Blog #206: Cornering Beckwith and MacAlister in To the Lighthouse

Time to deliver on my promise to further examine the Macalister and Beckwith names. Not an easy task, as my conjectures regarding these names are even wilder and more tendentious than those relating to Father McNabb. At least with Father McNabb, I have strong, even if circumstantial, evidence that Virginia would have known about him. I also feel quite confident that the number of connection points between the novel and Father McNabb’s personal and social history go beyond the coincidental.

With Macalister and Beckwith, I don’t have nearly the same number of connection points. For one thing, their historical traces are fewer. For another, they have much slighter roles in the novel. Mrs. Beckwith, in fact, seems almost totally tangential and unnecessary, a late, fleeting addition to the novel who exists solely as a name, an unseen presence, of whom we know only that she is kindly. Macalister is far more substantial than her, given that we do get a personal glimpse of him through his stories and his conversation with Mr. Ramsay. Also he and his son, like Sorley and his little boy, act as foils for Mr. Ramsay and James. All the same, his position in the novel is relatively slight, and as with Beckwith it is initially quite difficult to scratch up a significant historical correlative, beyond linking the name to Alistair MacAllister, whose cave on the Isle of Skye Walter Scott visited in 1814.

Faint and fleeting as the Beckwith and Macalister names are, increasingly I think they do have thematic importance. Both names can be connected to men who participated in the debates surrounding birth control and abortion. Together with the McNabb and Carmichael names, they help emphasize how aware Virginia was of the birth control issues and debates which took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. Taken together, the four names also add considerably to the impact of the bracketed paragraph about Prue’s death, a paragraph which has not received nearly the attention that Andrew’s death has, even though, when viewed through a birth control lens, Prue’s death from “some illness connected with childbirth” is every bit as violent, senseless and wicked as Andrew’s. Quite significantly, the Macalister name also finds its way into a bracketed segment, the only such segment outside of the “Time Passes” chapter, with the brutal, horrific description of the still living mackerel mutilated for bait. The square brackets create a puzzling equivalence between the callous, unthinking actions of Macalister’s boy and the deaths of Andrew and Prue.

Whatever Virginia meant by the equivalence, I believe her decision to associate the MacAlister name with the deaths of Prue and Andrew was a result of her interest in women’s sexuality, birth control, and family planning . Woolf’s interest in and wide ranging knowledge about these subjects has been explored by numerous scholars. For instance, in “Virginia Woolf and “The Third Generation” (Twentieth Century Literature, 2014, vol 60) Mary Jean Corbett suggests that despite her “disavowal of fiction and drama ‘with a purpose,’” Woolf would have been aware of such New Woman novels as Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, novels which critiqued the sexual double standard and which dealt more openly with issues such as sexuality, pregnancy, abortion and syphilis. For Corbett, Night and Day “engages the question of literature’s relation to sexual conduct” while “eschewing what it implicitly constructs as the partisan tactics of New Woman writing.”

Corbett’s ideas about Woolf’s indirect methods are similar to those expressed by Laura Marcus in “Woolf’s Feminism, Feminism’s Woolf” in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2010). In parsing Woolf’s feminism, Marcus writes that “whereas the feminist commentators of her time directly addressed the question of birth control and its impact on women’s lives, Woolf encodes it.” Likewise, In “‘To Escape the Horror of Family Life’: Virginia Woolf and the British Birth Control Debate” (New Essays on Virginia Woolf, 1995), Christina Hauck examines Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas to call attention to Woolf’s encoding of birth control, and in “Why Do the Ramsays Have So Many Children?: Birth Control and To the Lighthouse” (Virginia Woolf: Emerging Perspectives,1994), she suggests that To the Lighthouse encapsulated Woolf’s feeling “that early twentieth-century rhetoric about sex, reproduction, and birth control are [sic] overly dominated by men.”

To date, the most thorough and interesting examination of Woolf’s interest in reproductory issues is to be found in Layne Parish Craig’s When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature between the World Wars (2013). In her book, Craig does a good job of teasing out how for Virginia “decisions about child-bearing were contingent on her medical situation and her husband’s concern for her health and writing career.” She reads Mrs. Dalloway against the writing of Marie Carmichael Stopes and the WW1 birth control debates, and argues that in her work Woolf “explores the limitations of sexual freedom suggested by widespread contraceptive use, while evincing ambivalence about birth control’s co-option of scientific authority.” While Craig’s arguments regarding Mrs. Dalloway may seem slightly forced, later in her book she makes a strong case that, in Three Guineas, Woolf “rejects male-dominated paradigms of reproductive politics that focus on the state’s role in promoting or limiting the growth of various populations, by insisting on the primacy of women’s education and decision making in the realm of reproduction as well as in professional and academic life.”

