Why have British fertility rates declined since the late 19th century? Modernity, industrialisation, new means of birth control, urbanisation, better jobs, compulsory education, feminism, social aspiration - all these have been common-sensically invoked as explanations for the aversion to large families that has seemed to grow over time and to occur according to a predictable class hierarchy.
Simon Szreter's massive study disrupts the quietude enveloping past times, bringing current dilemmas about the family and reproduction into closer proximity to human behaviour in the 19th century. No future work on modern English demography can fail to take account of this book. Szreter's tour of the intellectual frontiers unearths much buried and useful earlier scholarship. In his deconstruction of the original conceptualising of fertility decline, few disciplinary stones are left unturned.
Economists, natural scientists, social theorists and historians of every stripe appear; more than half of the 700 pages of text is devoted to historiographical synthesis, construed to reverse the drift of conventional wisdom and to assert that fertility decline was not a universal, national process of an increasing, top-down pattern of abstention, but rather a process of multiple and diverse, plural and heterogeneous declines.
Szreter shows that there was much that was localised, occupationally and indeed gender-specific in the ways in which people decided whether and when, and under what circumstances to have children. "Spacing", not "stopping", characterised most couples' discernible behaviour over time. Even those who were surprised by pregnancies made disparate and "rational" adjustments. This finding may not come as revelation for the less quantitatively inclined reader, who may also be less excited than the demographers by the reconfiguring of the 1911 census date that forms the book's empirical substructure.
But there are hidden rewards for those who continue to plod through this maddeningly repetitive and occasionally fanatical argument. The critique of the "professional model" of English society mounted by Szreter, his dissection of the confluence of social engineers and policy-makers who had cause to promote it, and his evaluation of eugenicism's influence, all add provocatively to our understanding of the intellectual zeitgeist at the turn of the century, if not to our understanding of the actual application or success of policy per se.
The reader is underwhelmed in perhaps three respects. First, the sense of social hierarchy that is distinctively English in the period is not dislodged but refined, despite Szreter's best efforts.
Second, the luxury of a kind of heterogeneous localism was, after all, a national characteristic made possible because civil war, ethnic and racial conflict, and state-building were not omnipresent. This weakens the book's argument for the period after 1914, when the effects of the Great War and of global depression deserve much more attention.
Third, despite a generous stab at estimating the influence of feminism and of attitudes towards sexuality, the deeper emotional landscapes of the couples under Szreter's necessarily clinical microscope, remain hidden. Miscarriage, infant death, cohabitation, single parenthood, domestic violence, war death, the utter breakdown of employment and the problem of an unwanted, uneconomical "family economy", become merely residual in the author's worthy effort to construct a new, more accurate, rational, data-centred model. Its success in identifying questions that it cannot answer should stimulate and guide new work, which may require the imprecision of highly individualised oral history and messy, ambiguous local research, for which this study offers a state-of-the-art roadmap.
Susan D. Pennybacker is associate professor of history, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, USA.
Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain, 1860-1940
Author - Simon Szreter
ISBN - 0 521 34343 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 704