Finding Hy-Brazil: Eugenics and Modernism in the Pacific.
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
(Criticism and interpretation)
Modernism (Literature) (Criticism and interpretation)
Eugenics (Social aspects)
Eugenics (Ethical aspects)
Eugenics (Speeches, lectures and essays)
Science fiction (Criticism and interpretation)
|Publication:||Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198|
|Issue:||Date: May-Nov, 2009 Source Volume: 35 Source Issue: 1-2|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Prelude to Christopher (Novel); Finding Hy-Brazil: Eugenics and Modernism in the Pacific (Essay) Event Code: 290 Public affairs Advertising Code: 91 Ethics|
|Persons:||Named Person: Dark, Eleanor|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia|
In the 1930s a number of Australian women writers took issue with
material and symbolic aspects of public health discourse and in
particular challenged institutional endorsement of eugenicist movements.
Certain women writers chose to enter this national discussion over the
role of science and medicine by creating imaginative narratives that
discussed the role of eugenics in modern life. In turn, this creative
activity placed medical and scientific discourses under the
This regional literary response to international eugenics agendas were embedded in the increasingly volatile and competitive geopolitical, cultural and scientific aspirations that typified the pre-World War Two decade. One imaginative reaction, I propose, was works that can be called biocultural fictions, meaning narratives characterized by anxieties about the connections between biology and culture, including breeding and race. In general, this fictional retort was cross-generic but in one novel, Eleanor Dark's Prelude to Christopher (1934), we see a microcosm of the uncertainties and divisions of Australian attitudes to scientific enquiry in general and medical progress in particular. Dark was among several writers who imaginatively represented this public dialogue but the discussion below focuses on her work because of Prelude's interest in eugenics policy and the novel's status as modernist fiction. Dark's work is especially interesting because, as Isobel Crombie notes, many writers discussed eugenics due to a general engagement with fundamental human issues such as sex, health, race and culture; Prelude to Christopher, however, is 'one of the few books of the period to engage with such contemporary issues in modernist style.' (1) Dark's interest in modernist form provides an ideal framework for a heightened response to the clashing political, social and cultural tensions of the era.
The background to this literary enquiry was the gathering intensity of global discursive flows around race, science and medicine. In the nineteenth century, Anglo-American research saw Australia as a vast laboratory in the Pacific, as histories of scientific enquiry have made clear. In Australia, late nineteenth-century scientific research was linked specifically to the increasing demand for professionalization of medicine, and science and medicine in turn were seen as instrumental to statehood and nation-building. (2) The eugenics movement was important to national enterprise projects because of its association, at least prior to 1939, with health, progress, and modernity.
In the context of the following discussion the term 'eugenics' is used broadly in the social and scientific sense as the study of the factors that influence the hereditary qualities of future generations. The fractured nature of the area is recognized: Stephen Garton notes that in Australia eugenicist policies and their enactment were far from uniform in their views or practices.' (3) This diversity is in keeping with the experience of other countries. Marouf Hasian states that, in America, eugenics programmes had links to many other movements 'including birth control, prohibition, scouting, intelligence testing, conservation, immigration restriction, and war preparation movements.' (4) In most international and national arenas, the term generally included ideas that were informed by positive eugenics (improving the quality of a population) as well as negative eugenics (guarding against reproduction of the 'unfit'). My account begins with a summary of the Australian literary engagement with eugenics as a broad category, followed by a discussion of selective aspects of national and international eugenics ideas, before moving to a fuller examination of Prelude to Christopher.
Prelude to Christopher is part of a longer literary history of novels about breeding for race, beginning with mid-nineteenth century novels by male and female authors that are set in Australia, or written by authors who lived in Australia. Some earlier feminist utopian narratives touched on similar issues and several are set in Australia: for example, Catherine Helen Spence's 1879 novel Handfasted (usually called a science fiction novel) opens in Melbourne. The story moves to an isolated valley in the United States and then to European cities before returning to Victoria. In this novel, trial marriage is institutionalized and marriage with the Indigenous population is tolerated. Spence entered Handfasted in a Sydney Mail literary competition and the judge responded that 'it was calculated to loosen the marriage tie--it was too socialistic and consequently dangerous,' (5) so that the work was not published as a book until 1984.
