Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chapter Six Speaking For Herself

Chapter Six  Speaking For Herself

After leaving Frank, Annie survived by writing a series of pamphlets which attacked church dogma; tracts with names like “On Eternal Torture” and “Natural Religion vs. Revealed Religion.” She had taken Mabel with her, but had reluctantly agreed to leave Digby with his father. Life wasn’t easy, but it was better than living with Frank. Later in life Annie wrote:

   “No soul that aspires can ever fail to rise; no heart that loves can ever be abandoned. Difficulties exist only that in overcoming them we may grow strong, and they only who have suffered are able to save.”

What a comfort it could have been to her to hear those words spoken then! But at the time, the only comfort she felt came from a sixteen page weekly newspaper called The National Reformer. The paper was the mouthpiece for a group called the National Secular Society, an organization devoted to the ideas of the new Freethought movement. Although it was anti-church and proclaimed atheism, it was actually much like a religion with its Sunday meetings, its lecture halls and sermons. There was even a Secular Hymn Book.

Stimulated by what she’d heard about this group and its elevated idealism, Annie went to hear the head of the Society, Charles Bradlaugh, speak on a spring evening in the summer of 1874. She was moved by his words and his presence. She believed what he believed, and she felt an instant kinship. He must have felt the same, for straight away he offered her a job as a columnist and reviewer at his newspaper, The National Reformer.

Charles Bradlaugh was forty years old at this time and was a self-made man. His mother had been a nursemaid and his father a simple clerk. His formal schooling ended at the age of eleven, but he immediately took a job as a law clerk and began his self-education. His studies in law resulted in his becoming one of the most feared advocates for the “people’s causes” in the English courts. He had married an artisan’s daughter, had two children by her, and by the time he met Annie, his wife was hospitalized with alcoholism and Bradlaugh was struggling to pay for his daughters’ education in boarding school.  Here’s how Annie describes him when she first heard him speak:

“He was a large man with a grave, quiet, stern, strong face, a massive head, keen eyes…his voice grew in force ad resonance as he went from point to point in his speeches, till it rang out like a trumpet. Was this the man I had heard the newspapers describe as a blatant agitator, an ignorant demagogue?”

Charles quickly became Annie’s mentor and inspiration—he taught her the art of public speaking. She already had the gift, and she only needed to learn the fine points of reasoning and elocution. She was fond of quoting one of his lessons: “You should never say you have an opinion on a subject until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the view to which you are inclined.”

Annie’s heart must have gone out to him when she saw his living arrangements, and saw the extent he gave up all personal comforts for his duties to his family and his liberal cause. When his household had to be broken up to send his wife and children away, he sold everything to help support them, and took with him only a few things: his books, a tiny bed, a washstand, a chest of drawers, a table, a couple of chairs and one painting. He moved into two cramped rooms in which there was barely enough room for a man his large size to move in. His one attachment was to the painting, which he declared was “beyond all price.” It was a dark oil painting, depicting a tired hurdy-gurdy boy sleeping in a doorway, with a monkey watching over its little master. The painting hung over the head of his bed on the only wall space unoccupied by his books.

It wasn’t long before Annie began her career as a speaker with him. Together they traveled from one end of England to the other, speaking out on all sorts of liberal causes. Annie’s first speech was on the Political Status of Women and was well received, however in her later life she recalled: “Before a lecture I am so horribly nervous, wishing myself at the ends of the earth, heart beating violently, and sometimes overcome by sickness. I cannot conquer the physical terror and trembling. People often say to me: ‘You look too ill to go on the platform’ And I smile feebly and say I am all right, and I often fancy that the more miserably nervous I am in the ante-room, the better I speak when once on the platform”

That first winter before her lecture income was substantial, she travelled third class: in those times that meant sitting on hard wooden benches, chilled to the bone, with long waits for trains in the middle of the night. She slept in miner’s cottages and shared their food and conversations on politics, God, and money. She was now twenty-seven years old, very pretty and delicate, and made quite a curious impression wherever she went. She often dressed in dark silk dresses pulled in tightly at the waist, and cut down at the neck in a deep V, edged with white lace. Needless to say, the contrast between her looks, speech and her life of poverty drew attention.

While on their lecture tours, Bradlaugh and Annie were very conscious of conducting their lives with great propriety, but people still talked, and even the people within the Secular Society didn’t like Annie’s quick rise to power, for she was appointed vice-president of the Society in 1875. The “talk” didn’t seem to bother Annie though, for as she wrote:

 “I found myself in opposition to the Government of the day. I was against our aggressive and oppressive policy in Ireland, and India. I lifted up my voice in all our great towns, trying to touch the consciences of the people…against war, against capital punishment, against flogging, demanding national education instead of big guns, public libraries instead of warships—no wonder I was denounced as an agitator; a firebrand, and that all orthodox society turned up its respectable nose at me.”

In 1877 Annie engaged in the first of her major battles, and although some people see the result of it as being the greatest achievement of her life, it also cost her the most. This new adventure was her first crusade dictated completely by her own free will. It was in defense of that pamphlet on birth control, and in the end, it cost her the custody of her daughter—an event she said, which almost killed her.

The Knowlton pamphlet was over forty years old at the time Annie discovered it, and its style was as antiquated and obscure as its title.

