Investigating the relationship between female degeneration, motherhood, and childhood disability in Late-Victorian Literature

  • Jenny Storton

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


The depiction of degeneration in Victorian literature remains a popular and well-known trope. However, literature often takes a heavily masculine approach to the subject that is limited to the scope of male behaviour. This thesis will explore the representations of female degeneration in late-Victorian literature and how it engages with the concepts of motherhood, crime and wider contextual material. Using criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s (1895) The Female Offender as the foundation for comparison, it will trace the “qualities” of degenerate women and how they engage with aspects of crime. Looking at four examples of degenerate women with varying affiliations to motherhood, this thesis argues that female degeneration manifests as more complex than a regression to a more primitive body. The first part of this thesis will explore the multitudinous nature of degeneration through its comparative portrayal of atavistic and sexual degeneration. Through Conrad’s (1907;1969;) The Secret Agent and Collins’ (1889;2005) The Legacy of Cain, it will show how the scope of motherhood offers insight into hereditary responsibility and its wider consequences on the familial structure. The rise of the New Woman fiction and its eugenic framework furthers this through its promotion of sexual selection. Brooke’s (1894;2015) A Superfluous Woman and Grand’s (1893;2015) The Heavenly Twins explore female degeneration through sexual vice. Therefore, it will investigate the analysis of childhood disability as a materialisation of parental vice, exploring how the deployment of “moral” and “feminine” behaviours impact this. By shifting focus away from the masculine narrative of degeneration, this thesis reinforces the perceived biological and cultural significance of motherhood while also addressing the sexual double standards that hinder female transgression.
Date of Award23 Feb 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorMerrick Burrow (Main Supervisor) & James Underwood (Co-Supervisor)

Cite this