While Woolf’s knowledge of venereal diseases is not addressed by any of the above writers, her letters and journals indicate that she was interested in the subject and likely quite knowledgeable about it. On January 23rd, 1917, she had provided a speaker for the Richmond Branch of the Women’s Co-operative who had lectured “upon Venereal Diseases, and moral risks for our sons.” (L 2, p.138). Though some women in the audience were shocked and offended by the talk, Virginia was subsequently asked to provide a speaker on Sex Education (Diary 1, 141, April 18, 1918). Very likely, awareness of the subject, coupled with her curiosity about so many social issues, sensitized her to the ongoing public debate and inquiry with respect to sexually transmitted diseases.

The Women’s Co-operative’s interest in venereal disease was itself part of heightened public awareness and interest. A Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases had been established just prior to the war, and the Commission’s investigations led to the formation of a National Council for the Combating of Venereal Diseases. According to an article in the March 25th, 1916 edition of The Spectator, the goals of the Council included providing necessary facilities for treatment, spreading knowledge among the medical profession and the general public, and trying to draw “attention to the grave danger which exists, and which will, as all experience proves, be greatly intensified when the war ends.” The Council’s efforts contributed to a massive education campaign and, in 1919, an intense debate in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with Hansard publishing lengthy and remarkably frank speeches by, among others, Lord Willoughby De Broke, Lord Sydenham, Viscount Haldane, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Hansard; HL Deb 02 April 1919 vol 34 cc53-93).

A significant figure who helped advance the goals of the National Council was Sir John Young Walker MacAlister (10 May 1856 – 1 December 1925). MacAlister was a Scottish journalist, editor, librarian, and promoter of medical postgraduate education. He was the Secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1901 to 1925 and one of the promoters of the Society’s formation. In 1920, writing a year after he was knighted, he published “Venereal disease prevention, and the moral question,” a Public Health article (Vol. 33, p. 114) supporting the recommendations of the National Council on Venereal Disease. In particular, the article praised the Council for having “taught the press, and through the press the public, that in attempting to combat a great national evil, men, and women too, must be ready to forget the conventions of the last generation, and discuss things frankly with each other.”

The Macalister name can also be connected to medical authority, birth control and reproductive rights through Sir John MacAlister’s brother. Sir Donald MacAlister (1854-1934), a member of the Cambridge Apostles from 1876 to 1882, was Principal of Glasgow University from 1907 to 1929. During his tenure, he greatly expanded the already famous Glasgow University Medical school. Beyond overseeing the physical expansion of the school, his accomplishments include helping to organize postgraduate medical training, establishing a chair in medical education, and opening Departmental lectures to both men and women.

In 1904 MacAlister became president of the General Medical Council, and for the next 27 years he used that position to exert considerable influence over the development of medicine in England. His DNB entry reads in part, “MacAlister ruled the GMC with a rod of iron. He made himself expert on such diverse business matters as preliminary and postgraduate education, the registration of nurses and midwives, Indian medical education, and the National Insurance Act.” According to Francis Galton, he was “very favourably disposed toward Eugenics” (August 18, 1910, letter to Karl Pearson). As an aside, I want to note that Galton and his views are gently mocked in Night and Day, when the narrator muses on Mr. Galton’s Hereditary Genius in a passage which becomes all the more ironic if one knows that the Stephen family and Virginia’s father figure in Galton’s book.

After the MacAlisters, Beckwith. Even by my elastic standards Beckwith Whitehouse is a bit of a stretch as antecedent for Mrs. Beckwith. Not because of his gender, since Virginia loved playing with and subverting gender identities, but because of his relative obscurity. Though he was born in 1882, the same year as Virginia, and though he did his medical studies at St. Thomas University in London, where he won the Sutton Sams memorial prize for obstetric medicine and diseases of women, most of his medical career was spent in Birmingham, where he became senior gynaecological surgeon at the General Hospital in 1921 and professor of midwifery and diseases in women at the University of Birmingham in 1924. Except through his numerous contributions to such journals as the Journal of Obstetrics, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, as well as to the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, he seems to have had a relatively low public profile outside of the Midlands. It is possible, however, that Virginia Woolf became aware of him because of the public debates surrounding Marie Stopes. In 1923, for instance, in a special 96 page issue on contraception published by The Practioner, Beckwith Whitehouse published an article titled “The Problem of Birth Control”, in which he strongly argued that birth control was detrimental to national interests and best left in the hands of the medical profession. This publication was readily available to the public, as is evidenced by my obtaining it as a copy discarded by the University of Toronto Public Library in 1924.

