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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility

Feminist and New Woman Voices on Syphilis

The function of syphilis in New Woman writing has been critically linked to debates about new forms of sexuality as well as about the status quo and the future of the Victorian family, the nation and the British Empire (see Liggins 2000, Showalter 1990, Richardson and Willis 2001, Schonlau 2005). Recognizing the New Women’s allegiance to post-Darwinian thought and eugenics, critics have envisaged their rhetorical and narrative use ofsyphilis as an attack on the syphilitic man and as an acknowledgement of the ruinous influence of the disease on the development of the human species. Showalter connects New Woman “fantasies about syphilis” to “the fear of marital penetration and contamination and [to] anxieties about hereditary transmission of the disease to children” (1990: 198). Liggins follows this argument contending that the integration ofthe illness into the marriage plot evinced women’s resentment of the way they were treated by the medical establishment in particular and society in general (2000: 175). Syphilis in New Woman fiction has also been interpreted as an incarnation of the sins of the Victorian patriarchal society (Schonlau 2005: 276) or a manifestation of the “wages of ignorance” (Pykett 1999: 169). It has been viewed both as a metaphor and a political tool in furthering their social- hygienic agendas (Schonlau 2005: 276).

Discourses around venereal disease also proved a potent vehicle for feminist propaganda, its shifting allocation of blame for the nation’s retrogression and its claim for women’s sovereignty and legal accountability. As Bland argues, the feminist generic turn from novel to pamphlet brought a more direct enunciation of ‘facts’ about the disease and centred more readily on the dangers of the conspiracy of silence. It underscored the necessity to break the silence and address the social hypocrisy that bred ignorance. In this context, it was not so much the disease itself as the secrecy in which it was enmeshed that constituted the biggest threat to the stability of social and economic structures (Bland 2002: 243-4). Even feminist writing, however, did not always speak out the disease’s name.

In The Great Scourge and How to End It, also published in America under the alternative title Plain Facts about a Great Evil (1913), Pankhurst famously calls on women to recognize the unaddressed “appalling” dangers of sexuality (71). Boldly naming the “Hidden Scourge” in the introduction, she establishes a connection between the spread of venereal diseases, prostitution and the patriarchally sanctioned silence on the topic (5). “Votes for Women and Chastity for Men” is the famous solution (Pankhurst 1913: 7), which directly links women’s suffrage to the pervasive concerns about social health and national future (Jeffreys 1997: 46). Pankhurst’s challenging of the existing equation between women’s sexuality and degeneration helped her, as Janet Lyon argues, to establish a connection between “patriarchal economic coercion and sexual subjection,” thus yet again making visible the interdependence of morality, politics and economy (1999: 116). Designed to “shock and polarize” with its militant polemic, which borrowed from anti-slavery rhetoric, the pamphlet sketched potential hazards of marriage and declared little potential for change “so long as society shuts its eyes to the existence of this danger to the family, and from a false sense of prudery or a fastidious nicety refuses to be enlightened” (1913: 72-3).15 Pankhurst’s politics of exaggeration heated the existing debates and added to the publicity of the allegedly private matter.16

Cicely Mary Hamilton’s inadvertent discovery of the, ‘truth’ about the disease, recounted in Marriage as a Trade, likewise made her militant against the dominant veiling of its horrors:

Those of us who have discovered that there are risks attaching to the profession of marriage other than the natural ones of childbirth, have very often made the discovery by accident - which ought not to be. I made the discovery in that way myself while I was still very young - by the idle opening of a book [... ]. I was puzzled at first, and then the thing stared me in the face - a simple matter of bald statement and statistics. I remember the thought which flashed into my mind - we are told we have got to be married, but we are never told that! It was my first conscious revolt against the compulsory nature of the trade of marriage. (1909: 50; bold, my emphasis; original italics)

While many critics have quoted Hamilton’s famous passage, many have also disregarded the uneasy tension that both her work and many New Woman fictions display with regard to syphilis. Hamilton’s larger argument makes a connection between women’s professional choices and their position as members of the working class, suffering under the oppression of dominant structures. Following this train of thought, she compares the secrecy surrounding venereal diseases to the lack of warning about potential professional dangers (1909: 73-4). Like “lead-poisoning or combustion,” runs the socialist argument, the risks that await women in marriage should be communicated to them before they enter the profession (73). And yet, Hamilton bemoans, dramatically studding her speech with meaningful pauses, “I have been astonished at the number of women I have met who seem to have hardly more than a vague inkling - and some not even that - of the tangible, physical consequences of loose living” (73). Hamilton uses the self-defined conspiracy of silence - the gap in information - and her own involuntary learning about the perils of venereal diseases for self-empowerment. Her act of recognizing the social repercussions of the disease gives her the right to lecture other women on the topic and, in this way, to communicate to them the ‘truth’ about their position and the suppression of their civic liberties.

Yet Hamilton’s emphatic insistence on the importance of statistics, the number that “stared [her] in the face” (1909: 50), is incompatible with its erasure from her narrative. The definite italicized article “that” indicates the danger that she ascribes to the presumed dimensions of the disease’s presence but fails to present this danger; it signals and conceals at the same time. This strategy establishes Hamilton as part of the neglected and deluded group who is “never told” but whose act of recognition, stemming from an access to esoteric knowledge - which she nonetheless keeps to herself - puts her in a more knowledgeable position and affords her insight that she then communicates to others (50). The act of recognition gives Hamilton grounds for fighting against women’s ignorance and for corroborating their claim to the right to knowledge. This act of recognition helps her voice demands concerning not only women’s access to power (through knowledge) but also their entitlement to economic stability. At the same time, her text, like New Woman and feminist literature, is, to a degree, subject to the very ‘conspiracy of silence’ that it seeks to root out.

Before assessing Hamilton’s ambiguous strategy, it is important to examine her political claims. She identifies the incessant perpetuation of gender-based ignorance as a vital building-block of Victorian patriarchy. Although her allocation of blame is direct, her shift from patriarchal prohibitions (“man has steadily denied [knowledge] to women,” 1909: 72) to women’s involuntary ignorance (“we are never told,” 50) widens the circle of culprits to include anyone from medical practitioners, popularizers of medicine and teachers to parents. The next sections concentrate on the potential spaces of the public visibility of syphilis in the nineteenth century: domestic medicine manuals and public anatomy museums. They investigate the rhetoric used to justify the preoccupation with the disease; they also consider the role of these spaces in granting/restricting access to knowledge about syphilis and inquire about the technologies of making it visible.

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