|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE GREAT WAR AND THE INTERWAR PERIOD
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SUNLIGHT & NATURE
In terms of the general cultural movements of the period, these favoured the health aspects of vegetarianism more than the moral and humanitarian. The interwar years were not notable ones for the animal welfare cause; (1) and in so far as vegetarianism gained ground in public consciousness, it was through the growing concern with health and exercise. Not all vegetarians were happy with these developments and in the early 1930s voices were raised in the magazines insisting that the humanitarian aspect must not be lost sight of in the rising tide of food reform.(2)
The German influence on progressivist movements in Britain generally from the 1890s through the first three decades of the twentieth century was profound, surviving even the anti-German feeling of the First World War. We find it in the arts and crafts movement, in dress reform, naturism, health ideas, in progressive education, in the popularisation of Freud, in philosophical developments, in music, and it was clearly reflected in vegetarianism. These connections were only ended and subsequently played down by the rise of Hitler. (5)
The first real signs of an indigenous naturist movement in Britain occurred in the 1920s with the founding of groups like the English Gymnosophist Society in 1922. By the late 1920s the first naturist park had been set up, and in the early 1930s the legal position established. (8) The early thirties saw at last some popular expansion with the emergence of local groups, and with the parallel, and in many senses more significant, development of popular sunbathing. N.P. Barford founded the Sunbathing Society in 1928 to encourage family and group sunbathing in brief clothing. (9) Barford himself favoured full naturism, but felt that semi-nudism was the way to influence the wider public. Though naturism has always remained a minority interest, the cult of sunbathing, once so eccentric, has, of course, become established aspect of modern life and the basis of a major leisure industry. It is in the thirties that this change occurred.
The cosmetic aspects of a suntan were not originally much to the fore; during the 1920s tanning was regarded as only a side effect and not spoken of with special favour. By the 1930s, however, the naturist magazines were praising the look of bronzed skin. The fashion spread beyond these circles, to the cosmopolitan and wealthy. By the 1930s the Riviera season had reversed from being winter to summer. The seaside, from being a place for bathing and for sea air became somewhere for taking off your clothes and lying in the sun; the resorts began to publish their sunshine figures; and by the mid 1930s the major cosmetic houses were producing suntan creams. A suntan became associated with youth, health and vigour, qualities that the thirties found particularly attractive sexually. One factor encouraging this change in perception was the growth, over a long period, of indoor factory and office work. Paleness of skin in the past had given status, but now it reversed its meaning, and a suntan became an emblem of leisurely hours or the wealth to travel south. It is significant that the favouring of a suntan emerges first not just among those, like many vegetarians, with an ideology of nature and the open air, hut among the rich, and among certain intellectuals, often at odds with industrial society, and sometimes with a romanticised ideal of the manual worker. The conspicuous expense and leisure involved in the acquisition of a suntan was of central importance in its wide popularisation in the 1950s und sixties.
A series of important medical discoveries before and after the First World War laid the basis for the sunshine movement. Dr Rollier on the continent and Sir Henry Gauvain in Britain had discovered the uses of sunlight in the treatment of TB in the early years of the century. Rollier's Heliotherapy was not published in Britain until 1923 when its publication was encouraged by Dr C.W. Saleeby, who founded the Sunlight League in 1924. In 1919 it had been demonstrated that rickets in children could be cured by exposure to the sun. (10) By the late 1920s, the therapeutic qualities of sunlight were widely recognised, and its use was extended in sunshine schools and open-air clinics to the more general treatment of sickly, TB-prone and crippled children, many of them drawn from the slums. (11) Progressive schools like Bedales early encouraged sunbathing; (12) St Christopher School, Letchworth, installed vita glass; and pictures of Pinehurst School show the children running about naked. (13) These benefits were urged more widely than just in the progressive private sector; Lt Col G.S. Hutchinson reported the benefits of his experiments with artificial sunlight on colliery boys in Mansfield. (14) The Merrils in their account of continental nudism reported how sunbaths stimulated the depressed and combated insomnia and lassitude. (15) Sunlight - in a very characteristic word of the period - was a 'tonic', and as such was part of the increased concern with positive health that marks the twenties and especially the thirties.
