Cornhill Magazine,  10 (1864), 569–82.

A Tête-à-Tête Social Science Discussion

[Richard A King]


Short Fiction, Dialogue


Statistics, Entropy, Gender, Theory, Phrenology, Christianity, Education, Medical Practitioners, Darwinism, Descent, Evolution, Fear

    Already depressed by the prospect of the 'speedy exhaustion of our coal-pits', the narrator, Mr. Byng, returns home during the birth of his ninth daughter (569). That night, Byng's concerns at having failed to produce even a single son occasion a dream in which he and his statistically-minded friend Mr. Croaker are 'at the bottom of an exhausted coal-pit, both starving with hunger, when suddenly out of the darkness rustled legions of monstrously crinolined women', who throw screaming female babies at the starving men (570). The following day, Byng and Croaker meet and discuss the current 'increase of women' over men, which, in the likely event of 'a general European war', will produce a 'disproportion' that will 'eventually grow to two and one-eighth to one' (572–73). While other cultures would simply do away with 'the surplusage of our female infants', the two men agree that, as Christians, they 'must not interfere with the course of nature, however strange and vexatious it may be' (572). Instead, they consider how women could be made less dependent upon marriage by improved female education, especially in medicine. Croaker, however, protests that, in his experience, medical students do not do 'anything but smoke and drink. [...] How any man in his senses would put his daughter into such a profession as this, I can't conceive'. He also goes on to observe that 'it takes three medical students and a half to make one doctor. [...] It is a case of natural selection, and as this is an age in which life is impossible without self-confidence, it is only those mailed in "triple brass" that can fight their way through. Now, is this a prospect enticing to the candidate female doctor?'. (577) Croaker then insists that 'talk about women's rights [...] is so degrading to the sex. Most degrading. You are all trying to make her out the missing link between the gorilla and man'. He suggests that with the argument that 'different circumstances and a different education would make a woman more masculine; and that the more masculine a woman is, the more perfect' an 'opportunity arises in our time for giving Mr. Darwin's theory a trial. There comes a great plenty of women, and a great dearth of womanly employment. Press as many as are qualified into male employments, you cry. Then, if natural selection only acts as Mr. Darwin promises, the weak, puling, dependent class of women perish, and the strong-minded, enterprising heroine will have the honour of transmitting to posterity a very much improved type; so that, if all goes well, we shall travel in a circle, and get round to the amazons again' (578–79).

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