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  1. Ideas
9 February 2024

The discovery of Stuart Hall’s A Cure for Marriage

On the tenth anniversary of the cultural theorist’s death an unpublished manuscript sheds new light on his thinking.

By Donna Ferguson

He is famous for being the “godfather of multiculturalism”, a trailblazing left-wing cultural theorist and sociology professor who coined the term “Thatcherism” and revolutionised the academic study of popular culture, race, identity and politics in Britain.

Now, ten years after Stuart Hall died at the age of 82, an unpublished manuscript he co-wrote in 1968 has been discovered in his archive.

The manuscript, which scholars previously thought had been “lost”, is 80,000-100,000 words long and offers extraordinary insights into how Hall developed his groundbreaking ideas about popular culture, as he pioneered the first cultural studies programme in Britain.

It is made up of different analyses of a contemporary short story, “Cure for Marriage” by Nancy Burrage Owen, which had appeared in the magazine Woman. It centres on a dissatisfied middle-aged housewife who goes to the cinema and enjoys a fantasy about having an affair with Cary Grant, which somehow enables her to remain married to her passionless, unappreciative husband.

Hall viewed this short story as essentially a case study of mass-market popular culture, and named his book A Cure for Marriage: A Case Study in Method. “The purpose of the book is to say: these are methods of cultural studies. This is what cultural studies is for,” said Nick Beech, associate professor of social policy at the University of Birmingham, who found the manuscript while exploring Hall’s archive. “Each chapter is one form of analysis that you could conduct of that text.”

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The annotated, typewritten manuscript reveals a process that, previously, scholars have only guessed at: how Hall’s thoughts and ideas changed as he and his graduate students collectively read and applied the cutting-edge work of famous structuralists from the 1950s and 1960s – the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, the literary critic Roland Barthes, and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss – to cultural studies for the first time.

“There are moments in the manuscript,” Beech explained, “where Hall scratches out sentences and replaces them with another. For example, at one point, he inserts a word that comes from a very particular reading of Althusser. So you can see the editorial marks where he’s introducing new readings to the cultural studies analysis, and making a change. And that’s very exciting.”

In the manuscript, Hall, an egalitarian, highly collaborative thinker who never published a single-authored, scholarly monograph in his life (and rarely used the first-person singular in his work), states that although he wrote the final text and commentary of A Cure for Marriage, 14 other scholars also contributed in some way.

The most notable was Richard Hoggart, the English professor who founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964 – Britain’s first culture studies centre – and, in the same year, hired a then 32-year-old Hall to be its first research fellow.

“It is Hall’s book, but it’s his book with contributions from Hoggart and all the students at the centre. So it’s a collaborative text,” said Beech. “It’s constructed out of presentations at different seminars through the year in which the book was made.”

It is Hall’s only known, sustained collaboration with Hoggart. “There is a relationship revealed here, between Hall and Hoggart, which is just not evident anywhere else,” Beech told me. Hoggart and Hall presented Owen’s “Cure for Marriage” to their graduate students at the centre as the randomly chosen text they were going to study. But while Hoggart was content for the students to treat the short story as a coherent, literary object, analysing it for tone and language the way they might with a work of great literary quality, Hall had already realised the limitations of this approach to an object of popular culture.

As Beech put it, “What Hall starts to notice is that Hoggart’s approach is inadequate, that it doesn’t really help us understand what’s happening in mass culture. It only gets you so far because there are limits to what such an analysis enables you to understand and register within the material.”

Beech thinks it was this realisation – that Hoggart’s approach was inadequate when it came to analysing a work like “Cure for Marriage” – that led Hall to read Barthes, Lévi-Strauss and Althusser for the first time, an important moment in Hall’s intellectual trajectory. “The line that some people have told in the past is that Hall read all these theorists, and then he thought: ‘What can we do with them?’ But I think Hall was already trying to do the kinds of analysis he wanted to do – he just couldn’t quite manage it with the intellectual tools he had at hand. And then he started reading this literature from continental Europe, where other people were doing similar work. And he found some solutions in this literature.”