To help end this blog, I want to go back to my thoughts about Virginia’s linking of Stopes to Meredith through the Carmichael name. Aside reasons discussed previously, introducing a Stopes reference into To the Lighthouse also makes Meredithian sense insofar as in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Meredith indirectly critiqued the sexual theories of William Acton, physician and author of studies such as Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social & Sanitary Aspects (1857) and The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857). Marie Carmichael Stopes occupies the same position in Woolf’s novel as Acton did in Meredith’s, even if Virginia is not so much criticizing her ideas as indirectly acknowledging and furthering Meredith’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about sexuality and reproductive rights. Whereas in Functions and Disorders Acton had written ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind,’ in Married Love Stopes states that “woman’s side of sexual life has found little or no expression” and woman, “has been content to mold herself to the shape desired by man wherever possible… woman has bowed to man’s desire over her body, and, regardless of its pulses, he approaches her or not as is his will.” Between the publication of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel in 1859 and the publication of To the Lighthouse in 1927 much had changed.

It might be argued that I am overrunning my signals in connecting Beckwith and Macalister to historical figures who played a role in the public debates surrounding contraception and women’s control of their bodies. My rebuttal to such an argument is twofold. Firstly, almost every single name in To the Lighthouse seems to have a historical or literary connection, and names are very definitely one of the subtle ways in which Virginia Woolf attached her fiction to reality. She used names as metonyms, metonyms both personal and historical. Recovering the metonymical force of those names resurrects the world which shaped her.

Secondly, even if some of my connections turn out to be forced, or even erroneous, they do lead to a deepened understanding of some of the historical events and social forces which were part of the broader fabric of life at the time Virginia was writing her novel. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb, and Carmichael, I now know much more about the gender and sexual politics associated with the “New Woman” Question. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know something about the Venereal Disease Debates in the House of Lords in 1919. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know much more about Francis Galton and Eugenics. Because of Beckwith, Macalister, McNabb and Carmichael, I now know much more about family planning and birth control. Through Beckwith, Macalister, Carmichael and McNabb the web of To the Lighthouse connects to some of the realities of Virginia’s life and times, and all is changed, changed utterly.


HYPERGRAPH, (not to confused with the hippogriff, Virgilian or Rowlingian)

“An Address on Abortion: It’s Frequency and Importance”
by Beckwith Whitehouse, M. S. Lond., F.R.C.S., Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women, University of Birmingham.
(The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3597 (Dec. 14, 1929), pp. 1095-1099)

“The subject of this address has been chosen for two reasons—namely, its frequency, and its importance to the community. The increasing number of abortions among most white races during the past thirty years has naturally focused attention upon a problem which has always to some extent exercised the minds of the medical and legal professions. With a stationary or falling birthrate the position naturally becomes more, and the prevention of abortion is today a responsibility which involves not only the welfare of the individual but also that of the family and the state. A nation with a diminishing birth rate and a high abortion ratio must sooner or later suffer. There appears to be little doubt that, for the present, the day of the large family has gone, for good or evil. We are told that it is for good, but sometimes I have my doubts on this matter. I know many large families, families of as many as ten or a dozen, and I say unhesitatingly that in my experience they are the happiest and are getting the best out of life. I have spoken to the mothers of these families, mothers from all grades of society, and never once have I heard any expression of regret, either from a social, economic or physical standpoint.

In this age of mechanical transport, unhealthy excitement, entertainment, and “rush,” the modern cult for limitation of the family by the wholesale promulgation and practice of contraceptive measures is speeding apace. There are too many intentionally sterile marriages today, and perhaps what is equally as bad, there are too many one-child families growing up. Abortion must therefore be regarded as something more than a trivial accident. Its frequency is some countries today is appalling….

One fact has been impressed upon me time after time. and that is the pertinacity of the married woman who sets out with a determination to terminate her own pregnancy. Argument is useless, and when she has failed to produce the required result by means of a popular purgative pill or a prescription from a popular chemist “to remedy all female menstrual irregularities,” she approaches her own doctor. If he finds no indication to interfere, she goes to somebody else, and eventually possibly does find some individual who is able to satisfy his own conscience that a medical reason exists for the evacuation of the uterine contents. If help cannot be obtained in this devious manner, there is always the homely knitting needle, crochet-hook, douche nozzle, or professional criminal abortionist. Women in this state will not listen to advice or words of warning. They are optimists of the first water, individuals who do not care what happens as long as it does not happen to themselves. I do not propose to say anything more on this question of criminal abortion. The subject has been discussed very fully recently by the Medico-Legal Society, the Society of Medical Officers of Health, and the Royal Society of Medicine, and I refer you to the Transactions of these societies for an expression of the considered and current views of those best qualified to speak.”

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