020, Kindle Direct Publishing. 355 pages, index, 16 pictures.
Exterminating Poverty draws on all of the books listed above, Dr. Stopes’ papers in the British and Wellcome Libraries, the archive of the Archdiocese of Westminster as well as, uniquely, Dr. Sutherland’s personal papers. For the first time, the book “joins the dots” between Dr. Sutherland’s work as a tuberculosis specialist, his religious beliefs, his disdain for Malthusianism and eugenics and his opposition to the Mothers’ Clinic and Dr. Stopes’ eugenic agenda.
The authors (one of whom is the author of this article) are grandsons of Dr. Sutherland and, worried that this would create a perception of bias towards Dr. Sutherland, have provided extensive in-line citations to verify their assertions.
The first section of the book provides the background to the case, including medical beliefs about the hereditary nature of Tuberculosis and Dr. Sutherland’s view, founded on his own research, that it was primarily an infectious disease. It then details the early stages of litigation from the issue of the writ and explains the legal issues with ease and clarity in the appropriate place. The second section of the book is taken up with the trial in the High Court in February 1923. The trial is brought to life at the statements of the protagonists (from the Court transcript) is interspersed with analysis and comment. Readers expecting a dry legal text will be pleasantly surprised as the tensions and drama of the “cat and mouse” games between the barristers and witnesses are bought to life. The final section of the book deals with the appeals to the Court of Appeal and to the House of Lords and the aftermath and modern manifestation of Dr. Stopes’ birth control agenda through MSI Reproductive Choices.
Exterminating Poverty is essential reading for those researching the life of Dr. Marie Stopes because it details many of the misrepresentations or the issues glossed over in hagiographies. These include details of the eugenic agenda behind the the Mothers’ Clinic (for instance, through Stopes’ statements to the Court), the truth about her dealings with the Gold Pin, and details Stopes’ disastrous interference in her own case (including the dubious alteration of witness statements and her inability to co-operate with her legal representatives). A “must read” for anyone wanting to understand the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial without having to work too hard.
You can purchase your copy of Exterminating Poverty here.