For example, Cary Grant is, at one point in A Cure for Marriage, compared to the “intermediary” figure in Lévi-Strauss’s account of mythology: not a hunter or the hunter’s prey (which gives life to the hunter, perpetually forcing these characters into a tense, contradictory relationship of life and death), but a carrion character like a crow, which does not kill but lives off the dead flesh of other animals. “Cary Grant, as a fantasy figure, becomes a mediation for the contradictions or crisis which is always present within the expected norms of what a marriage should be,” said Beech. “The problems don’t get resolved, they just get solved by the fact that Cary Grant exists in this particular form, which is not real.”

Evidence from the newly discovered manuscript suggests Hall was trying to solve a practical problem – how to teach his students to analyse “Cure for Marriage” more effectively – and that is what drove him to expand his reading. According to Beech, “When Hall starts introducing continental theories of culture to the seminars, these are books he was reading for the first time.”

He added that this is something Hall himself reflected on, later: that, as nobody had taught contemporary cultural studies before, the centre didn’t have a set of reading texts. “He said ‘what was the bibliography of cultural studies? Nobody knew.’ And that’s evident in the way this manuscript reads. You can see it happening before your very eyes, in the passages where he’s crossed out terms and then replaced it with something new.”

By the end of the book, Hall is convinced that structuralism is key to understanding mass culture. “So rather than read the text as it is, as a coherent object that you can interpret, he starts to say: no, this is registering deeper, structural relationships and a set of conditions about why there is a tension within marital relationships in Western societies. And actually these can’t be resolved, and so this Cary Grant figure that appears is a way of mediating an underlying, unresolved contradiction.”

Hall concluded that the short story is highlighting an issue about women’s sexuality and marriage that is present in the whole of society. “Hall is saying: this is a story that means something to us, because we can see that it’s a problem for everyone.”

The book was written when the women’s liberation movement was starting to take shape. “That’s what’s really interesting about this text as well. It doesn’t have a fully developed feminist argument that can actually suggest why there is this problem with the marriage contract, as it’s understood in Britain at that time. But it has the beginnings of one.”

Beech said it is not yet clear why the manuscript was never published but that a covering note to an editor from Hall, written in around 1970, admits that it is already out of date, being “pre- the new feminism”. “There has been a little rewriting which catches up later ideas, but not much,” Hall wrote, adding modestly that he wondered whether “a slimmed form” might, nevertheless, be worthy of publication. He then warned: “Guard with your life. It’s the only copy in existence.”

Hall donated his archive to the University of Birmingham upon his death and the university asked Beech and others to investigate the archive as part of a £1m, three-year project to foster engagement with Hall’s work. Beech is hopeful that the manuscript he discovered will finally be published, so it can be read by fans of Hall’s work and cultural studies scholars around the world. “Reading this book is a bit like sitting next to somebody on Sigmund Freud’s couch. We know the ideas of psychoanalysis Freud ended up publishing. But we didn’t know how he actually did it.”

Similarly, scholars know there was a big shift in Hall’s ideas from 1966 (when he was writing literary essays about the arts and popular culture) to 1970 (when he had already integrated structuralist theories into his work). “But we didn’t have the bit in between, which shows why and how he shifted from one to the other. This is a text that shows us that shift, and it resolves a lot of debates that have been going on ever since about why he made that move.”

In the early 1960s, Hall had started to recognise that there had been a shift in the consciousness of working-class people and others in Britain, that people were seeing and understanding themselves differently to how they were in 1955. “He’s able to say: look, these new youth subcultures are where something really is happening, which means that the nature of the working class is not going to be the same again. But what he’s not able to do at that time is say: this is how it’s going to affect politics, and impact on political policies, and it’s going to lead to struggles and confrontations in cultural and political and economic forms at different levels.”

By the mid-1970s, after developing his ideas about popular culture at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall was able to predict major changes to Britain’s political culture. “He is able to say: it is going to be around questions of law and order, and deindustrialisation, and race, and the composition of the working class is going to change. This is going to lead to what he calls ‘authoritarian populism’. And then, with the arrival of Thatcher in the late 1970s, he’s the first to say: Thatcherism is going to change British society.”

This manuscript reveals how he developed those ideas. “It tells us: this is how he changed and shifted cultural studies analysis.”

Read an extract from Stuart Hall’s “A Cure for Marriage” here.

The Stuart Hall Archive Project is a three-year programme at the University of Birmingham to generate and increase engagement with Hall’s archive, held at the Cadbury Research Library. Contact sharchiveproject@contacts.bham.ac.uk for further details.

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