But the pursuit of sunlight in the interwar period had expressive qualities that went beyond just the therapeutic. Sunlight stood for the new society of light. Houses in the garden cities were oriented towards the sun. Architecture in the interwar years pursued light to an almost obsessive degree. It came to be the emblem of a cluster of reforms in the 1920s aimed at making Britain a better, healthier, cleaner place to live. Health and Efficiency in the period well represents this strain of social progressivism, and it advocated, as well as sunlight and exercise, vegetarian and diet-reform food, nature cure and body building, in addition to clean air, slum clearance, new housing, practical psychology – frequently of the self-manipulationary kind like Couéism and Pelmanism - and it vigorously attacked the vaccinators, the BMA and the traditionalist and Roman-Catholic opponents of birth control. (16)
Sunlight also had connotations of youth’s rebellion. It was a movement for the young. Alec Craig, a well-known naturist, describes how it was through reading Nietzsche as a young man that he came to see that modesty was a virtue imposed by the old and ugly on the young and beautiful. (17) The widely held idea of the interwar period that it was the old men who had caused the Great War and sent the flower of youth to their deaths, is echoed in this context also in the attacks on the humbugs who opposed nudism: 'the relics of the Naughty Nineties, the puritanical prudes, the war mongers who sit in high places and delude the people'. (18)
Just as the antiseptic qualities of sunlight had been observed through its action on mouldy, damp objects, so the sunlight for this post-Victorian generation could be made to shine on the dank, rotten and hidden aspects of the Victorian world. (The thirties saw the full flood of anti-Victorianism) This could mean the slum houses and sick children, but it also, very frequently, meant sexuality. There is a strong theme of erotic freedom in the interwar celebration of sunlight. In Lawrence's short story 'Sun', a woman from the north travels to Sicily, where day after day, bathing naked, she becomes totally absorbed in the sun which she experiences as a ravishing lover. For Lawrence, the sun was the elemental force at the centre of a pagan celebration of life and sexuality, in contrast to what he called the white core of fear in the clothed bodies of men.
Lawrence was, of course, tubercular, but this vision of the sun was a widespread preoccupation in literary and intellectual circles of the time. (19) There is in this a sense of the sun as uncategorised energy, as some prior life-force beyond and before notions of good and. evil - Craig's reference to Nietzsche was significant - and lying in the baking sun became an experience of return to some primal state of total experience.
In its sense of amorality and erotic freedom, the attitude to nature of the thirties contrasts with the late-nineteenth-century pantheism with its softer, more mystical image of the natural world. Nature however does not altogether lose its paradigmatic quality, for it now comes to stand for the 'drive of the life force', for 'frank and open freedoms' as against stuffy and superficial social conventions. Nature, even in its new amorality, still carried messages for society.
In England, however, this tendency was curtailed. Pantheism of the Wordsworthian type continued to exert its power and the erotic freedom of the sun was qualified. This is clear in attitudes to sexuality in naturist literature. One of the recurrent themes in this material is that social nudity is of inestimable benefit in removing the evils of a 'vicarage' atmosphere in upbringing and shame about the body and sex. Dr Haydn Brown saw organised social nudism as: 'an expression of freedom to see, to know, and to expose for the purpose of dispelling fear and ignorance'. (20) The Merrills noted that in 'destroying, the secrecy and mystery of sex, it does away with unhealthy desires and perversions, and makes easier the task of giving the young a rational attitude towards sexual matters'. (21) It was frequently argued that clothes intensified erotic feeling and that the naked and natural body aroused no such 'lascivious emotions'. (22) At times the approach moves into the frankly anti-septic; nudism: 'cleans out your whole ideas about sex, and does not leave a single cobweb anywhere'. (23) There is an impulse in naturism to defuse the power of sexuality, to make it normal and rational. In part this supra-sexual attitude was necessary to meet accusations of indecency and immorality, but it represents also a preoccupation in this milieu. Craig noted the prevalence of Puritanism in English sunbathing: 'Teetotallers, vegetarians, non-smokers and abstainers of all sorts seem to find the sunbathing camp a happy hunting ground'. (24)
Going naked in the world is part of an older tradition than naturism and one that shares the same broad cultural context as vegetarianism. The Adamites and early Quakers both cast off their clothes, and Harrison places nakedness well within the tradition of popular millenarianism. (25) Clothes epitomise social rules and relations, and to go naked is to assert innocence and divine humanity, it is to divest oneself of the Old Order and Old Adam, breaking the bondage of the law and the political realm, and asserting instead the boundlessness of grace. (26) Nakedness restores you to a direct contact with the earth, and places mankind as it was at the dawn of civilisation, asserting the essential.
We have already noted the vegetarian connection with the imagery of light, and particularly with the transfiguring version of Romanticism. Both nakedness and sunshine pick up also aspects of an older spiritual tradition. Solar imagery has run through vegetarian spiritual connections from at least the late eighteenth century, ultimately looking back to the gnosticism that emerges from the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus. Clowes was writing in 1814 of the Spiritual Sun, (27) and it turns up in the context of Kingsford and Maitland in their book, Clothed with the Sun. (28) Carpenter's image of the cosmic self is heavy with solar imagery, and he recounts how:
Both the Order of the Cross, as we shall see, and Mazdaznan pick up this solar theme; and Ha'nish, the founder of Mazdaznan, explicitly links the spiritual significance of the sun with the physical benefits of sunbathing. (30) Lastly, there are links at the level of food in their language of sun-fired food.