- The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century ed. by Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner
In the preface to this collection, editors Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner assert that "one of the most profoundly creative of all natural processes, reproduction fascinates us." This statement is certainly true for scholars and students of the long eighteenth century, and The Secrets of Generation is a most welcome addition to an already impressive critical corpus. With a seemingly boundless scope of inquiry, ranging from the medical-historical to the literary, from the social-anthropological to the biomedical, this twenty-two-article collection illustrates the wide-spread, interdisciplinary, and diverse ways in which scholars are currently engaging issues of reproduction. It also captures the eighteenth-century fascination with the process of generation and demonstrates how contemporary interest among physicians, scientists, writers, and laypeople alike was interrelated and aligned.
The collection is divided into four sections, unified in theme and subject. The six essays comprising the first section, "Generation, Species, Breeding," speak to how eighteenth-century conceptions of generation were informed and influenced by contemporary cultural concerns. Questions of inheritance are at the heart of each of these essays, as authors engage with wider religious, social, political, and philosophical issues. Ivano Dal Prete's chapter, for instance, examines theoretical debates about pre-existence in eighteenth-century Italy, particularly how the Catholic Church was divided on the issue of preformationism. Moving from religious to class implications of inheritance, John C. Waller's chapter shows how members of the eighteenth-century aristocracy relied upon biological claims of "noble blood" to validate and maintain their social status, which suggests that Europeans and Americans conceived of heredity as a "relatively fixed force" long before the eugenic movements of the late nineteenth century.
The six authors of the second section, "Fetus, Child, Mother," focus on fetal, infant, and female reproductive bodies, drawing on visual, medical, legal, and literary materials to address issues including fetal personhood, maternal status, health, and gender. In the first essay of this section, Sebastian Pranghofer explores how visualization shaped the study of fetuses and the creation of fetal personhood. Examining a plethora of visual materials, such as midwifery manuals, embryological treatises, anatomical prints, and physico-theological literature, Pranghofer argues that medical images of fetuses not only influenced how the fetus was viewed as an object of knowledge but also contributed to how these enigmatic entities were understood in social, scientific, religious, and legal [End Page 239] contexts. The other authors of this section, Corinna Wagner, David M. Turner, Heather Meek, Sonja Boon, and Jennifer Golightly, all variously consider the connection between women's minds and their reproductive bodies. This section ends with Golightly's chapter, which analyses the diverse depictions of reproductive images and themes in the radical novels of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and Eliza Fenwick; Golightly claims that women writers of the 1790s employed themes of reproduction as a means of advocating for societal reform in the wake of the French Revolution.
In "Pathologies, Body Parts, Display," the authors examine the ways in which private parts, both reproductive and sexual organs, were publicly displayed throughout the long eighteenth century – in the flesh as anatomical specimens, in artistic renderings, and in literature. Not limited to a discussion of the medical and anatomical frameworks of these displays, the chapters also address the challenges of staging exhibits of this nature and account for reader and viewer responses. Sarah Toulalan explores the perceived relations among body size and fertility, sexual desire, and general health; Pam Lieske considers deformed female pelvises; and Darren N. Wagner focuses on the anatomical preparation and display of male genitalia. As the editors suggest, these chapters bring much-deserved attention to an area of inquiry that has heretofore been relatively underexplored.
The final section, "Attitudes, Tropes, Satire," investigates the influential role print culture played in the epistemology of generation in the long eighteenth century. Examining representations of reproduction in works ranging from Milton's Paradise Lost to the satiric verses of...