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2.19 - Genealogies of Monstrosity: Darwin, the Biology of Crime and Nineteenth-Century British Gothic Literature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2020

Catherine Spooner
Affiliation:
Lancaster University
Dale Townshend
Affiliation:
Manchester Metropolitan University
Angela Wright
Affiliation:
University of Sheffield
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Summary

This chapter explores how Charles Darwin’s ideas about structural and functional anomalies in plants, animals and humans inspired the new Gothic monsters to be found in the work of Grant Allen, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Arthur Machen. It traces the ways in which these writers reimagined human genealogies in light of evolutionary biology, materialism and Darwinist criminal anthropology. Sadistic criminals whose degenerate minds and bodies threatened civilised society, and atavistic flesh-eating plants whose natural ‘criminality’ was coaxed out by sadistic experimental scientists, are part of a significant reimagining of both biological and cultural history in the last half of the century. Indeed, through these types of biological monsters, Gothic writers challenged some of the most cherished ideas that Victorians held about their cultural heritage. Knowledge about human descent, the biology of human and animal abnormality, and criminal compulsions that dwelt in the ‘protoplasm’, largely negated the ideals of the age of chivalry – the medieval origins of the higher-order values that supposedly defined the human as exceptional.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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