“Stepchildren of Nature”: East Lynne and the Spectre of Female Degeneracy, 1860–1861
In 1861, just as East Lynne’s serialization in Harrison Ainsworth’s New Monthly Magazine drew to a close, The Times was just one of many voices raised against a “state of things that is truly alarming”, predicting that England was moving towards a condition of “degeneracy worthy of Hogarth’s pencil”. Henry Maudsley warned against the sexual degeneracy and “naked lust” exhibited by apparently respectable but “ill-constituted” women. East Lynne certainly invoked the discourse of degeneration and contemporary angst concerning the “brute” natures of the excitable women of modern life and those classes that were on a downward trajectory. While many feminist considerations of East Lynne have argued that the novel is subversive in its portrayal of an adulterous wife and mother, Wood’s labelling of her heroine as “mad” and “brute” is singularly lacking in irony. East Lynne must therefore be read as a text that concerns itself with policing and othering degenerate women.