It didn’t take Annie long to convince Bradlaugh of the necessity for them to go into partnership as publishers of this book, even with the full knowledge that their arrest for publishing an ‘obscene pamphlet’ was immanent. And indeed, within twenty minutes of the arrival of the pamphlet they had sold over 500 copies, and were sitting behind bars.

It was all good publicity and by the time they were released from their bitter sweet experience in jail, Annie had persuaded Bradlaugh that she would plead her own defense in the trial. And so she did…for two days Annie talked. Over 40,000 words were recorded as Annie went on about the appalling conditions of which she had seen so much: the mothers worn out by too frequent child bearing and the fathers despair because of their long working hours, lack of money and food. As she said: “I speak for the fathers who see their wage ever reducing and prices rising, for the mothers worn out with child-bearing, with two or three little ones around too young to guard themselves….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? Gentlemen, your happier circumstances have raised you above this suffering.” She knew when to pause. “Without the minimal comforts of life, one’s dignity becomes degraded.”  The courtroom would often burst into applause as she spoke.

The prosecutors’ case was strong and simple. Anything that would give sexual information that explicitly was regarded as an attempt to deprave public morals.

The judge and jury declared the book obscene, but they also wanted to free Annie from any corrupt motives in publishing it. Obviously this lovely well-spoken lady had no lewd intentions. The twelve men on the jury were obviously in a state of emotional conflict; charmed and stirred to chivalrous yearnings by this oh-so-earnest young lady, and yet…that pamphlet was obviously obscene. The guilty verdict had to pass for the moment. But just as she was leaving the courtroom, the judge gave her another option: if she would agree to at least temporarily not sell the book she would not be sent to jail now—if she’d agree to pay a fine of 100 pounds. This she accepted. Annie had other plans.

As soon as she recovered from the ordeal of the trial, Annie set out to write and publish her own book on birth control. One that was modern, accurate, and clear in its intentions. With her elevated style it could not be considered obscene though it got the message across. Within two years the little book sold over a hundred thousand copies and within the next fifteen years, 500,000 copies were sold. Annie received a deluge of letters from grateful women all over the world.

Annie was the first woman in history to publicly endorse the use of contraceptives. In establishing the right to circulate birth control information, Annie had won her greatest battle in terms of relieving the agony and needless deaths and misery of young mothers. Everyone agreed that Annie had indeed won a heart-felt victory. That is, except for Frank Besant.


Frank had been following the trial with great interest. It was revolting to him to have his name—her name—associated with atheism and the notorious Bradlaugh. But the controversy over an obscene sexual issue was even worse. He decided he was going to get Mabel back. If his wife had gone to jail that would have been easy, but such was not the case. He was going to have to fight for Mabel in court.

It looked like he would have an easy time of it. Besant sued to deprive his wife of the custody of Mabel on the grounds of her Atheism and her association with Bradlaugh in publishing an indecent and obscene pamphlet.  The click and clatter of tongues was loud and furious, and it seemed as if all of England was lining up to take sides. Newspaper scandals of those days were the prime topics of conversations, and even the aristocracy stooped to mudslinging.

 A conservative member of Parliament mocked Annie and Bradlaugh by saying that he assumed that the birth control books had been published as the fruit of Bradlaugh’s relationship with the godless Mrs. Besant. Everyone wanted to know the nature of their relationship. They were shadowed by detectives and journalists constantly, yet no impropriety could ever be found.

Annie was called to trial, and the judge, Sir George Jessel, was disgusted from the start with the idea of a woman defending herself in a court of law without recourse of a proper (male) lawyer. He was not impartial; he let it be known that he disapproved of the fact that Annie had deprived Mabel of good Christian religious instruction. The irony of this did not escape the press, which flaunted the fact that a Jewish judge was prejudiced from the start because Annie did not believe in a Christian God.

Frank raised money for his trial from his vicarage, and Annie raised money from the working classes who made up her audience in writing for the National Reformer. Annie’s arguments were not so eloquent in this trial; and now with her back to the wall she admitted that her husband had repeatedly struck and threatened her. She mentioned six occasions, and that he kept a loaded gun in his study and threatened to shoot her.  Frank denied every one of the charges and said they were imaginary and “the violence…if any, was done in the heat of the moment.” Guns were allowed in homes, and domestic violence was as rampant as alcoholism then. These were not crimes.

Annie wanted to keep this trial closely entwined with the first trial, trying to make her personal troubles into universal issues, but the final judgment came down from the Judge himself, because of her lack of belief in a Christian God.  Without this, she could never raise a child properly; she declared an “unfit mother.” This was the last time in history that the government was allowed to take a child from a parent because of “religious heresy.”

In all of Annie’s autobiography her only words of bitterness were against the judge who deprived her of her children. Yet she knew she had forced this situation against the warning of all her friends, and with the knowledge of the laws of 1879. Perhaps the success of the first trial gave her false courage.

Annie always referred to the loss of her daughter as the most agonizing experience in her life. She used this event as a chief theme in her writing for several years, but one could wonder if there was not a guilty conscience beneath her suffering. One wonders if she was harassed by a suspicion which she could never admit—that she did not really miss her children as much as the Victorian standards of 1879 demanded. By way of compensation, she devoted herself increasingly to the suffering of the poor. Now, haunted by the sense of the motherhood she had surrendered, she tried instead to be a Universal mother.   (c) Elizabeth Spring



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