- Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did: Spencerian Individualism and Teaching New Women to Be Mothers
But the use of the word evolution itself, and the establishment of the general evolutionary theory as a system of philosophy applicable to the entire universe, we owe to one man alone—Herbert Spencer.… It is a strange proof of how little people know about their own ideas, that among the thousands who talk glibly every day of evolution, not ten per cent. are probably aware that both word and conception are alike due to the commanding intelligence and vast generalizing power of Herbert Spencer.—Grant Allen, “Evolution,” 1888
When Grant Allen sat down to write his first New Woman novel, The Woman Who Did (1895), he fully intended to frame his project within Herbert Spencer’s model of social evolution. Even his novel’s heroine, Herminia Barton, characterizes her quest for free love—sexual relations without marriage—as part of a larger, progressive social project. For example, when her lover, Alan Merrick, proposes to her, she declines and instead explains how free love can set a new and revolutionary example for future generations: “I can show the world from the very first that I act from principle, and from principle only. I can say to it in effect, ‘See, here is the man of my choice; the man I love, truly and purely.’”1 For Herminia, this sexual revolution will contribute to a larger history of social progress, to “‘the future of her kind,’” in which she herself “‘seek[s] no temporal end.’”2 Linking free choice with social progress, her revolutionary quest thereby reproduces the Spencerian ideal of progressive evolution culminating in the self-regulating and independent individual. More importantly, however, through Herminia, Allen extends this Spencerian model to address the late-Victorian Woman Question and specifically the issue of women’s sexual emancipation. For, as this essay will demonstrate, Herminia’s claim to free love is part of a larger vision wherein the self-possessed freewoman [End Page 281] literally gives birth to and thus ushers in a new society of evolved and modern individuals.
Allen wasn’t the first Victorian thinker interested in popularizing the new evolutionary sciences. By the 1870s, established scientists such as T. H. Huxley, St. George Mivart, and Francis Galton felt it necessary to participate in the proliferation of accessible science writings intended to educate the general public in evolutionary theory.3 At the same time, there were also writers and sexual scientists, such as Olive Schreiner, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and Karl Pearson, whose popular works promoted a specifically Spencerian model of evolution. As William Greenslade and Terence Rodgers have argued, “Spencer served Allen, as he served many other progressive idealists of the period … by raising the sights of the scientific rationalist to the middle distance of the sociopolitical.”4 Armed with Spencer’s version of natural science, these late Victorians were able to move beyond Darwin’s empirical observation and, instead, to think in terms of the progressive evolution of human beings and social organizations.5 Spencer’s work helped these sexual reformers, including Allen, imagine a new theory of human beings’ sexual reproduction as part of the larger, natural forces of social evolution.
For many recent critics, Allen’s interpretation of the New Woman question presents yet another variation of such ubiquitous efforts to popularize Spencerian evolution. Sally Ledger’s The New Woman was one of the first critical works to discuss New Women’s “appropriation” of dominant discourses such as the reproductive sciences and evolutionary theory.6 In Ledger’s account, these New Women claimed “the evolutionary arrest of women, the denial of intellectual activity and traditionally ‘masculine’ pursuits, would sound a death knell for human evolution.”7 Building on Ledger’s work, Angelique Richardson’s Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth Century offers an even more extensive analysis of the various ways New Woman writings invoked and even modified evolutionary discourse. In Richardson’s summation, Allen was a conservative thinker whose evolutionary feminism reproduced arguments from Darwin to Spencer in order to describe a natural or innate division of sexual labor: “Allen couched his arguments in terms at...