That Sex Book at Downton Abbey

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Mary Crawley hands Anna Bates a book by Marie Stopes in Downton Abbey.

Mary Crawley hands Anna Bates a book by Marie Stopes in Downton Abbey.

When Downton Abbey’s Mary Crawley decides to go away for the week with her beau, she sends her maid, Anna Bates, to the pharmacy equipped with a slim little volume. “I have a copy of Marie Stopes’ book,” she tells Anna. The purpose of the errand is to obtain birth control. The book that Anna shows the pharmacist’s wife is probably Wise Parenthood.1

It is early 1924. Anna’s embarrassment at her errand and the disapproval of the pharmacist’s wife are not inconsistent with the social climate of the time. By the end of World War I, attitudes towards sex and birth control were changing. And yet, the public dialogue about sexual matters was still in many ways as it had been in the previous century. During the Victorian era, notions of female identity were tied up in the absolute categories of wife and mother on the one hand, or prostitute on the other. There was little room for nuance, and public acknowledgement of the sexual lives of a large number of single and married women was completely off the table. A reticence to speak about sexual matters persisted at the family level, where sex was not typically discussed between parents and children, and, in many cases, between husbands and wives. Access to accurate medical information about sexual activity was often restricted to doctors. The effect was poor information and general anxiety on the topic.

Marie Stopes. In Marie Stopes and Birth Control, 1974.

Marie Stopes. In Marie Stopes and Birth Control, 1974.

The publication of Marie Stopes’ Married Love in 1918 marked a deliberate attempt by the author to talk to women directly about the physical aspects of married life. Within these pages, Stopes argued that sex should not only be discussed between partners, but that it should be enjoyed by both men and women equally.

Stopes (1880-1958), a paleobotanist and campaigner for women’s rights, was the author of numerous books on social welfare, many concerning birth control (see Peter Eaton’s valuable checklist for a complete list). Married Love was a kind of self-help book designed to help couples understand each other’s physical and emotional needs. When it was published in March 1918, post-war women embraced the book. The initial 2,000 copy run sold out in the first fortnight. Eaton counts 28 editions, and translations into more than a dozen languages. By 1921, sales had topped 100,000 copies.2 An early ban of the book in America on obscenity charges was overturned in 1931, by the same judge who overturned the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses (one of our copies contains many clippings saved by an interested reader about the many legal challenges against the book).

An ad for Married Love.

An ad for Married Love, affixed to a small announcement of the publication of “A New American Edition” in 1931, after the court decision.

The title page of Stopes’ Wise Parenthood.

In addition to lawsuits, the publication of Married Love prompted fan letters containing many questions.3 Women wanted more specific instructions on birth control methods. Stopes obliged eight months later, with the publication of Wise Parenthood in November 1918.

Wise Parenthood, a slender volume of 33 pages, describes a number of birth control options, including condoms, withdrawal, and the rhythm method. Her strongest recommendation is for a rubber cervical cap with a quinine pessary. This was smaller than the modern diaphragm, and it fit over the cervix. It was probably this cap that Mary sends Anna to secure for her; in the next episode, she gives “the thing,” as she calls it, to Anna to hide in the cottage she shares with her husband, Mr. Bates.

A reviewer for The Medical Times wrote of Wise Parenthood a month after publication:

“The author ably presents the case for birth control from the scientific point of view. She criticizes several of the more important birth control methods at present employed, and she gives a detailed description of a method which she considers reliable and safe…No medical man or medical woman should fail to secure a copy and read it carefully.”4

By the time of Wise Parenthood’s publication, the use of birth control had some traction with the upper classes. But for the poor, most likely to suffer from lack of access to contraception, it was a different story. Stopes believed that poor families—exhausted, physically spent mothers, hard-working fathers who would now need to work harder, and children—all suffered unnecessarily without access to family planning.

By the early 1920s, Stopes made advocacy of birth control for the working classes her biggest cause.5 In 1921, Stopes opened the first British family-planning clinic in north London. A staff comprised of both male and female nurses and doctors offered free birth control advice. By 1925, the clinic moved to central London, and instituted a mail-order birth control service6 (note to Anna Bates: for future reference, that mail-order service could save an awkward moment or two).

The cover of "Babies and Unrest."

The cover of “Babies and Unrest.”

Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control in 1921.7 During her lifetime, she published a number of pamphlets advocating birth control use for the poor, including “Babies and Unrest,” for the American Voluntary Parenthood League, founded in 1919 by Mary Dennett. A guide to Dennett’s papers can be found here. Stopes also wrote and edited a newsletter, “Birth Control News,” for many years.

Image from "Babies and Unrest."

Image from “Babies and Unrest.”

Stopes’ legacy was not unproblematic. For much of her life, she was a supporter of the eugenics movement. In her book Radiant Motherhood (1920), Stopes advocates sterilization for those supposedly unfit for parenthood. Despite these challenging views, her birth-control activism translated to real solutions for real families, and radically improved access to contraception for working families everywhere. Her work contributed significantly to a shift towards permissiveness for family planning both in England and America.

One of our two copies of Wise Parenthood has an introduction by the English novelist Arnold Bennett. Stopes herself wrote poetry and novels, many at our library, including the poetry volume Love Songs for Young Lovers. It is worth noting that one of our copies of Wise Parenthood still bears a restricted call number left over from an earlier era (though it is now accessible to the public, bar none).


1.Special thanks to Arlene Shaner, reference librarian for historical collections, for her positive identification of Wise Parenthood as that sex book. Not to mention her devotion to Downton Abbey.

2. “Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes.” Dictionary of Medical Biography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007. V. 5. pp. 1195-1196.

3. Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon with Ian Scott. Marie Stopes and Birth Control. London: Priory, 1974. P. 42.

4. As quoted in an advertisement for the 7th edition, revised and enlarged, of Wise Parenthood, in the 9th Edition (London: Putnam, 1920) of Married Love.

5. Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon with Ian Scott, 1974. P. 43.

6. Stopes-Roe, Harry Verdon with Ian Scott, 1974. P. 43.

7. “Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes.” Dictionary of Medical Biography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2007. V. 5. pp. 1195-1196.

2 thoughts on “That Sex Book at Downton Abbey

  1. Pingback: About Lady Mary’s sex book and ‘The Thing’ she asked Anna to hide | How to Lose Your Virginity

  2. Pingback: Around London | BZT & MJF Travels

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