- The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century ed. by Raymond Stephanson and Darren N. Wagner
The eighteenth-century term "generation," as the editors of this volume point out, has no modern equivalent. Connoting human, animal, and plant reproduction, embryology, reproductive health and heredity, the term is capacious in ways that the closest modern equivalent "reproduction"—simply is not. And generation did not only concern the physical body. The soul, mind, and emotions were all engaged in the processes of generation. Moreover, the working together of the physical, material, and immaterial in the processes of generation—if we can make such distinctions for this period—were the concern of philosophers and politicians, scientists and satirists. "Little wonder," the editors of this volume note, "that reproduction in its broadest sense should have claimed so significant a space in the public imaginary" (p. 9).
The Secrets ofGeneration amply captures this capacious understanding of "generation." The book is organized in four thematic sections. "Generation, Species, Breeding," including essays on blood, race, and incest, demonstrates that ideas about how generation worked held broader political and philosophical implications. The chapters in "Fetus, Child, Mother" explore the relationship between mother and child, understandings of personhood, and the violence and deformity that could occur during gestation. The section, "Pathologies, Body Parts, Display," considers how new medical and aesthetic practices shaped representations of the reproductive organs (the female pelvis, the ovary, and the penis) and indeed of the whole body (whether fat or lean, alive or dead). The final section, "Attitudes, Tropes, Satire," considers how fruitful the topic of generation was for a range of printed texts and imaginative writers, from Aristotle's Masterpiece to midwifery books to verse satires. [End Page 446]
Twenty-two fascinating chapters written by scholars from several disciplines explore generation in a number of guises, from the medical to the literary, the biological to the economic. Space necessarily precludes a discussion of every chapter but each one discusses an aspect of generation in creative and engaging ways. Readers will learn about both medical and lay theories about conception and gestation, about attitudes to the roles that men and women played in generation, about the changing ways that the human body was represented and about which particular aspects of the process of generation made eighteenth-century men and women laugh.
The risk for such a wide-ranging volume on such a topic is that the final product becomes a collection of disparate studies. Yet the editors have done a wonderful job of crafting a coherent volume that illustrates but also adds to the richness of this field. Given that the volume covers the whole of the eighteenth century, some discussion of change in the Introduction would have helped readers situate the various chapters and gain a sense of the contours of the several momentous transformations over this period (for example, nervous science, anatomy, and changing ideas about gender that affected how people understood the specific contributions that men and women made to conception). Nevertheless, this minor omission is outweighed by undoubted richness of the chapters.
Throughout these chapters, a number of important recurring themes emerge. Several chapters ask what happened when generation went wrong or failed, thereby illuminating deeper understandings of the processes of reproduction and the body more generally. A second theme is the link between the body and mind and the many ways in which this affected the process of generation, not least the development of the unborn. The relationship between new knowledge and new ways of visualizing the body is a third and fruitful theme. Overall, then, the themes raised by these chapters touch not only upon reproduction but relate to our broader understanding of the processes and representation of the body in the long eighteenth century. This book will be essential reading for those interested in the history of reproduction, but any scholar working on the history of the body would do well to consult within its pages.