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

Recognizing Syphilis

Still, from the 1860s onwards a number of discourses made the disease public. The repeal campaigns, alongside the purity and feminist movements, were obvious catalysts for the debate, as was the New Woman writing of the 1880s and 1890s. In New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird (2004), Ann Heilmann warns against monolithic interpretations of New Woman writing and against a homogenization of the often very divergent agendas (15). Aware of these differences, especially in their treatment ofthe marriage plot, I nonetheless would like to argue that the act of syphilis recognition was invariably used by New Woman writers to justify and further their social-hygienic agendas. As New Woman fiction, characterized by an “ideological shape-shifting,” appropriated dominant discourses while feeding off and simultaneously undermining existing hierarchies (Heilmann 2004: 15), it also took up and made use of the trope of syphilis recognition for its own purposes. In New Woman fiction, the act of syphilis recognition, like for Hamilton, became both a moment ofinsight and an act of empowerment. Yet it also indicated the problems that seeing the disease brought with itself and communicated its dangers.

Sarah Grand’s evocation of syphilis in her popular and successful three-decker novel The Heavenly Twins is indicative of similar tensions, also characteristic of New Woman writing. Lampooned and ridiculed in the press for her purportedly overt masculinity, the New Woman helped reconsider gender distinctions and reshuffle some of the cultural assumptions about women’s social roles.37 What underlay this change was the demand for a better and more practical education for women. Women’s education is a leitmotif in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins. Intertwining the stories of three heroines, Edith Beale, Evadne Frayling and Angelica Hamilton-Wells, the novel is a variation of the Bildungsroman, in which the women’s marital choices and the following repercussions are linked both to the type of environment in which they mature and to their hereditary predispositions. While Angelica for a long time manages to rebel against the reigning system and enjoys the pleasures of performative role-playing, Evadne and Edith succumb to the matrimonial hazards exemplified by venereal disease. Evadne, having surreptitiously studied books ranging from medical manuals to French naturalist novels, is cognizant of the perils of infection and decides, on learning about the less than immaculate behaviour of her husband, not to consummate her marriage. Her decision and her husband’s ban on the public expression of her militant views lead to her gradual sinking into depression and hysteria. Edith, who, despite Evadne’s warnings, marries a syphilitic man, suffers from hysteria, which is here employed as a euphemism for the third stadium of syphilis.38

Improper education is held responsible for women’s questionable choices and for the problems in inter-generational communication. The evils of ignorance and the haphazard way of gaining knowledge account for the complications in the lives of the three women and become most prominent in Evadne’s case. Characterized by her unending pursuit of knowledge, Evadne is judiciously selective in appropriating existing customs and opinions, boldly voiced by her conservative father and unreflectingly embodied by her mother. At the same time, however, emotional ignorance and the socially sanctioned and popular ideal of romance are recurrently indicated as decisive factors behind Evadne’s perilous acceptance of Major George Colquhoun’s proposal. Having recognized her mistake and taken shelter away from her husband, she overtly castigates existing customs in a discussion with her aunt, Mrs Orton Beg, and in a letter to her mother: “I would stop the imposition, approved by custom, connived at by parents, made possible by the state of ignorance in which we are carefully kept - the imposition upon a girl’s innocence and inexperience of a disreputable man for a husband” (Grand 2007: 78). Ignorance is persistently linked to gender imbalance that breeds degeneration and atavism. Women’s martyrdom and self-sacrifice, often unconsciously undertaken as part of their socialization, breed leniency towards men, which fosters the degeneration of the whole race: “As long as women [... ] will forgive anything,” argues Evadne, “men will do anything. [ ...] Instead ofpunishing them for their depravity, you encourage them in it by overlooking it [... ]. The consequences become hereditary, and continue from generation to generation” (79-80). Evadne voices convictions which are expressed in Grand’s journalistic writing. In “On the Choice of a Husband” (1898), Grand laments the “haphazard” und unreliable knowledge conveyed to women on the subject of marriage, insisting that most of it had been “admirably calculated to mislead” them (qtd. in Heilmann 2001: 106). Novels, through which women mostly acquire their know-how, offer a “haze of illusions” that precludes any reasonable assessment of any suitor’s character and instigates in them a desire for romantic, if villainous, acquaintances (106).

