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The Child and the "Genius": New Science in Sarah Grand's The Beth Book LyssaRandolph Sarah Grand's autobiographical novel, The Beth Book; Being a Studyfrom the Life ofElizabeth CaldwellMadure, A Woman ofGenius (1897), draws on expanding interest in the psychology of childhood and new hereditarian paradigms in narrating the progress ofits female protagonist, Beth.Thispaperwillconsiderthesetheoretical developments and demonstrate how, in literary and scientific discourses within the context ofa shared cultural register ofevolutionism, the child and "the genius" were interlinked in the light of concerns about cultural and national progress at the^í» desiècle. Frances Bellenden Clarke (1854 -1943) reinvented herself as the NewWomanwriter, Madame Sarah Grand. As a best-selling novelist she became a leading figure in late nineteenth-century social purity feminism. Her fiction explores the possibility offemale emancipation and contested gender roles whilst endorsing marriage and motherhood ofthe highest standard exacted by the sexually selective "Women ofthe Future."1 Grandwas byno meansadvocating thesanctityofthedomestic, indeed The Beth Book in particular tears apart "the secret life of the home"2so cherishedbythoseconservativewriterswhowere thescourges of the New Woman. Grand's moralistic stance, produced through evolutionary discourses, sees the higher nature ofwomen as befitting progressive race leadership, conflating fears ofracial degeneration with rebuttals oftheprofessional discourseswhich sought tobarwomen from career and higher education. volume 26 number 1 Critics agreethat TheBethBook(BB) is largelyautobiographical,3 although Grand disclaimed this in her private correspondence.4 It is unusual both for its extended focus and for the incisive account ofthe sensibilitiesandthoughts ofayounggirl. Overhalfthenovelis concerned with depicting the early childhood and adolescence ofits eponymous heroine, Beth Caldwell; she is wilful, highly imaginative and sensitive, growingupin Irelandwithin alargefamilywhoseclassidentityofgenteel poverty is a source both ofpride and suffering. Her juvenile strivings toward poetic expression are realized later in the literature ofher adult career. The fictional Beth and the author, Sarah Grand, overlap, for this history ofthe personality registers Grand's celebrity and impactive role in the era ofthe NewWoman. To represent the "literarywoman of genius" was a complex enterprise for a feminist narrativizing the self. If autobiographywas consideredan ungentlemanlyform foreven the most eminentVictorian men, onewhich required careful generic strategies to achieve modest documentation ofintellectual achievement,5 then it was an even more fraught genre for Victorian women, who risked greater social censure for a transgressive self-promotion. The feminist impulse which seeks to registerwomen's contribution to culturewould be further undermined by the prevailing cultural equation of mass culture and "woman"6with the result that only an act ofdisavowal, the repudiation ofsociety's approbation and ofmaterial gain, can confirm true "literary genius." When the adult Beth claims that, "Nothingworth doing in art is done by calculation" (BB 521), by designating her acts of literary production and public speaking — seen as particularly disreputable activities forVictorian women-as instinctual and spontaneous, Grand capitulates with cultural hegemony on women's role in public spheres (BB 453). We will see how the extended treatment ofthe psychological portraitofthe "childgenius" with newhereditarian knowledge negotiates these ideological difficulties. Patricia Murphy (1998), in an article on Grand which situates her feminist social purity within debates on female inferiority in Darwinian science, contends that The Beth Book selects '"evolutionary psychology as its implicit target." But, rather than making the critical Victorian Review (2000)65 L. Randolph distinction between science and ideology, or nature and culture which Murphysuggests/ Grand strategicallydeploys scientific discourses with which to promote feminist goals.8 A reconsideration of Grand's engagementwith evolutionarypsychologyin TheBethBookby focusing on the largest portion ofthe novel, the childhood section, will examine leading contemporary writers on childhood psychology and genius to demonstrate her sanctioning ofcontemporary scientific sources. Post-Darwinian science was heralded as vital knowledge for understanding the self in late-Victorian culture. Situated amongst competing discourses ofheredity, the child occupied anewand popular area of investigation and interpretation in the light of evolutionism. Thepopularization ofbiologyandmedicine in theperiodical press during the second halfofthe nineteenth-centuryclaimed agrowing and mixed readership, includingwomen. Such an informedmiddle-class readership brings this reading to bear on other texts. In fiction, for example, discoveries in hereditarian identitywith their implications for free will, and the effect ofnature and nurture, played a new and important role in understanding the development of the individual.9 These developments hadparticularsignificance forwomenwriters in theliterary market who...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 64-81
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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