But most eugenic fictions up to the 1930s that referenced Australia were written by men. In this tradition, the isolated Pacific island is a favorite locale. Typically, the island is the site of either colonies of Amazonian women or the nightmare activities depicted in H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr Moreau, a work that clearly influenced Dark. Prelude's fictional social experiment takes place on a Pacific island called Hy-Brazil, which is the name of the imaginary island of north Atlantic mythology. In Dark's work the schema is reversed: the island is home to all that is good and productive (until the inevitable falling out among the inhabitants) and the laboratory is part of the cosmopolitan city-scientific culture of Sydney.
Christina Stead explored eugenics in The Man Who Loved Children (1940), memorably in Sam Pollit's pronouncements, while Barnard Eldershaw's dystopian novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947) placed this discussion in a future state. Dark's work is significant however because she was both an observer of, and a participant in intellectual and familial circles that had an active interest in the social medicine programs of the day (social medicine being the branch of medicine that addresses social and economic dimensions of heath and disease). Her extended family are metonymic of a cultural moment that shows the stresses of this conjoined literary and scientific subjectivity. In 1934, when Prelude was published, Australia's population was made up of 6.6 million (non-Indigenous) people of mostly British origin in a land mass the size of the United States. Perceptions that this was a problem were fuelled by low immigration rates, the European arms race, fears about the militarization of Japan, and worries about a low white population in the tropical North. There is a general acceptance that, despite hegemonic representations of youth and strength, the certainties offered by ideologies of national progress were undermined by fears of emptiness in this period.
Australia, then, provided fertile ground for the expansion of early twentieth-century European ideas about race and population. The orthodoxies of British medical schools travelled to Australia. These orthodoxies saw humans as an organism that had to adapt to climatic conditions, resulting in what Paul Turnbull calls the aspiration to see Australia as the 'heartland of an Anglo-Saxon empire in the Pacific.' (6) Beliefs that diseased Asian or Indigenous populations endangered white settlement were widespread, as were ingrained fears of the consequences of sexual transgression. (7) The result was that eugenics was at once popularised and at the same time became a convenient catch-all for a range of anxieties. This pattern was evident in other countries. In America, 'eugenics was an ambiguous term that allowed many respective Anglo-Americans to voice their concerns on a number of social issues.' (8)
This ambiguity was located often in the figure of the doctor. Warwick Anderson in The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia (2002) argues that, at this time, 'science and medicine produced a civic subjectivity as surely as did literature, art, film, and other cultural enterprises.' (9) Doctors, he says, were doing more than dealing with disease, they were taking part in a creative national imagining and so 'the clinic and the laboratory should be added to those sites where the nation--any nation--may be imagined.' (19) Doctors were channels of research that ensured sound public health materially and symbolically. For Anderson, medicine had long been as much a discourse of settlement as it was a means of knowing and mastering disease and issues of race were fundamental to this project: 'until the 1930s, few biomedical scientists in Australia, or elsewhere, doubted that they would eventually resolve manifold human difference into a few physical and mental types, called races, one of them white. But none of them ever managed to do so to anyone else's satisfaction--not for long, at least.' (11) As Garton notes, Anderson does not examine the reasons 'why medicine sided with the majority' (12) but Australian medicine was not unusual in this regard. Gisela Kaplan, for instance, describes eugenics as a transnational system, stating that '[e]ugenics was probably one of the very first ideologies that generated global support. It was quintessentially European, entirely respectable and became truly "globalised".' (13) However, Diana Wyndham argues that a distinctly 'Australian' version of eugenics became apparent, even if it was largely derivative. (14) Wyndham says that, although the British models are foundational, 'Australian eugenics has several distinctly Australian qualities.' (15) These include arguing for the development of a distinctly Australian 'race' that was larger and fitter than the British. As well, eugenics was men's business. Lisa Featherstone writes that many Australian eugenics texts 'did not mention women at all' (16) and that, in eugenicist works, the body of the woman was both absent and silent. This is in contrast to Britain, where the relationship between 'imperialist necessity and English motherhood' was frequently discussed from the turn of the century. (17) In general, it is safe to say that in Australia, as Martin Crotty argues, 'it was in the interwar years that eugenic solutions to white pathologies seem to have had the most appeal.' (18)
It is evident that the local version of the eugenics movement was fostered by several factors: connections between university fraternities and medical associations in England and Australia; the growth of a home-grown 'body culture' movement; and the post-war work of doctors who returned to Australia from the battlefields of World War One, where European scientific theories about the regulation of public health, hygiene and fitness had been espoused and tested. In regard to the first category, leading medical men such as Sir Raphael Cilento dedicated their research to proving that white men could survive in the tropics, with Cilento frequently offering 'apocalyptical warnings of the coming racial struggles for world power.' (19) Cilento, who became an expert on tropical diseases, studied at the University of Adelaide and worked in Malaya before undertaking specialist training in Britain at the London School of Tropical Medicine in 1922. Together with John Elkington and John Cumpson (the first Director-General of the Australian Department of Health), Cilento contributed to the design of a public medical system in the 1920s and 1930s.