It is precisely this pervasive romantic idealization that underlies marital tragedies. Despite their distinctive construction as foils, Evadne, the New Woman, and Edith, who embodies traditional ideals of sacrificial womanhood, are both initially cast as innocent romantic heroines in the narrative of wooing and engagement. Overwhelmed by her emotion, Evadne does not even dare to look at her future husband. Assured of his handsomeness by her mother as her father declares the goodness of his moral character, Evadne lives in “a golden haze” only occasionally stealing a glimpse at Colquhoun (Grand 2007: 58). It is this occluded vision, if not culturally instituted blindness, which accounts for her lack of recognition of the possible signs of degeneration and venereal contagion suggestively insinuated in the hints regarding Colquhoun’s past. Evadne’s romantic imagination precludes her from recognizing the perils of syphilis she had learned about in the course of her surreptitious study of Thomas Hawkes Tanner’s The Practice of Medicine (18 54).39 Since she is already bereft of romantic illusions when making the acquaintance with another “moral leper” (Grand 2007: 79), Sir Mosley Menteith, Edith’s future husband, this time she has no problems in recognizing the symptoms of the disease he exhibits. Women’s romantic, impractical education offers a regretful start in their new life. In a way, then, Grand’s novel appears to offer a literary mirror image of Barthelemy’s print at the beginning of this chapter. In her depiction, the mask of beauty - the custom, together with the fortune and the social standing of male suitors - conceals his degraded nature while women’s romantic predisposition prevents them from recognizing potential dangers.

In her comparative analysis of Edith and Evadne, Ann Heilmann argues that their respective conjugal tragedies are transformative of their characters so that the meek, conservative Edith “metamorphos[es] into a mad Bertha Rochester” but also into a suffragette-like figure who spells out the institutional and statutory subjugation of women, while the New Woman “fades into a simulacrum of ladyhood” through her “mimicry of hyperfemininity” (2001: 129). I would like to suggest that it is not necessarily these heroines’ frustrated expectations that are catalysts of change but rather their recognition of their spouses’ past and character, indicative of the men’s moral and corporeal degeneration. It is the inadvertent realization of Major Colquhoun’s unvoiced crimes of youth that prompts Evadne to openly and unreservedly state her convictions for the first time. Not the increasing lack of respect and diminishing affection of her husband changes Edith but a similar realization at the sight of her syphilitic child, which prompts her belligerent insurgence against the victimization of women implemented by an individual and institutional disregard of male vice. It is the trope of syphilis recognition that allows Grand to pronounce social and cultural critique through the convictions and actions of her protagonists.

The act of syphilis recognition yields insight. But it is also hindered by restrained access to knowledge and by a customary unwillingness to identify the disease and its repercussions. A proclivity for oversight can be spotted in the opinions of Evadne’s and Edith’s mothers and in Mrs Orton Beg, who unanimously regard Evadne’s decision to leave her newlywed husband as a breach of custom. In this, they prove all the accusations levelled at them by Evadne, especially their propensity for self-sacrifice: “The mistake from the beginning has been that women have practiced self-sacrifice, when they should have been teaching men self-control” (Grand 2007: 92). Unsurprisingly, male representatives of various social institutions (family, medicine and religion) continue their apparently immutable reticence on the matter. Here, Evadne and Edith transform with the knowledge that this act of recognition gives them. Their transformation, however, rather than liberating, is indicative of the scant opportunities open to them after such a revelation. ‘Hysteria’ remains the only loophole.40

The frustration that arises from Esith’s and Evadne’s grim realizations about the character of their husbands must be juxtaposed with Grand’s own realization as to the ravages of the venereal disease. Like in the novel, in her journalistic writing, the act of syphilis recognition is associated with the acquisition ofinsight and helps voice hitherto unacknowledged, though pervasive, facts. However, while in the novel it also marks the heroines’ inertia, for Grand it constitutes an incentive to her actions and a justification thereof: “I have myself known 8 of those dreadful Edith cases. Don’t you think it a disgrace to our civilization that such a thing should be possible? It ought to be made a criminal offense” (qtd. in Mangum 2001: 91). She continues in the foreword to the 1923 edition of the book: “It was time someone spoke up, and I felt that I could and determined that I would” (qtd. in Mangum 2001: 99). The sight of these women and the subsequent insight are empowering: they prompt Grand to publish. In her fictional and journalistic writing, syphilis evocation and exposition are transformative events that make the disease public.

And yet the same passage signals the difficulties that accompany this process: “It was torture to think of it and shame to mention it. But it had to be brought in some how...” (qtd. in Mangum 2001: 99). Her hesitation is indicative of her awareness that, although syphilis was a potent political tool, its visibility was hampered by broader cultural and socioeconomic considerations. New Woman writing followed these tendencies by shifting the focus away from syphilitic male bodies to hysteric women. Hysteria replaced syphilis (Kennedy 2004). A complicated juggling of genres facilitated this transfer and contributed to the modification of the literary landscape of the time. At the fin de siecle, the questioning of acquired certainties produced by a series of social and political crises went hand in hand with a restructuring of the publishing market (Pykett 1995: 14). The appearance of new audiences fostered a publication of shorter and cheaper volumes and was a reaction to the moral and literary stronghold of the three-decker novel (Ardis 1990: 38-43). The subsequent “democratization” ofthe literary market facilitated an emergence of new formats (Ardis 1990: 41-3) and fostered the mass production of ‘obscenity’ (Nead 2000, Marcus 1985). In view of these changes and influenced by evolutionary narratives and discourses around degeneration, the last two decades of the century were a time of heightened debates over fiction, its nature and format (Pykett 1995: 54). Regarded as compromising the aesthetics and seriousness of the novelistic genre, women’s fiction began to be associated both with the generic degeneration due to a highly “‘pathological’ obsession with the detail” and with new topics which centred on the woman question (Pykett 1995: 55).

