June 12 2011: The Torch of Life: First Steps in Sex-Knowledge by F.H.Shoosmith (Harrap, 1935)

Contrary to some preconceptions, sex-education existed before the 1960s. In fact, as this small but intriguing volume published by George Harrap & Co in 1935 shows, the task of explaining the birds and the bees to a new generation is a far from recent development, though if the approach to the subject of its author, F.H. Shoosmith, is anything to go by, the bits about birds and bees were given rather more prominence in 1935 than they might be in a modern classroom. It’s certainly hard to resist a method that begins (after some preambles using a relay race as a metaphor for sexual reproduction) with the words: “We begin our study with the lesser celandine…”.

Having moved on from the nitty-gritty of the Lesser Celandine and its relatives by way of eighteen further chapters on the reproductive methods adopted by seaweeds, ferns, coral, molluscs, spiders, reptiles, birds and mammals, among other things, we finally reach the nub of the matter, when chapter nineteen, Sex and Progress, offers a few thoughts on natural diversity before (144 pages into the book) arriving at About Ourselves. A lack of specifics on the necessary actions may be a drawback, but is this is entirely down to Shoosmith being a prude, or the restrictions on frankness of his time?

“It has been said that to those who deem sex unclean flowers do not exist”, he writes in his closing paragraphs: “Sex may be compared with art, to which we owe so much that is splendid and beautiful”. Of course, this is an evasion very much of its time, and Shoosmith’s emphasis on reproduction rather than pleasure might be considered somewhat antiquated and reactionary, too. Yet perhaps there’s a sense here that sex is for Shoosmith as it was for the Welsh-language poet and unorthodox religious thinker Pennar Davies around the same time: something that cannot be denied since denial of the physical body and its needs is a position at odds with Creation itself. 

It’s a way of thinking that may yet have a role to play in countering the increasingly vocal religious tendency pressing for returns to sexual intolerance. The absence of this kind of shame and judgement in Shoosmith’s primer perhaps connects with some of the thinking of D.H. Lawrence and others on the same subject. Whatever ideas and values seem implicit in The Torch of Life: First Steps in Sex-Knowledge, it’s arguable that since this book was produced as a study acceptable for ‘ten to thirteen year olds’ in 1935 (and going by the stamp inside the flyleaf, was still in use in 1957) then perhaps ideas like Lawrence’s regarding the meaning of sexual acts were not as outlandish within the wider culture of his time as is often assumed.

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