Second, the gymnasium became a complementary source of health science testing. George Dupain established 'The Dupain Institute of Physical Education and Medical Gymnastics' in Sydney in the late 1920s and became a health science pioneer. Australian readers were interested in books on spirituality and physicality, such as those by German author Wolfgang Graeser. In an interesting synchronicity George's son Max became a famous photographer who took a fine portrait of Eleanor Dark in the 1930s. Finally, the work of doctors who had served in World War One was instrumental to the growth of social medicine at a local level as many Australian-qualified practitioners gained new research knowledge from their military experiences in Europe or the Pacific.
Elleanor Dark's family cut directly across these cultural formations. In 1921 she married Erie Dark, a staunch advocate of social medicine who had served with British forces in France in World War One. In the 1930s Eric wrote articles for the Medical Journal of Australia with titles such as 'Property and Health' and he pioneered a new treatment for tuberculosis, acquiring one of the earliest long-range diathermy machines in Australia for the treatment of TB. Whereas Cilento was on the right-wing of the social medicine debate, Eric Dark was firmly on the left as his studies linking 'ill-health to unemployment and a capitalist social order' showed. (20)
As well, Dark's extended family were involved in public health matters. Her uncle, A. B. Piddington, was a Member of Parliament who gave public support to social medicine. His wife, Marion Piddington, Eleanor's aunt, was a founder of the New South Wales Racial Hygiene Association, a group with links to the Eugenics Education Society in London. Marion was 'a great admirer of Marie Stopes in England, and Margaret Sanger, who started a newspaper in America under the banner, "No gods, no master".' (21) This organization proposed that health certificates be made a legal requirement for marriage and that individuals who suffered from syphilis or epilepsy, or who were intellectually handicapped, should be prevented from marrying and so passing on their lack of 'racial fitness.' (22)
Dark's biographer, Barbara Brooks, points out that 'when Eleanor was writing Prelude to Christopher, Marion Piddington set up the Institute for Family Relations in a room in her flat in Philip Street in the city. She called it the Sex Education Room and offered classes on the economic conditions of family life, sex habits, sterilisation and segregation, birth control.' (23) Dark does not seem to have endorsed these policies completely in her fiction because she allows Prelude's disturbed central character, Linda Hamlin, to marry. However later in the novel Linda has an accident in which her unborn child is killed, thus preventing the transmission of unsound genes. Such ideas about breeding for health (positive eugenics) were not viewed as extreme: histories of medicine note that because of the prevalence of venereal disease after World War One even non-eugencists began to argue for the provision of health certificates before marriage. In the late 1920s Cumpson wrote that 'virtually every women's group in New South Wales lobbied for their introduction in the interwar period.' (24)
Given this family network, it is no wonder that science, especially in relation to contemporary medical practice, became such a feature of Dark's writing in the 1930s. Doctors featured in many of her early novels and short stories. Eleanor typed many of Eric's manuscripts and Eric was reader of her first drafts. There has been much debate as to the extent of Eric's influence on Eleanor's writing, and there are obvious tensions around the status of the 'local doctor's wife' in her early works, such as Slow Dawning (1932).
