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

The Ghosts of Unborn Children, Civic Responsibility and the Future of the Race

Since, as Showalter has pointed out, in the late nineteenth century syphilis was seen “as a symbol of the disease in the family” (1986: 89), popular debates about hereditary syphilis centred on the question of individual and collective responsibility for the future of the British family and the British nation. They carried a number of propositions concerning individual accountability for matters ranging from the choice of the partner to questions of procreation. Married life and its responsibilities became the pivot of these debates. Syphilis in the family also belonged to the chief concerns of the medical establishment, whose treatment thereof had tangible effects on Victorian life.

Medical opinion was in no way unanimous on matters of family planning when syphilis was involved. “[T]ime and treatment” were considered as two chief indicators of whether the marriage should be approved (Coutts 1897: 19). The period after which syphilis patients were deemed eligible to marry differed from two to five years. Coutts argued that “[t]he responsibility of sanctioning a marriage with any risk of imparting syphilis to others is not to be lightly undertaken” (1897: 17). Lowndes was adamant in this respect: he regarded it the practitioner’s responsibility to prevent any marriage under suspicion of the groom’s infectious state. Failing to do so, he argued, leads to the insurmountable suffering ofinnocent wives who lose their appearance, health and life under these circumstances. At the same time, he also acknowledged that “to forbid marriage upon what may afterwards turn out to have been insufficient grounds would be to incur a responsibility only secondary to this” (Lowndes 1882a: 8). Hutchinson, on the other hand, polarized the profession by stating that “[t]he surgeon who, on account of past syphilis, forbids marriage to an otherwise eligible man, must remember that he forbids it at the same time to some woman who possibly, if well informed as to her risks, would willingly encounter them” (in Lowndes 1882a: 8). In a less radical gesture, Lowndes advised a careful consideration of every case, with particular thought given to the fate of the future wife and children. Within this model, not only the severity of the symptoms, the history of the disease or the devised treatment were crucial but also the opinion ofother experts and a joint consideration ofthe future of each individual family (8). In general, endorsing the idiosyncrasy of every case, medicine abstained from issuing a ban on syphilitic marriages. Whatever the motivation behind this tendency - individual profit, maintenance of traditional family values, inability to admit helplessness - it provoked hostile reactions in feminist and New Woman circles.

The question as to whether syphilis sufferers could marry was one of the chief concerns of feminist and New Woman writing. In Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century (2003), Angelique Richardson shows that, at the turn of the century, love was no longer regarded as a matter of romance but as an issue pertaining to racial hygiene, as can be seen in Grand’s and Brooke’s novels. In Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, the choice of the husband becomes the paramount responsibility of the woman. In the novel, culturally dictated social roles, tradition and lack of knowledge are largely responsible for women’s idealization of the marital union. In Brooke’s A Superfluous Woman, a wrongly understood sense of duty and insufficient education are the main factors behind Jessamine’s marriage with Lord Heriot and behind her gradual physical and mental deterioration. In these novels, Richardson argues, the eugenic agenda is intertwined with the form of the novel itself. The moral responsibility ofthe novelist, established by Dickens and Eliot, was not sufficient for eugenists, who attempted to rewrite the romance plot as a way of distancing themselves from the unhealthy practices of sensation fiction (Richardson 2003: 86-7). As the antithesis of this type of literature, eugenic writing evoked love “in terms of sacrifice and responsibility,” equated the notion of love with marriage and made both instrumental in racial hygiene (91, 92). Responsible mating, an anathema of passionate union, was advocated by eugenist authors and scientists alike (113).

