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

Heredity, Victorian Childhood and Spectres of (De/Re)Generation

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a growing currency of heredity in medical, sociopolitical and national discourses. As it shifted from the legal context, where it was synonymous with “inheritance” and “succession,” the concept progressively began to denote the various mechanisms of generational contiguity (Muller- Wille and Rheinberger 2007: 4; original emphasis). With Darwin’s ideas about inheritance, and above all, with Francis Galton’s work, the “discourse of heredity” was taking shape and gaining in political significance (Muller-Wille and Rheinberger 2007: 23). With his 1876 definition of the concept, Galton opened an “epistemic space” that determined the types of questions which became prominent in scientific, political, legal and cultural arenas (Muller-Wille and Rheinberger 2007: 7). Issues ranging from individual, typical, pathological to paternal or maternal similarities were being raised on a large scale and were supported by studies of the mechanisms of the biological transmission of specific traits. Like at the beginning of the century, now, towards its end, the erosion of “traditional distinctions of intergenerational similarities” was accompanied by legal questions of inheritance (Muller-Wille and Rheinberger 2007: 13).

These changes were taking place in the context of fundamental sociopolitical transformations in the understanding and makeup of class relations. With the unionist and socialist movements, the rights of the working classes were being publicly acknowledged. The situation of the urban poor and the factory conditions attracted the attention of the popular media and of the reformists, while class hierarchies were reshuffling slowly with the nouveau riche ousting out old aristocracy (A. N. Wilson 2007: 302-3). In this climate of transformation, many eyes turned towards the future of the nation and, with that, to the conditions, hereditary dependencies, education of and care provision for children. Both cultural and medical discussions of syphilis heredity and debates about national and racial degeneration centred on the figure of the child. It provided a poignant site of projection and anticipation.

The nineteenth century also brought a transformation in the cultural perception of childhood and a modification in its sociopolitical significance. It was a time when contemporary notions of childhood and the modern relationship between adults and children were forged (Cunningham 2004: 96). Intensified discussions of child labour and child abuse, care provision, welfare and education together with new scientific and medical developments - especially a nascent interest in the evolution of children’s neurological and psychological faculties - coincided with the golden age of children’s literature. The child-figure became a compelling vehicle through which to reconsider social and cultural problems and rethink vital ontological questions, which included the issue of national identity (Steedman 1992: 20). Elizabeth Menon links the popular artistic motif of the foetus to a number of essential social and political concerns. In view of its “multivalence” and semantic flexibility, she argues, it was an especially compelling image in addressing such burning topics as “depopulation, degeneration, and deformity” (2004: n. pag.). In the figure of the child, and underlying all these queries, ideas of (national, social and biological) disintegration were accumulated.

Yet the cultural resonance of the child-figure remained complicated and ambiguous. Studies ranging from psychological treatises and demographic surveys to journalistic reports and fictional accounts linked the idea of childhood to the antithetical notions of growth and deterioration. The economic and symbolic value of children was undergoing a transformation. In the (working class) child-figure, Steedman argues, in the “conjunction of symbol and sociology,” germinated the notion of the welfare state (1992: 23). In literature, the child became a “potential rescuer or reclaimer of corrupt adulthood” (34): a source of rejuvenation but also a tragic figure of loss and death, and a primary subject of philanthropy (Steedman 1992: 35, 40, Cunningham 2004: 95). In all of these debates, the question of potential improvement of child qualities was of prime importance. Lucy Bending contends that the image of stunted childhood became associated with the bleak vision of arrested human development and with fears of degeneration and retrogression (2002: 207). At the same time, medical writings and athletics fostered the belief in the curability of such disorders as ‘idiocy’ and ‘cretinism’ through exercise and training, thus giving, at least perfunctorily, some hope for the improvement of children’s health, but also, of course, of their productivity (Bending 2002: 209). Thus, by the end of the century, the child-figure became strongly associated with the opposing visions of rejuvenation and degeneration.

This section surveys the modes in which medical and popular discourses tackled the problem of hereditary syphilis. It examines how the crossfertilization of these debates and the discussions of childhood influenced medical, scientific and political visions at the fin de siecle. It inquires about the role of the syphilitic child in the debates over race degeneration and the prospects of national regeneration. While the medical debates fuelled these broader anxieties, they also addressed the question of health provision for syphilitic children. On the other hand, the popular discourses exploited this symbolic potential. The aesthetic erasure of these children’s individuality turned them into spectres of guilt. Their construction in terms of Gothic, haunting apparitions spotlighted the potential suffering of the future generations and highlighted the supremacy of the civic over individual fate as it postulated the necessity of these children’s physical erasure. The only solution to the hereditary degeneracy with which they were associated was their ‘humane’ elimination: eugenic euthanasia paved the way to utopian visions of a healthy society.

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