English & Writing StudiesWestern Arts and Humanities

English 9087B ~ Regulating the Edwardian Body

Professor Alison Lee

Winter Half Course.

The aim of this course is to examine discourses of eugenics and degeneration in the context of Edwardian literature, science and politics.

Michel Foucault calls eugenics one of the “two great innovations in the technology of sex in the second half of the nineteenth century” (HS, 118). The administration of sex and its fertility to which Foucault refers, however, reached a crisis point at the beginning of the 20th Century. Economic challenges to British supremacy, a humiliating showing by Britain in the Boer War and a declining birthrate, at least among the upper classes, led many Britons to fear that the Empire was becoming less than robust, and that its decline could be mapped onto the bodies of the populace. Eugenics, the ‘science of improving stock’ (Galton) appeared to offer a solution to what was seen as a national deterioration in health, wealth and power. As Karl Pearson writes: “without high average soundness of body and soundness of mind, a nation can neither be built up nor an empire preserved. Permanence and dominance in the world passes to and from nations even with their rise and fall in mental and bodily fitness” (1909).

Surprisingly, eugenics in this period appealed to a broad spectrum of political opinion, and was invoked not only by conservatives, but also by sex radicals and social reformers. The atrocities of  WWII and the latter half of the 20th Century have understandably impoverished our perception of eugenics but, in the Edwardian period, eugenics was a site of political contestation for both radicals and conservatives. In both its ‘positive’ (the encouragement of ‘fit’ procreation) and ‘negative’ (the discouragement of ‘unfit’ procreation) aspects, eugenics took a central role in debates on issues such as maternity, birth control, poverty, women’s suffrage, sexology, class, disease and race. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the extent to which eugenics permeated Edwardian public discourse. Edwardian eugenics, then, becomes an exemplary site that raises questions about biopolitics in the period, as well as questions about why it was such an attractive theory to fiction writers and theorists who were also socialist, feminist or queer. Writers we will consider include: Michel Foucault, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, Havelock Ellis, Edith Ellis, Marie Carmichael Stopes,  Margaret Sanger, Olive Schreiner, Christabel Pankhurst, Joseph Conrad, Cecily Hamilton, Vita Sackville-West, Elinor Glyn and Grant Allen.

View the course syllabus here: English 9087B PDF download.