However, as Bland and Hall ascertain, eugenists did not hope for “a return to unfettered natural selection, but for ‘rational’ selection through ‘race building’ and ‘race cleansing’” (2010: 214). At the core of these two practices lay concerns about race and class-specific fecundity (the reproduction rates of the poor and the immigrant populations) - which were to be constrained through education, restricted reproduction and regulated marriage - along with the sterilization of the unfit (Bland and Hall 2010: 213). Bland and Hall, like Richardson, acknowledge the central role that women played in these eugenic ambitions and link the latter to the growing significance of “mothercraft” (214). Richardson also addresses an array of discourses that linked nationality and civic motherhood with matters of health and morality. According to her, the Spencerian conviction that “the welfare of the family underlies the welfare of society” was used by eugenic feminists to develop a new notion of citizenship (2003: 73), while the pervasive insistence on the “civic value of motherhood” helped them redefine it in gender terms (72). Rather than replacing men in their respective domains, women were called to reconsider their role as dutiful and morally strong mothers of the nation, as was also the case in the domestic medicine manuals for women addressed in Chapter 3. Being a mother served both as a foundation of women’s “claim to citizenship” and as an expression of their civic responsibility (Richardson 2003: 69). According to Richardson, it was a time when “motherhood and imperialism were drawn into an alliance in which the function of reproduction was crucial” (2003: 75). Thus motherhood began to be associated with the healthiness of the race (77). In contrast to medical writings, which concentrated on the basic care provision, with the policing of contagious touch at its core, literary and visual discourses took up this idea of civic, sacrificial motherhood and envisioned humane euthanasia as the only viable solution to the problem of suffering that syphilitic children posed.

In these two registers, like in Munch’s and Sorolla’s paintings, the syphilitic child began to serve chiefly as a poignant, if complex, incarnation guilt. It was transformed into a revenant, a ghastly visitation that interrupted the flow of time and, like the Gothic, became a cultural code and a yardstick against which to measure current social developments. The child’s reproachful gaze, captured in Munch’s Inheritance was closely related to the question of blame and its allocation. After visiting a hospital for syphilis sufferers, Munch wrote: “I had to paint the searching, suffering eyes of the child” only to stress elsewhere that the child, “sick and frightened and wondering, stares ahead, surprised at the painful life it has entered, already asking ‘Why, Why?’” (qtd. in Templeton 2008: 9). The same sense of injustice and reproach is captured in Brooke’s A Superfluous Woman when Dr Cornerstone scrutinizes the faces of Jessamine Heriot’s children with “a horror-stricken heart”: “On those frail, tiny forms lay heavily the heritage of the fathers. The beaten brows, the suffering eyes, expiated in themselves the crimes and debauchery of generations” (Brooke 1894: 270-1). The syphilitic children, hidden in the recesses of Heriot’s sumptuous abode, are constant reminders of Heriot’s past. As in Pankhurst’s treatise, they are incarnations of intergenerational vice. Like on Munch’s canvas and in Ibsen’s play, they are a living rebuke to the older generations and, simultaneously, an incarnation of their guilt and a perpetuation of hereditary depravity.

Although it bears some signs of the disease, the syphilitic child in British literature, like in Munch’s and Sorolla’s paintings, is de-individualized. Because of that, Schonlau argues, it exists within the narrative only as an image of suffering and fear (2005: 295). At the same time, its depictions highlight its almost inhumane character, its position somewhere between a sacrificial animal and a beast. In Grand’s Heavenly Twins, Edith’s son is compared to a “speckled toad” (2007: 301) - a comparison which evokes the early cutaneous ulcerations and the characteristic complexion in inherited syphilis. It emphasizes the helplessness of Edith’s son and foreshadows his failure in the battle of natural selection. Although the child looks healthy when born, it “rapidly degenerate[s]” (Grand 2007: 277) so that when Angelica sees it for the first time, she compares it to an old man: “He was old, old already, and exhausted with suffering, and as his gaze wandered from one to the other it was easy to believe that he was asking each dumbly why had he ever been born” (289). No further descriptions follow, thus leaving space for the reader’s imagination. In their de-individualization, syphilitic children in New Woman writing become potent spaces ofprojec- tion for the sense of guilt but also of an intensification of dread and horror.

