The New Woman & Biopolitics

My MA research project, supervised by Lisa Surridge in the English department at the University of Victoria, focused on New Woman fiction and attitudes toward maternity and women’s rights in 1890s Britain. I used Foucault’s theory of the subject and power, particularly his notion of biopolitics, to analyze how maternity and the politics of normalization buttress the argument for women’s rights in A Superfluous Woman (1894), by Emma Frances Brooke. Near the end of the novel, the protagonist, Lady Jessamine Halliday Heriot, realizes that her maternal compulsion has driven her to reproduce a syphilitic family line. In this late-Victorian cultural moment, when medical practitioners still regarded syphilis as hereditary, Jessamine’s propagation amounts to a eugenic crime against humanity. She tells her medical counsel and confidant, Dr. Cornerstone, that she will rectify the offense by withholding life from the child she now expects in her third pregnancy:

“I will repudiate it—reject it—from within. If there is a crime, I will not connive at it. I will throw myself on the side against it. I myself will annul it. I shall will—and will—and will. God himself shall side with me, and Fate will be forced to have mercy! . . . I will tear my wish out of the center of things,” she cried. “Who has a right to his will if not I? And I shall win it! There is nothing,” she said, “stronger than a mother.” (274–5)

In my MA essay, I argued that Jessamine’s speech marks a crucial political moment in New Woman literature. The speech frames her subsequent still-birth as the product of a unique feticide that, paradoxically, affirms life in the broader sense of the population’s health.

1893 Incipit Vita Nova
Like Brooke’s novel, Aubrey Beardsley’s 1893 pen-and-ink drawing, Incipit Vita Nova, expresses his milieu’s anxieties about maternity as a locus of gender and population politics.

The still-birth follows the violent deaths of Jessamine’s deformed elder children; these deaths resonate with examples of child murder in other New Woman fiction, most particularly aligning with a syphilitic mother’s infanticidal wish in Sarah Grand’s 1893 novel, The Heavenly Twins. Maternity is a central trope to New Woman fiction. As critics have shown, New Woman authors pit concerns about racial and cultural purity against women’s desires, with the maternal body often serving as a nexus for these conflicts. However, the deaths of Jessamine’s children, and particularly the death of the expected third child, retain crucial singularity. Whereas other New Woman authors construe child mortality, particularly maternal infanticide, as tragic, Brooke transforms it into a source of social relief: in A Superfluous Woman, Jessamine’s children’s deaths eradicate a threat to the late-Victorian project of population normalization. Brooke thus articulates a potential apparatus of population control that other New Woman fiction eschews: a woman’s repudiation of unborn life for the sake of the normalcy of the population as a whole.

Modern readers may view this willed still-birth as mere fantasy, but the concept of such a feticide held cultural currency for the Victorians, and Brooke used it to endorse women’s roles as determinants of the nation’s fate. At the same time, by presenting Jessamine’s willed still-birth as an apparatus for regulating life, Brooke reproduces, rather than rejects, the social power structures that limit women’s roles, articulating a new entry point for social intervention on the maternal body. Ultimately, I argued, Brooke’s portrayal of feticide expands New Woman population politics—biopolitics, in the Foucauldian sense—and demarcates a new opportunity for state intervention in maternity.