Slow Dawning was Dark's first novel and, in this narrative, a female doctor is the focus of the story. Valerie is an accomplished, beautiful and sporty young woman who outshines her male medical colleagues. She is also, at least in theory, sexually liberated: she suggests that women should be able to visit brothels to have sex with men. After Slow Dawning, Dark's doctors become self-satisfied males, for example Dick Prescott in 'Pilgrimage' and Phillip in 'The Urgent Call.' Two years later in Prelude to Christopher the dominant male doctor (Nigel Hendon) is a humane progressive who is hopelessly idealistic. After Prelude the doctors become liberal pragmatists who help the socially disadvantaged in the city (Oliver Denning in Sun Across the Sky, 1937, and Waterway, 1938). Finally, Denning-as-doctor emerges as an intellectual humanist interested in the politics of health. At this point, Denning's ideals 'echo Eric's ideas,' says Brooks. (25)
Prelude to Christopher represents medicine at a crossroad. In this work, the doctors (there are three main characters in the novel who are medical practitioners and several others who are scientists) represent various points on the sanity spectrum. Pure science (in this case, biology) has become the province of the mad (Linda Hendon and her insane uncle, Dr Hamlin). At the other end of the scale we meet the conservative, and sane, country general practitioner, Dr Bland. New medicine is represented by the informed young GP Dr Marlowe who is pro-eugenics and who concludes at one point that a patient should drink himself to death because it would be a better outcome for his wife who has just had her sixth child. He adds 'this breeding of the unfit must stop somewhere--someday.' (26)
Nigel Hendon is the brilliant doctor whose life, from childhood to middle age, is told in flashback throughout the novel. We meet Nigel when he is seriously ill after a car accident and his story is intercut with the narrative of his wife, Linda. As a young man he has read The Psychology of Sex and The Science of Eugenics, and dreamed of founding a community on an island the basis of which was to be the 'rearing of healthy children from untainted stock.' (27) Nigel's career has been damaged by publication of a controversial eugenics treatise that has been suppressed by the Australian government but he continues to dream about finding a world that is 'unpeopled.' (28) The one flaw in his plan is Linda, a biologist from a family with a history of insanity. Although Nigel and Linda have agreed not to have children, Linda becomes pregnant to a painter who lives on the island but, as noted above, the child dies before birth. Finally, Nigel's experiment fails, mainly because the men on the island want to enlist, and the colony collapses in scenes of fury and violence.
Linda's self-destructive tendencies and her struggle to contain her abnormality dominate this narrative. She is highly intelligent, sexually liberated and extremely troubled. She is an attractive young woman with slightly Asian features who drinks and smokes and styles her hair in the latest bob--the tropes of the dangerous modern woman. After the experiment on Hy-Brazil collapses Nigel enlists in World War One and while he is abroad Linda is openly promiscuous. Men find her 'queerly attractive' (29) and her deformity, a limp, the legacy of Hy-Brazil, is thought to make her even more interesting. But she is tainted stock and cannot be allowed to live, unlike the healthy blond Australian nurse who will bear the child called Christopher. Just before her suicide she ruminates on the value of scientific training and the way in which biology can subvert both scientific training and personal ethics: 'So much, Uncle Hamlin, for your scientific training. So much, Nigel, for the austerities of your idealism. You were right, and all your rightness failed before a child's mystical superstition and a biological need.' (30)
Thus neither the truth claims of the positive eugenics of Nigel's island nor the negative eugenics of the Sydney laboratory will work for a woman such as Linda. Brooks suggests that, here,
However at the same time Linda's journey makes it clear that not all science, nor all progress, is suspect. Nigel's positive eugenics that aim to develop a healthy race are treated sympathetically, perhaps because the island setting removes the colony from the framework of mainland nationalist endeavours, whereas the negative eugenics of Linda's uncle are destructive and symbolically aligned with sexual abuse.
Given the sexual and social transgressions of Linda's behaviour and Dark's evident sympathy for this character, as well as the generally anti-eugenicist stance, it is interesting to note that many of the reviews on publication focused on the modernist form of the work (the use of flashback, interior monologue, the changing narrative perspective, the fragmented family history and the fluid movement between male and female points of view, and inner and outer fantasy) more than on the content. The book was seen as edgy and somewhat melodramatic. As Brooks points out, when Dark wrote Prelude (between 1930 and 1933) 'there were laws in the US providing for the sterilisation of people classed as mad, mentally unfit, social deviants. In Germany, the idea of racial superiority was used to justify the internment and murder of people on the basis of race and sexual preference as well as the so-called mad or mentally unfit. It was published in Germany in 1937 and,--as Brooks comments further--'one wonders what readers there would have thought.' (32)
When Eleanor Dark began writing Prelude to Christopher in 1930 she was writing into a highly racialised atmosphere. The Depression was just starting to bite and she saw daily the effects of privation on the poor. Her enquiry into the relationship between science and national health anticipated a debate that became increasingly contentious. H.G. Wells visited Perth in 1938 with, it is recorded, a 'dedicated determination to set the world to rights through an application of science and commonsense and spoke to journalists of Hitler's racial policies as 'sentimentalized sadism.' (33) Australia's Prime Minister, Joe Lyons, disputed Wells' account of German racial policies for fear of giving offence to the Germans and Italians and precipitating war. (34) Very soon, social medicine's emphasis on disease control had shifted to the care and culture of the infant and the school child, together with an increasing interest and involvement in a national fitness campaign for military training. (35)
Brooks says that Prelude to Christopher 'picks up on a strand of utopian thought in Australian nationalism' (36) because the 'ideas around eugenics connected with the arguments of science, nationalism and feminism at the time. Ideas of progress, of improvement in social conditions, were part of eugenics, as they were part of both capitalism and socialism.' (37) The novel won the Australian Gold Medal for Literature in 1934 and consolidated Dark's position as a key member of a group of interwar Australian women writers who advocated avant-garde positions on race, class and gender. As biocultural fiction Prelude provides a literary snapshot of conflicting cultural and political assumptions generated by the intersection of biological research and culture in inter-war Australia, and places women at the centre of this discussion. The imaginative response was an acknowledgement of the critical role of women in the practices of eugenics for, as Hasian argues (in relation to the United States), women were 'among the primary social actors in the eugenics controversies and they were also important in stories told by hardline eugenicists themselves.' (38) In Australia, women writers such as Dark intervened to demonstrate the wider social consequences of changing sexual and reproductive behaviour in the first half of the twentieth century.