The lack of realism in their presentation and the melodramatic mode that surrounds them make them appear as figurations rather than representations. Ardis uses Barthes’ distinction between representation and figuration in the context of New Woman writing, arguing that, rather than representing reality, the writers aimed to “figure it: create it, imagine it” (1990: 118). In the same sense, the syphilitic child is a figuration of potential horrors and suffering of humanity that has lost its humaneness through degeneration. In its symbolic potency, it plays with the affective response of the reader, which is most poignantly evoked in Jessamine’s nightmare, in which she sees:

a Vista of the Ages - the Ages of the future and the unborn. Faces, little faces

came up from them; her ears were full of the tread of little feet; little hands clutched at the veil and dragged it from her; eyes, the eyes of unborn children, looked at her with an awful reproach. They came and touched her with cold hands, and looked and passed. Little feet and little hands and eyes that were dreadful. Each had the eyes of her suffering boy; each had the impress of her husband. (Brooke 1894: 291)

In the description, the ethereal quality of the future and foregone children- revenants highlights their malevolence. The Gothic imagery evokes Jessamine’s coldness and lack of maternal feelings for her children. In Brooke’s novel, just as in Bulkley’s account and in Pankhurst’s writing, the syphilitic child is simultaneously a victim of social depravity but also a potent agent of contagion. This quality is embodied by Jessamine’s daughter, and evinced by her wickedness, “the sudden unlooked-for fury of the idiot girl” (Brooke 1894: 296). In the rhetoric of silence that surrounds the event in which both of Jessamine’s children die and in the displacement of the actual visibility of hereditary degeneration, the novel offers a potent image of the aborted hopes of motherhood and a fearful vision of the future.

These images suggest the theme of sacrificial motherhood as the only viable solution to the suffering and dread that the syphilitic child inspires. The motif of the ambiguous bond between the mother and the syphilitic child is transmedial and finds expression in European theatre, painting and literature. In Munch’s series of paintings and lithographs jointly named Inheritance (Fig. 6.1), haunted by the returning, wasted and almost ethereal, de-individualized child-apparition, the Madonna and Child turns into a Pieta: into a troubled relationship between the fragile son and a self-sacrificial, suffering mother. The variations of the mother figure within the series stress her helplessness but also her futile attempts at care provision. Sacrificial motherhood depicted in New Woman novels also spotlights this unfeasibility as it frames infanticide and suicide as the only solutions to the problem. In The Heavenly Twins, Edith’s account of her alleged attempt at murdering her unnamed child uncannily reverberates with the same Gothic overtones as Jessamine’s nightmare. The cruelty of the children in Brooke’s novel is now exchanged for the cruelty of the mother who creeps “with bare feet, to surprise [the child] in his sleep” (Grand 2007: 304). In a melodramatic doubling, Evadne becomes morally ambiguous when she decides to poison herself and thus to end the life of her unborn daughter. Her doctor- husband questions the social utility of Evadne’s eugenic sacrifice (671).

This same questioning of women’s misconceived duty to the race is articulated by Dr Cornerstone in A Superfluous Woman. In marrying and remaining faithful to Heriot, Jessamine atones for her desire for Colin. Her sacrificial marriage, however, only has dire consequences as she gives life to the “effete and dissipated race” (Brooke 1894: 273). As she craves for the redemption of death, she puts an end to her children and to herself. In an instance of figural narration, the reader is confronted with unclear memories of the death of Heriot’s children, only to see Jessamine die happy after “her will had triumphed” over her husband’s desire to have an heir (301).

