Modern women on trial

Sexual transgression in the age of the flapper

Author: Lucy Bland

This book looks at the highly publicised, sensational trials of several young female protagonists in the period 1918-1924. These cases, all presented by the press as morality tales involving drugs, murder, adultery, miscegenation and sexual perversion, are used as a prism through which to identify concerns about modern femininity. The book first examines a libel case, brought by a well-known female dancer against a maverick right-wing MP for the accusation of lesbianism. One aspect of this libel trial involved the drawing up of battle-lines in relation to the construction of a new, post-war womanhood. The book then looks at two inquests and three magistrate-court trials that involved women and drugs; young women in relationships with Chinese men were also effectively in the dock. One way of accessing court proceedings has been via the account of the trial published as part of the Notable British Trial Series. There are no extant trial transcripts. But there are prosecution depositions lodged at the National Archives, much press reportage, and a number of relevant memoirs, all giving a keen sense of the key issues raised by the trial. The book also focuses on an extraordinary divorce case, that of Christabel Russell, involving cross-dressing, claims of a virgin birth, extreme sexual ignorance, and a particular brand of eccentric modern femininity.

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‘It is an important addition to historiography on sexuality, and especially on gender and crime in the interwar period.'
Laura Schwartz, University of Warwick
History Workshop Journal

‘Lucy Bland's eagerly anticipated account of women's experiences in the criminal courts of inter-war Britain has been well worth the wait. Unearthing a series of fascinating legal cases, she has produced a veritable page-turner. The sensational nature of many of her cases – dealing as most do with adultery, drugs, and murder – cannot fail to win the book a wide readership. But the real importance of her carefully crafted study is to make the important argument that trials and their reportage by the popular press played a crucial role in shaping the public's notion of what, in a modernising era, constituted proper feminine behaviour. Thanks to her enviable ability to place individual court confrontations in their larger social context, Bland brilliantly demonstrates how journalists and the judiciary attempted to shore up the boundaries – boundaries that World War One had weakened – separating the sexes, the classes and the races.|Modern women on trial tells startling and gripping stories of women accused of sexual and violent crime – obscenity, drug dealing, murder and illegitimate claims to property – in the aftermath of the Great War. Popular journalism competed with the legal profession to turn domestic tragedies into melodrama and sensationalism. Lesbian erotica was associated with treachery, drugs with miscegenation, adultery with murder and cross-dressing with virgin birth – all landed on the breakfast table as family reading and topics of discussion for weeks at a time. Women accused – barefoot dancer, 'dope-fiend', adulteress, murderers – were only part of the story. Women barristers attended court, women – with 'ropes of pearl hung round their necks', as well as rows of 'shop-girls' – queued round the block to listen to the particulars of sexual lust and perversion and how to satisfy them, of where and how to procure opium, of the priapic power of jew, negro and oriental and the drive to murderous violence, from witness and defendant alike under cross-examination. Edith Thompson's love letters read out in court even described in rapt prose, female orgasm (Thompson was hanged – wrongly most agree – for incitement to murder). Pleasure, vice, dance and modern London were on trial too. Lucy Bland is a brilliant historian of sexuality and culture. Here she applies her forensic skill, lucid intelligence and wit to modern pathologies of female desire unleashed from husband and home, as they seemed to unsettle both English manhood and national integrity itself.|'Lucy Bland has crafted a stunningly illuminating page-turner. Befitting 1920s protagonists so entranced by modernity and dance, she shrewdly choreographs five notorious British Jazz Age episodes of sexual transgression deeply into erotic and cultural contexts, which she reveals as at once angrily alienated and adaptively experimental. Riveting and indispensable.'
Judith A. Allen, Professor of History, Indiana University

‘Modern Women on Trial is an excellent work of history and a fascinating read.'
JANET WESTON
The Howard Journal Vol 54 No 1.
February 2015

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