(1) Isobel Crombie, Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture 1919-1939, Musgrave, Victoria, Images Publishing Group in Association with the National Gallery of Victoria, 2004: 41.
(2) K.N. White, 'Negotiating Science and Liberalism: Medicine in Nineteenth-Century South Australia,' Medical History, 43 (1999): 173-4.
(3) Stephen Garton, 'Review Symposium,' Metascience 12 (2003): 163.
(4) Marouf Hasian, The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought, London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996:5.
(5) Russell Blackford, Van Ikin, and Sean McMullen, Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999: 29.
(6) Paul Turnbull, Review Symposium,' Metascience 12 (2003): 154.
(7) Paul Turnbull : 157.
(8) Marouf Hasian: 14.
(9) Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne UP,  2005: 1.
(10) Warwick Anderson: 1-2.
(11) Warwick Anderson: 2.
(12) Stephen Garton: 162.
(13) Gisela Kaplan, Martin Crotty, John Germov and Grant Dodwell, (eds.), 'European Respectability, Eugenics and Globalisation' in A Race for Place: Eugenics, Darwinism, and Social Thought and Practice in Australia Proceedings of the History & Sociology of Eugenics Conference, University of Newcastle, 27-28 April 2000, Newcastle: The University of Newcastle:19.
(14) Diana Wyndham, Eugenics in Australia: Striving for National Fitness, London: Galton Institute, 2003: ii.
(15) Diana Wyndham, ii.
(16) Lisa Featherstone, 'Race for Reproduction: The Gendering of Eugenic Theories in Australia, 1890-1940', in A Race for Place: 182.
(17) Marouf Hasian: 75.
(18) Martin Crotty, Review Symposium,' Metascience 12 (2003): 167.
(19) James Gillespie, The Price of Health: Australian Governments and Medical Politics 1910-1960. Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1991: 51.
(20) James Gillespie: 51.
(21) Barbara Brooks with Judith Clark, Eleanor Dark: A Writer's Life, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1998: 116.
(22) J.H.L. Cumpson, Health and Disease in Australia: A History, M. J. Lewis (ed.), Canberra: AGPS, 1989: 145.
(23) Barbara Brooks with Judith Clark: 116. Jean Devanny also worked with Piddington in this clinic in the early 1930s. See Carole Ferrier, Jean Devanny: Romantic Revolutionary. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1999: 61-3.
(24) John Cumpson: 145.
(25) Barbara Brooks: 172.
(26) Eleanor Dark, Prelude to Christopher, , Sydney: Halstead, 1999: 274.
(27) Eleanor Dark, Prelude: 43.
(28) Eleanor Dark, Prelude: 10.
(29) Eleanor Dark, Prelude: 166.
(30) Eleanor Dark, Prelude: 120.
(31) Barbara Brooks: 188.
(32) Barbara Brooks: 188.
(33) Norman Bartlett, 'Science, Sex and Mr Wells,' Westerly 23.2, (1978): 67.
(34) Norman Bartlett, 'Science, Sex and Mr Wells,' Westerly 23.2, (1978): 68.
(35) James Gillespie: 55.
(36) Barbara Brooks: 188.
(37) Barbara Brooks: 188.
(38) Marouf Hasian: 73.
Eleanor presents the point of view of the outsider, as well as the scientist as reformer. Through judgments about sexuality and reproduction, medicine could, and did, become part of the technology of social control. She was critical of science and technology, suspicious of 'progress.' In her novels and essays, she argues for freedom for the individual, but also for the responsibility of the individual towards the community. (31)
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