Jessamine’s admission of crime and her sense of responsibility bring to mind Ibsen’s Mrs Alving and her own avowal of her role in the downfall of her son Oswald. Showalter has argued that, aside from their use ofsyphilitic insanity as a means of addressing social hypocrisy, which breeds “anxious fathers, febrile art, and divided and disfigured sons,” late nineteenth-century male authors turned against women and their role in the maintenance of this system (1986; 105). Oswald Alving’s mother, for instance, not only feels responsible for her husband’s wrongdoings, Showalter sees her also as “the real executioner of the son, and the real enemy of his artistic genius” (105), which supports the claim that “male writers had redefined the locus of vice, had changed the subject of the debate from the sins of the fathers to the sexuality of sons and lovers and the neurotic frigidity of mothers and wives” (111).

Although there is indeed a shift from a straightforward allocation of blame to the father, Ibsen’s treatment of syphilis heredity, like that in Brooke’s novel, is more complicated as it evinces the ambiguous positions of the mother and the son and casts doubts on the mode of syphilis transmission. Interpretations of Oswald’s ailment have ranged from a straightforward acceptance of its hereditary character to more sensationalist accounts of its acquisition in childhood.5 The impossibility of an a posteriori, literary, “differential diagnosis,” Johansen argues, not only addresses the question of one’s agency against the ploys of fate but also sheds light on the joint complicity of the Alving family in the transmission of the hereditary taint (2005: 110). It is “an illustration of the price to be paid for fearing public opinion and bowing to conventions and the hushing up of the truth” (Johansen 2005: 110). This broader perspective and a denial of a straightforward allocation of blame cast Oswald and his mother, like Jessamine in Brooke’s novel, as co-responsible for this development.

Munch captures this combination of blame and sorrow in one of the sketches for Max Reinhardt’s production of Ghosts at the Kammerspiele in Berlin entitled Ghosts: Osvald and Mrs Alving (1906).6 In his rendition of Oswald and Mrs Alving, in which his merger technique is taken to extremes, both figures exist in a state of irrevocable entwining. This pieta, “a memorialization of the son’s destruction and the mother’s suffering” (Templeton 2008: 52), reverberates with the echoes of the Madonna and Child series.7 The terror of the mother’s face is highlighted by the horror evoked by the incandescence of frenzied black lines as Oswald’s pending death is suggested by his ‘fading’ into the golden background that, according to Templeton, obliquely references The Sun (Templeton 2008: 52). Munch’s The Sun (1911-16) echoes Oswald’s final words to his mother, “give me the sun” - his plea for morphine and for the end of his suffering (Templeton 2008: 9). This media transposition - the sun that Oswald craves for - returns in Munch’s work as a less ambiguous utopian respite that soothes the nerves of the sufferer. In Munch’s art, these uncertainties are exchanged for the regenerative beauty of the sun, whose beams enliven the mystical landscape. Mrs Alving’s presumed sacrifice and her act of humanitarian euthanasia recall the eugenic utopias pervasive at the time.

Thematically, they can also be linked to the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose short story “The Third Generation” has a eugenic agenda. In the story, Sir Francis Norton unexpectedly pays a visit to the well- known London practitioner to find out that he is suffering from a serpiginous lesion and, to the doctor’s content, appears to be a perfect incarnation of a “constitutional and hereditary taint” (Doyle 2007: 34). Dr Selby soon convinces the patient that he is “no lonely sufferer [as] there are many thousands who bear the same cross” (35). This assertion, together with Sir Norton’s moral conduct, establishes the innocence of his thoughts and deeds. Norton complains:

But where is the justice of it, doctor? [... ] If I were heir to my grandfather’s sins as well as to their results I could understand it, but I am of my father’s type;

I love all that is gentle and beautiful, music and poetry and art. The coarse and animal is abhorrent to me. [... ] And now this vile, loathsome thing - Ach,

I am polluted to the marrow, soaked in abomination! (Doyle 2007: 35)

His physiognomy mirrors this innocence reflected in his gaze “of the startled horse” (30) and in the horror he feels at the thought of his

“rotting,” “putrid” blood (35, 36). The only symptom of the disease is the above-mentioned lesion on his leg, whose serpentine form, connotes treachery and deception.

