The British Museum Reading Room, Bloomsbury, 1913

The Ignorant Bride

Brilliant young paleobotanist Marie Stopes was so ignorant about the workings of the human body that she claimed not to realise her own marriage was unconsummated. After she learned the truth and shared her findings in a best-selling book, Stopes inadvertently became a collector of personal stories about sex and marriage.

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Treating her quest for knowledge like a scientific research project, Stopes spent six months visiting the British Museum and reading ‘almost every book on sex in English, French, and German’. It wasn’t until she gained access to the ‘locked cabinet’ of publications unavailable to the general public that Stopes is said to have appreciated the reality of her own marital situation.

Stopes’s reading formed the basis for Married Love, a book published in 1918 after being rejected by many publishers. In it, Stopes addresses the ‘infinitely complex’ problems of marital sex with ‘sympathy and scientific research’. Drawing on first-hand observations, Stopes aimed to provide information that might save ‘average, healthy, mating creatures…years of heartache and groping in the dark’.

Despite being condemned by churches, the medical establishment and the press, Married Love sold 2000 copies within a fortnight and was reprinted six times by the end of the year.

Gallery: Married Love on screen

Stopes’s honest account, written in plain language, prompted thousands of women (and men) to write to her. Some expressed thanks, some were outraged, and many shared their own experiences. Others, with few alternative sources to consult, sought advice.

Audio Gallery: Letters to Marie Stopes

By opening up the ‘locked cabinet’ of sexual knowledge to a mass audience, Stopes unintentionally built up a collection of deeply personal correspondence. These confessional and emotional letters illustrate the appetite for – and impact of – the information Stopes once again exposed to the public.

  • Ruth and Ernest, 1936
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