Angels and Degenerates: Artistic Virtuosity and Degeneration Theory in Fin de Siècle Fiction
- Author(s): Nunan, Rosanna
- Advisor(s): Roberts, Hugh
- et al.
The aim in "Angels and Degenerates: Artistic Virtuosity and Degeneration Theory in Fin de Siècle Fiction" is to complicate the popular image of the fin de siècle as uniformly pessimistic by examining the continuities between a range of novelists, as well as other late nineteenth century writers from such disparate fields as psychology and cultural criticism, as they critique degeneration theory. Some of these writers, like Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, and Sarah Grand, are typically read as promoting a degenerationist agenda, while others, like George Bernard
Shaw and Mona Caird, are recognized today for their outspoken opposition to degeneration theory. In uniting these apparently contradictory perspectives, this study demonstrates that skepticism of degeneration theory, awareness of its inconsistent logic, and discomfort with its implications is a more important feature of fin de siècle culture than has hitherto been acknowledged.
The writers are further united by a common impulse to utilize the figure of the artistic genius to defy degeneration theory. Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Wonderful Visit, Trilby, The Beth Book, and The Daughters of Danaus incorporate protagonists whom we can identify as either incipient or realized artistic geniuses through the telltale signs of genius that originated in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Romanticism. Added to the familiar conception of Romantic genius in the late Victorian era is a newfound emphasis on the biological and
hereditary dimensions of the genius's innate creative wellspring. By concentrating on the conventionally constructive qualities of the genius figure, including visionary power, aesthetic perceptiveness, intuitive sympathy, and artistic virtuosity, the novelists produce a system of values that both degenerationists and antidegenerationists uphold in their writings. I argue that the novelists expose this shared value system and interrogate its inconsistent usage in scientific
contexts, using the genius to reject widespread pathologization and destructive applications of evolutionary theory to the human population at the end of the nineteenth century.