In the short story, Sir Norton becomes the ultimate sacrificial lamb. Having learned about the patient’s conjugal plans, the doctor dissuades him from marriage. As Sir Norton considers it impossible to break the attachment, the doctor suggests a sudden voyage to Australia as a possible solution. He also relates the story of another patient who committed a capital crime to protect his future wife from shame and thus released her from her promise. Fed by the doctor’s stories and inspired by the sense of duty, Sir Norton commits suicide, even though the event is reported as “A Deplorable Accident” by the Daily Mail (Doyle 2007: 39). In this, his actions are radically different from those of Georges Dupont in Brieux’s Les Avaries, who marries despite the doctor’s advice to the contrary. By materializing Dr Selby’s eugenic fantasies, Norton not only proves that hereditary laws are not as strict as one would expect, but also restores the stability of the male hegemonic paradigm. By annihilating the legacy of his grandfather through his own death, Norton enacts a real and symbolic sacrifice. Here, it is not the innocent wife, as was the case in New Woman writing, who eradicates the degeneration in the family through her death but the syphilitic himself. Like other eugenic texts of the time, “The Third Generation” envisions only one end for the syphilitic male: his annihilation and, with that, the rescue of the bourgeois family.

In “Eugenics and the Afterlife: Lombroso, Doyle, and the Spiritualist Purification of the Race” (2007), Christine Ferguson proposes to read both authors’ late preoccupation with spiritualism not as a breach with their previous exploration of criminality and deviance but as its extension. Spiritualism, she argues, was a potent arena for the propagation of “racial fitness and hereditary improvement,” which were the prime goals of eugenics (65). Like the latter, spiritualism preached the importance of progress and sacrifice for future fitness, understood in physical, moral and mental terms (67). In effect:

The eugenic ideal of an impending society in which sickness and suffering had been eliminated, in which handsome and fit bodies replaced old and diseased ones, and in which each race or type preserved only its best specimens, is identical with the spiritualist conception of the afterlife. (Ferguson 2007: 67)

In its evocation of the afterlife, Ferguson argues, spiritualist thought was influenced by the ideas of evolutionary development, as it saw the bodies of the insane, the criminal and the mentally ill undergo gradual purification after death. Ghosts or spirits, earlier accommodated in folk mythologies, gradually developed into pure, perfected apparitions under the pressure of spiritualist thought. In the context in which the afterlife was imagined as a land of refinement, death became a benevolent act of liberation from the limitations of the terrestrial, imperfect, diseased and desiring corporeality. Within this paradigm, the elimination of everyone who did not comply with the standards of physical and mental fitness masqueraded as kindness and compassion (Ferguson 2007: 71-2). The shedding of incapacitating corporeality paved the way to the eugenic utopia of the afterlife, which, as Ferguson argues, for Conan Doyle took the shape of “a bucolic English paradise cleansed of all forms of physical and mental defect” (77).

The juxtaposition of New Woman texts and Conan Doyle’s story highlights the sacrificial role of syphilitic children and their mothers as propounded by eugenic writing in its distinctive generic modes. New Woman writers and feminists used the syphilitic child explicitly and limitedly as a sign of hereditary degeneration and dread. Although they variously defined women’s role in race degeneration, they highlighted the civic duty of the mother as fundamental to the future of the whole nation. This accountability of people ‘innocently’ affected by syphilis resurfaces in Doyle’s short story, in which not the mother, but the syphilitic himself regards extinction as the only possible way out of his situation. The syphilitic takes on a socially viable, sacrificial role. Ibsen incorporates in his drama a complex allocation of blame and intricately combines the fates of the mother and the son in his critique of an ossified moral order within the structure of what became viewed as the “flagship of naturalistic theatre” (Fischer-Lichte 2007: 63). Munch, on the other hand, addresses the irrevocable intertwining of the fates of the mother and the child in his series of paintings and lithographs. Unlike Munch and Ibsen, who concentrate on the crude realities of suffering, New Woman fiction and Doyle’s story incorporate into their works the desire for an eugenic utopia, in which death and disease are stamped out.

