Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration

Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration

Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration

Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration

Synopsis

In Modernism and Eugenics, Donald Childs reveals how Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and W.B. Yeats believed in eugenics, the science of racial improvement, and adapted this scientific discourse to the language and purposes of the modern imagination. He traces the impact of the eugenics movement on such modernist works as Mrs. Dalloway, The Waste Land, and Yeats's late poetry and early plays. This is an original study of a controversial theme which reveals the centrality of eugenics in the life and work of several major modernist writers.

Excerpt

And so Virginia Woolf came to consciousness in a world in which eugenics was seen to deserve very serious comment—from both the right and the left of the political spectrum, and from every variously interested point of view in between. Furthermore, the discourse of eugenics was borne in upon her both publicly and privately-on the one hand, as a matter of national urgency, and on the other hand, as a matter of great personal consequence with regard to decisions about marriage and having children. Not surprisingly, then, insofar as Mrs. Dalloway bears the traces of Woolf's engagement with her time and place, so it bears the traces of her engagement with eugenics. As we have seen, Bradshaw is a eugenist and the Christian Kilman is based in part upon the Christian eugenist Jean Thomas. Woolf's narrator (seeming to speak as Woolf herself on many occasions) certainly criticizes these figures devoted to goddesses like Proportion and Conversion, but it is by no means clear that she criticizes eugenics itself.

The eugenical subtext in Mrs. Dalloway appears in a number of ways. Lady Bruton, for instance, is a eugenist. Hugh Whitbread and Richard Dalloway are invited to lunch to help her with her “project for emigrating young people of both sexes born of respectable parents and setting them up with a fair prospect of doing well in Canada” (p. 164). Happily day-dreaming of “commanding battalions marching to Canada, ” Lady Bruton at other times lacks confidence in her proposal: “She exaggerated. She had perhaps lost her sense of proportion. Emigration was not to others the obvious remedy” (pp. 169–70, 164). To what problem is emigration the “remedy”? Lady Bruton's Britain is threatened by a differential birthrate; emigration of the least fit class is one solution.

Her emigration project is so clearly eugenical that Woolf might just as well have made her the delegate that the British Women's . . .

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