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Chapter 11 - Eugenics and Degeneration in Socialist-Feminist Novels of the Mid-1890s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 August 2023

Dustin Friedman
Affiliation:
American University, Washington DC
Kristin Mahoney
Affiliation:
Michigan State University
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Summary

Before the specter of the Nazi Final Solution, many British intellectuals at the fin de siècle perceived eugenics as forward-thinking and liberating. In their respective novels, A Superfluous Woman (1894) and The Girl from the Farm (1895), the socialist-feminists Emma Frances Brooke and Gertrude Dix paired ideologies of degeneration and eugenics with an endorsement of Edward Carpenter’s ethos of simple living, celebrating good health and wholesomeness. They adopted Francis Galton’s policy of selective breeding yet rejected his promotion of the peerage as “eminent” specimens for propagating future generations. In their fictions, the conservative aristocrat and entitled upper-middle-class man are instead enervated, parasitical decadents and obstacles to social, evolutionary advancement. Ultimately, Brooke’s and Dix’s visions are not altogether unified: whereas Dix simply dismisses her flimsy, immature dandy, Brooke advocates a more radical “negative eugenics” with an eye to her decadent’s diseased offspring. Rejecting privileged, dissipated men in favor of health and liberation, both authors anticipate twenty-first century social critiques of decadence.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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