Preoccupied with an array of anxieties surrounding the woman’s position in the late Victorian era, New Woman writing sought new forms and generic constellations that would match these thematic preoccupations. Although long devalued by literary criticism, New Woman fiction was later re-evaluated and rethought in terms of early modernism. The break with narration standards, modification of realist conventions and a rethinking of the notion of cohesive character have been regarded as crucial traits of New Woman fiction and as points of affiliation with twentieth-century modernism, as was the tendency to undermine the concept of female nature, restructure the marriage plot and decentralize narration through a “polyphony of narrative voices” (Pykett 1995: 57).

Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins evinces these struggles for adequate form and bows towards modernism in terms of its narrative structure and character formation. While often categorized as realist fiction, it has been shown to introduce elements of melodrama, sensation, mystery, fantasy, comedy and poetry (Bjorhovde 1987: 87-128). This generic amalgamation - mimicry and adaptation - like Grand’s adaptive and appropriative approach towards dominant (medical) discourses, produced a novel that, while using syphilis as a potent political tool, disguised the disease itself. Noting the absence of the physical symptoms of syphilis, critics have commented on the novel’s sanitized aesthetics as mirroring the Victorian conspiracy of silence around the disease. In her influential study “Syphilis and the Hysterical Female: the Limits of Realism in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins” (2004), however, Meegan Kennedy argues that the invisibility of syphilis symptoms reflects Grand’s concern over the “‘improper conveyance’ of sexual knowledge” (259).

Indeed, Grand’s innovative generic travels and her careful crafting of the three intertwined plots show the extent to which she was concerned with an appropriate expression of her ideas about the disease. The novel seems to argue that, if applied in the right manner, medical knowledge is in no way harmful to women’s minds or their innocence (Kennedy 2004). At one point in the novel, Evadne’s father, who discovers that she has been reading Mademoiselle de Maupin, Nana and Madame Bovary, comments: “had women been taught to read” medical books, “our sacred humanity might have been saved sooner from the depth of degradation depicted in” the French novels (Grand 2007: 104). Quoting Grand, Kennedy contends that the depiction of the dangers of withholding information and limiting women’s education make the point that knowledge, “when properly conveyed, is the true source of healthy-mindedness” (2004: 265; original emphasis). In other words, an improper exposition can be corruptive and destructive, as is the case with Evadne, whose self-study and her husband’s ban on her public speaking are both related to her depression.

Aware of that, Grand used a number of generic traditions, which was crucial to her success and her rapid international acclaim. After Gerd Bjorhovde, Kennedy reminds us that the novel enjoyed spectacular success at a time when Ibsen’s Ghosts was banned from London theatres (2004: 274). By using the traditional form of a three-decker novel and setting limits to her realism, Bjorhovde argues, Grand was “in effect ‘sugaring the pill’” (qtd. in Kennedy 2004: 274).

This sugar-coating was, according to Mangum, responsible for the commercial success of the book that, in spite of these precautions, took three years to publish (Mangum 2001: 126). In away, Grand’s decisions as to the format and content along with her preoccupations with the publishing market, also testify to her recognition of the potentially obscene character of the knowledge she wanted to convey.

In this line of thinking, Grand sacrificed the visibility of syphilitic bodies to the visibility of the book itself. Not only did she endorse the traditional form of the novel, she also took up conventional narratives of contagion and relegated the symptoms of the disease, as Kennedy powerfully argues, from men’s bodies to women’s minds (2004: 274). Here then, the dissemination of knowledge about syphilis and the production of concern directed at female syphilis sufferers came at the price of perpetuating traditional oppressive narratives: syphilis gained ‘healthy visibility’. Grand’s displacement of the symptoms of the disease, although certainly problematic, was also a way of granting visibility to the subjects gladly marginalized in social and political debates. It was also indicative of the tentative sexualities of the New Woman and the difficulty in accommodating these new lifestyles in traditional literary plots (Liggins 2000: 175). However insightful this reading is in the context of the publication market and access to knowledge, it fails to acknowledge the political possibilities that the shift from male bodies to female minds opened for Grand. As will be shown in Chapter 4, this appropriation of the cultural construction of femininity as pathological can also be seen as a way of articulating the dissatisfaction with the existing order and the versions of femininity it propounds.

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