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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 867-868
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Donald J. Childs. Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. vii + 266 pp.
In recent years, literary critics have begun exploring the extent to which eugenic ideas permeated literary culture and Donald J. Childs's study of three major modernist writers—Woolf, Eliot, and Yeats—is a significant and sometimes contentious contribution to this scholarship. Woolf admirers in particular will find Childs's chapters on Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One's Own challenging. In insisting that "the eugenics is there" in Woolf's writing (74), Childs is also seeking a reevaluation of the modernist canon: "So high today is the estimation of Woolf's politics, and so low the estimation of Yeats and modernism generally, that the ignominy of one's eugenics is apparently mitigated by Woolf's having kept company with the same ideas" (23).
That Childs's argument about Woolf doesn't quite persuade—and it doesn't—is in part a consequence of the difficulty of managing the concept of eugenics as it functioned within early-twentieth-century culture. Childs's introduction provides a mostly helpful account of the development of ideas about biological inheritance and the variety of pro- and antieugenicist responses to those ideas. In seeking to show how pervasive they were, however, Childs tends to loosen the definition of eugenics to include within its scope more general endorsements of evolutionary biology and thinking about heredity. Certainly, part of the importance of Childs's book is the way in which it explores the widespread circulation of eugenic thinking in the realm of literary imagination. Certainly, too, a fuller understanding of the ways in which eugenics affects the wider culture as well as social policy is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, precision is also, sometimes, crucial: a belief in eugenics is not always implied by the acceptance of evolutionary biology or of the importance of inherited characteristics—especially so at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Such precision seems scarce in the chapters on Woolf. Is Mrs Ramsay's zeal for the problem of milk production and delivery necessarily a sign of her entry into "the eugenics debate" (33)—and is it possible on the basis of this evidence to decide where Woolf stands? Is the question of Woolf's childlessness primarily understandable as an issue of eugenic anxiety? Childs's own reading of Mrs Dalloway, for example, seems to suggest, at the least, Woolf's profound ambivalence about the "bio-power" associated by Childs with the eugenic project (13). Given this ambivalence, it is sometimes hard to stay with an argument that insists that Sir William Bradshaw, the narrator, and Woolf herself are all "cut from the same cloth" as "diagnosers of [End Page 867] mental illness" (56). At other times, for Childs, Woolf seems to indict herself simply by being informed: "Woolf thus shows that she knows the importance of the rediscovery at the turn of the century of Gregor Mendel's work on heredity" (47). Overall, the "eugenics" in Woolf's work and Woolf's view of eugenics seem insufficiently established.
It is telling, then, that the repeated speculations aimed at hunting down eugenic influences throughout this book (who read what and when) become more plausible in the later chapters about Eliot and Yeats. It seems telling, too, that the three chapters Childs devotes to each author do not indicate equal treatment: the Woolf chapters are relatively spare, amounting to just over fifty pages, while Eliot and Yeats have seventy-three and eighty-one pages respectively. In these chapters, and especially those on Yeats, Childs has far less to do to persuade his reader of the presence of eugenic thinking and, as a consequence, the engagement with a rich diversity of material is far more compelling. This material ranges from Eliot's interest in E. W. MacBride's essay "The Study of Heredity" (which helped to consolidate a new post-Mendelian language and provided Eliot with "detailed knowledge of contemporary biology...