Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I’ve just seen two finalists for a revision session for my third year special subject on gender and sexuality in 1920s Britain. Talking to them reminded me of this slightly disturbing cartoon:
Many years ago I wrote about this in an abortive attempt to turn myself into the kind of media don that Keith Thomas would despise. That book—a cultural history of 1920s Britain called People of the Aftermath: Sex, War and Culture in Roaring Twenties Britain—never saw the light of day and the 35000 words I wrote have been rotting in a forgotten file ever since. This is what I said:
In June 1923 John Bull published the ‘The Bad Young—and the Worse Old’ by the Australian cartoonist Will Dyson—best known for his work for the radical Daily Herald. Dyson’s drawing was a savage attack on what he presented as an outdated and prurient moralism. He was prompted by the Church of England’s Men’s Conference which ‘gave us more of that wearisome discussion upon those aspects of the young which are so morbidly fascinating to the elderly pious’. A stooped and leering old man, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, peers through the peephole he has bored through the door of ‘Miss Modernity Smith’—carefully labelled ‘Private’. The paper he holds asks ‘Are the Young Immoral?’ He is answered by the cloven-hoofed devil standing behind him: ‘I don’t know whether the lives of the young are growing less clean—I’m satisfied to see the lives of the old growing more dirty!’ Dyson’s cartoon neatly illustrates how the sexualisation of everyday life was countered by a violent moral backlash in some quarters, prompted by deep-seated fears over a rising tide of vice and falling standards of public morality. When postwar reconstruction sought to recreate a more ordered world, particularly in terms of ‘gender identity and relations between men and women’, the growing pace of social and cultural change could be seen as a serious challenge to the nation’s stability and future. Women’s fashions, the ‘scantily-dressed jazzing flapper’, the sex lives of the young, birth control, ‘masculine women and feminine men’, ‘sex novels’ and homosexuality all became the focus for the sensational moral panics about sexuality that recurred time and again in the 1920s. Here we have striking evidence of the conflict between tradition and modernity that characterised postwar Britain.