Angelique Richardson, Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 250 + xviii pp, 6 plates. ISBN 0-19-818700-9, £45.00.
The interaction between feminism and eugenics is not unknown to historians. In particular, he relationship between these two movements during the early decades of the twentieth century has been extensively explored. Angelique Richardson, who approaches the subject from a disciplinary background of literary rather than historical studies, performs a useful service in Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century by pushing back the debate into the latter decades of the nineteenth century and looking at how novelists were engaging with these arguments in fiction, with particular reference to the ‘New Woman’ novelists. She makes the valid point that (particularly at the period on which she focusses)
the most virulent expression of eugenic ideas was not within legislative acts and public policy, but within popular and intellectual cultural discourses; early British eugenics was primarily a matter of rhetoric and representation.
The discussion of texts within which these ideas were being circulated to diverse audiences is of thus of broader interest.
Richardson defines eugenics within the late Victorian British context as ‘rational reproduction’ and draws attention to the well-established fact that in this context it was far more about class anxieties than about race and thus tended to feature in the ever-increasing debates around poverty and the working and ‘under’-classes. She claims that ‘the most sustained expressions of eugenic ideas were to be found in fiction’, and in particular, in that body of late nineteenth century feminist fiction known as the ‘New Woman novel’.
‘New Woman’ is a rather fuzzy term which embraced considerable numbers of women who were in some way opposed to the existing order in fin-de -siècle Britain, although there were many differences between specific individuals: in fact one of the services performed by Richardson is to disaggregate the novelists she discusses and to demonstrate the significant variations between their positions. New Women and their novels (or perhaps one should say, fiction, since many of them wrote short stories rather than full-length novels) have been the focus of much attention of recent years., largely emerging from the field of literary criticism. Studies have mainly concentrated on the representation by New Women writers within their fictional texts of their ideas about women’s place and on society more generally.
A number of historians have already pointed out the importance to late nineteenth and early twentieth century feminist rhetoric of claims about the ‘vital contribution of women in regenerating the British Imperial race’. Without fully accepting the claim that the texts discussed in Love and Eugenics contained ‘the most sustained expression’ of eugenic ideas during the period Richardson addresses, it may be conceded that it is highly plausible that these widely read and discussed fictions played an important role in the dissemination of eugenic ideas and getting them talked about. It is extremely useful to have this close reading of the best-selling and controversial works of three significant ‘New Woman’ writers, which doubtless popularised these ideas beyond circles in which they would have been encountered in scientific and sociological works or the heavier periodical press of the day. In particular these works would have been widely read by women identifying with the various strands of the movement for female emancipation.
Introductory chapters provide an effective overview of the background. Much of this material will be relatively familiar to those who already know something about the history of eugenic ideas, late Victorian feminism, and debates on social policy, but this pulls together all these strands into a helpful summary. Richardson displays commendable familiarity with the most recent scholarly literature, although there are a few surprising omissions (for example, George Robb’s scintillating articles on ‘free love’ and ‘social purity’ eugenics). The Victorian novel, she points out, was already closely connected with questions of social reform. Besides the works of such well-known writers as Dickens, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell, the more popular then, but less well-known now, ‘sensation’ novels, were, Richardson argues, ‘practically obsessed with matters of health, or, rather, sickness,’ especially insanity (though in one or two examples she cites, e.g. The Woman in White, the plot actually hinged on wrongful diagnosis and incarceration of a sane person). While the reforming ‘New Woman’ novelists dissociated themselves from mere sensationalism as a literary mode they were nonetheless dealing with very similar themes, which had proved attractive to the reading public.
The three writers Richardson deals with in detail are Sarah Grand, ‘George Egerton’ (Mary Chavelita Dunne), and Mona Caird. Grand and Egerton are shown to have been strongly attracted to eugenic ideas, whereas Caird was highly resistant (but still addressed them).
Richardson devotes most attention (two full chapters) to the long-lived Sarah Grand (1854-1943), whose most successful novels, The Heavenly Twins (1893) and The Beth Book (1897), and other works, addressed a wide range of issues of the day. In The Heavenly Twins, an epoch-making multi-stranded novel, Grand advanced a number of radical ideas, critiquing marriage, ‘outing’ the danger of husbands infecting their wives with sexually-transmitted disease, advocating female education, as well as including a transvestite (girl-disguised-as-boy) theme. Her attack on conventional romance plots in which a combination of sentiment and social advancement formed the grounds for selection of a partner positioned this as a health risk, not only to the woman involved but to her offspring, and, by extension, to the nation as a whole. The idea of marriage as ‘racially responsible mating’ (in which duty rather than passion was the keynote) pervaded her works, as did the notion of ‘selfless feminine citizenship’.
Egerton also, though in experimental and highly controversial short stories rather than dense novels, also celebrated the maternal function. In her works this reproductive imperative often figured as at odds with conventional morality, indeed resulting in illegitimate but ideal offspring. What may strike contemporary readers as even more hard to accommodate to modern notions than allegiance to ideas of ‘good breeding’ are the profound assumptions by Grand and Egerton about innate and essential womanly nature. Grand deployed the argument, not uncommon for the period, that it was precisely because of women’s difference from men (and therefore the complete inability of the male adequately to represent the female) that they should enter public life and that this was essential to any meaningful social reform. Both writers were antagonistic to increasing urbanisation and tended to equate health with nature and a ‘natural’ or at least rural setting.
Mona Caird was rather more of a maverick figure, who did not rest her case on an essential maternal womanhood and female moral superiority. While she employed the scientific rhetoric of social purity and eugenics in the late nineteenth century, Richardson argues that she was reworking these arguments and exposing the biologically determinist assumptions which underlay them. She even rejected the equation of women with maternity, in her best-known novel The Daughters of Danaus (1894) depicting a female artist thwarted in her career by familial pressures.
Richardson perhaps goes too far in claiming that ‘apparent ideological inconsistencies’ in these writers are really ‘both explicable and consistent’, although she does also suggest that reader expectations also influenced Grand to take her writing in certain directions. People are inconsistent and especially over time, and in various different contexts, sometimes a person’s ideas may contradict one another. Thus the ideas explored by these novelists possibly appear to have formed a more coherent agenda than in fact they did. It might also be quibbled that Richardson underestimates the importance of the growing clinical understandings of syphilis to ideas about degeneration, or at least does not address this in as much detail as might be justified by the texts she analyses, or interrogate the frequent conflation at the period between congenital ailments and hereditary conditions. It would also have been interesting to have more fully developed the ideas of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ eugenics in the thought of these three writers. Grand and Egerton appear to have been largely concerned with promoting a pronatalist positive eugenics. In a late novel (The Great Wave, 1931), Caird specifically indicted the racial hygiene policies of negative eugenics, but this was presumably influenced by contemporary developments, especially in Germany.
This is a well-researched and well-written study, and can be particularly recommended to those interested in seeing how ideas of ‘good breeding’ and racial regeneration interacted with late nineteenth century feminist ideas, and were disseminated in serious fiction.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine