“Now don’t say a word if you’ve read it… I owe everyone a grudge who tells me the plot of a story that I’m interested in” (The Heavenly Twins 1893, 527)

While making my way through New Woman novels this year, I’ve been musing on the New Woman and the problem of heredity. I’ll save my thoughts on Neo-Lamarkian and Darwinian theories for another post – for the nonce, I’d like to open up a discussion about heredity’s relationship to mystery novels in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893).

Evadne, the heroine of The Heavenly Twins, suffers from depression. Her physician, Dr. Galbraith, sets out to find the source of her illness. He consults Sir Shadwell Rock, who is, coincidently, both the “chief authority” on heredity and a fan of “shilling shocker” novels. Above I’ve quoted Rock’s admonishment to Galbraith about giving away the ending of Rock’s most recent novelette.

Ever the sleuth, Galbraith discovers that on her wedding night Evadne found out about her husband’s illegitimate and syphilitic son. Repulsed by her husband’s iniquity, she had fled. On her parents’ insistence, she returned to her husband with the understanding that she would live with him, but not, ahem, strictly as husband and wife.

When Evadne’s husband dies, she marries Galbraith, but her melancholy doesn’t lift. Galbraith finds her reading Rock’s treatise on heredity, which argues that habits and morals are hereditary. Anxious about her former husband’s sinister youth, Evadne laments that “we may any of us become parents of people who can’t be moral” (547). Evadne, now pregnant, attempts to commit suicide, in order to save her unborn daughter from falling for a man like her first husband.

There are a few other instances where heredity is linked questionable sensation stories and mysteries (and on occassion to outright French novels!) in The Heavenly Twins. This leads me to wonder about the relationship between the science of heredity and why it appears along side a particular genres. How heredity works was far from settled in the 1890s, but if the science of heredity is to life as the spoiler is to the mystery novel, then the Victorians owe the science of heredity a grudge.

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6 thoughts on “The Mystery of Life and the Science of Heredity in The Heavenly Twins

  1. I know that I’m conflating the detective story and the sensation novel in this post…. can I coin “the big reveal” as a meta-genre that includes scientific writing?

  2. I think that Christine Ferguson is doing some really interesting work right now on heredity and spiritualism that might tie into yours… I also really like Angelique Richardson on the New Woman and heredity, but I’m sure you’ve got that checked out!

  3. This is something I’m also intrigued by, Constance. Sensation novels are always obsessed with heredity, particularly as it relates to madness. I’ve just finished reading Ellen Wood’s St Martin’s Eve and it focuses on a woman who inherits her father’s madness (sorry for the spoiler!). In the sensation novel, there seems to be a struggle within female characters who are doomed to become mad (or at least labelled mad) because of hereditary causes, but who also resist heredity by attempting to marry up or changing the course of their life in some radical way. These characters’ attempts to challenge hereditary never seem to work, however.

    In these earlier novels, heredity is much more about morality and fate, and less about science and eugenics, I think. Do you think that changes at the end of the century? Though I suppose morality and science always blend when it comes to issues of eugenics and heredity…

  4. I think eugenics dovetail nicely with the mid-century fiction which posits that attempts to challenge heredity will be fruitless – the message of eugenics and sensation novels seems to be that individuals are doomed to pass on their undesirable traits.

    On a side note, what puzzles me is the failure of New Woman novels to take up a Neo-Lamarkian understanding of heredity (which posited that individuals could pass on traits that they acquired in their lifetime to their young). Faith in Neo-Lamarkian heredity would, for example, have let female characters argue for more access to education for the good of their future progeny. I can imagine how different Story of an African Farm or The Heavenly Twins would be if they were structured around Neo-Lamarkian heredity. I suspect that Olive Schreiner could have used the Lamarkian theory, since Herbert Spencer, who influenced her work in other ways, doesn’t rule out it out as a hereditary model.

    I’m troubled that so many progressive late-century New Women were also eugenicists – not just because eugenics is horrendous, but because the unproven theory of heredity that supported eugenics didn’t really bolster their side of the Woman Question.

    Odd on their part, no?

  5. “…if the science of heredity is to life as the spoiler is to the mystery novel, then the Victorians owe the science of heredity a grudge.”

    What a spectacular formulation, Constance! Still processing its full significance, but it so perfectly elucidates the tension between plot (dramatically unfolding) and character (already fatally inscribed) in the Sensation novel and other “heredity narratives.”

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