Eugenic utopias proliferated at the turn of the century. Together with their dystopian counterparts, if in a drastically different way, they envisioned a world transformed by socialist ideals, technological improvements and selective breeding. In their continuation of the century-long utopian social theories of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and

Robert Owen, such fictions described societies in which diseases were conquered, social problems solved and environmental disasters prevented (Claeys 2010: 111). They described a world where the state had the upper hand in the regulation of trade, education, marriage unions and health provision. Elizabeth Corbett’s New Amazonia (1889), for instance, not only takes up many of the concerns addressed by the utopias of Edward Bellamy and William Morris but also combines the ideals of feminist, imperialist and eugenic thought in its depiction of society in the year 2472 (Roemer 2010: 97). Mysteriously transported into the future, the heroine is confronted with a world in which women’s situation has improved: they have access to knowledge, well-paid positions and the right to vote. Improvements in physical education and professional development, together with the regulation of the number of births, have helped create a world, which, with its ideals of the “[h]ealth of body, the highest technical and intellectual knowledge, and purity of morals” constitutes “the most perfect, the most prosperous, and the most moral community in existence” (Corbett 1889: 47). For this to be possible, Malthusian doctrines have been reinforced: medical certificates are required before marriage and newborn children are inspected after birth for fitness. “[N]o crippled or malformed infants [are] permitted to live” (46). Hygienic progress, state control of education and the regulation of marriage are also invoked in such novels as George Read Murphy’s Beyond the Ice (1894) or Andrew Acworth’s A New Eden (1896).8

Concurently, these same ideological currents and eugenic experiments are shown to be responsible for the birth of puny, intellectually inferior races. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1985), like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), has been regarded as a satire on both eugenic thought and New Woman fiction.9 Showalter has linked Dracula to syphilis arguing that in male novels “syphilophobic anxieties appear in the form of fear of female sexuality and intensified misogyny” (1986: 98). In the same vein, she sees Wells’s Eloi as “a parody of Dorian Gray’s decadent aesthetics,” who, in their “infantile nervous perfection,” represent a parody of the future as imagined by late nineteenth-century feminists. They are, Showalter argues, “Wells’s mordant response to the sexless feminist utopias” (1986: 104).

In both novels, the child returns as a social victim and a haunting revenant. Wells’s “graceful” but “frail” creatures remind the Time Traveler “of the more beautiful kind of consumptive [...,] hectic beauty” (1995: 19) not unlike the “Dresden china type of prettiness” (1995: 20). Similarly, in his classification of criminals, Van Helsing compares Dracula’s brain to a “selfish child-brain” that “predestinate[s] to crime” (Stoker 1897: 320). This “diagnosis,” Vrettos argues, “counteracts the effect of the vampire’s superior power, health, and reproductive energy” (1995: 172). Claudia Nelson believes that through this evocation of Dracula’s atavism, through his mental arrest and concomitant criminality, Stoker articulates one of the great fears of the Victorian era - the threat to the “primacy and potency of the ‘normal’ patriarchal Victorian male” (2012: 64). In distinct ways, Stoker and Wells comment on the utopian proposals of the New Women and eugenists by linking their pessimistic visions to the negative idea of childhood as arrested development.

Popular imagery of the late nineteenth century regarded the syphilitic child as a potent sign of national degeneration. New Woman and spiritualist writing envisioned future utopias based on the civic responsibility of individuals and collectives, on whose shoulders lay the accountability for the health of the nation and the regeneration of the race. At the same time, dystopian visions commented on the negative outcomes of these ideologies gone too far. Neither of these preoccupations actually addressed the suffering of syphilis patients. Nor did they pay much attention to the possible ways of alleviating this suffering, which would go beyond the easy solution of ‘humanitarian’ euthanasia.

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