Nineteenth-Century Eugenic Ideology in BBC’s Ripper Street: ‘Am I Not Monstrous?’

This week on the Victorian Studies Centre blog, PhD researcher Ruth Ashton reviews a recent episode of BBC’s crime drama ‘Ripper Street’, ‘Am I Not Monstrous’, which deals with the issue of physical disability and eugenic ideology in nineteenth-century culture.

Escapist dramas depicting scenes of an idealised Victorian past, littered with romantic prospects and fanciful risings to fortune, have long since captured the hearts and minds of a modern audience. Portraying the nineteenth century in such a way that carries on the Austenian themes of idealised and whimsical conclusion does little to highlight the prominence of a century that changed the face of both public and private spheres.

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Screenshot courtesy of the BBC

The BBC have taken the somewhat brave decision to tackle a particularly overlooked and often misunderstood, yet exceedingly prevalent theme of Victorian studies in their episode of Ripper Street, broadcast on 4th November 2013. The episode, ‘Am I Not Monstrous?’, the second of eight making up the second series, focuses primarily upon the idea of hereditary descent and the fraught issue of eugenics within the comfortable and familiar milieu of the period crime drama. And yet, this is not an easy hour to watch. Set in 1888, the same decade that saw Francis Galton coining the term ‘Eugenics’, ‘Am I Not Monstrous?’ places itself right in the middle of contextual debates, transporting its viewers back to one of the nineteenth century’s most controversial intellectual stand-offs.

The episode opens with a young mother, murdered merely hours following the birth of a son. This woman, Stella Brooks, is ‘gifted’ with a physical abnormality: a tail. Thus begins the unravelling of her role in a sinister game of eugenics at the hands of fictional heredity lecturer, Dr William Corcoran, the child’s paternal grandfather. Viewing the infant as a mere commodity for his experimental gain, this investigative scientist needs to be stopped, and the job falls to his estranged son, freak show personality John Goode, to bring the episode to its emotionally-charged conclusion.

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Screenshot courtesy of the BBC.

Of course, no Victorian drama depicting themes of disability would be complete without an appearance by the nineteenth century’s most famous example of physical abnormality, the ‘Elephant Man’ Joseph Merrick. And Merrick is handled here in a way that speaks volumes about the reality of disability in nineteenth-century Britain. Capable, intelligent, and highly intuitive, he is paramount in representing a particularly overlooked school of thought: that the afflicted can indeed partake in the public sphere and show themselves to be exceedingly valued members of the community as they do so.

Merrick’s speech as the episode reaches its culmination is a strikingly significant aspect of the production; viewers are able to see past the prosthetics and the character is instantly transformed from monstrous to virtuous. Humanising the afflicted is a particularly worthy televisual technique used in this production in order to personalise the experiences of the ‘abnormal’ to a public not versed in the medical and scientific discourses surrounding this prevalent theme of Disability Studies. It is particularly refreshing to witness this, and the way in which Merrick’s fictional contemporaries treat the elusive ‘Elephant Man’ as an equal, even championing his contribution to resolving the murder case. And yet, the production hints at the question of society’s readiness to accept this. Merrick’s murder at the conclusion of the episode martyrs him, and yet the removal of his pillows (allowing him to lie down to sleep, leading to his suffocation and death) disturbingly emphasises the vulnerability of the afflicted and the lawlessness with which they could be treated.

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Screenshot courtesy of the BBC.

There is a clear sense of reclamation of physical abnormality present in this production. Constant references to these abnormalities as ‘gifts’ and ‘blessings’, as well as emphasising the fellowship of the freak show, allude to a sense of beauty, community, and belonging which highlights for the viewer the affirmative and progressive reality of disability within the confines of the propriety expected in Victorian times. The somewhat bold decision to depict the afflicted as such is what makes ‘Am I Not Monstrous?’ so exhilarating; the conclusion is reached that scientific influence cannot prevail over the human condition, and the arrest of leading eugenicist Dr Corcoran is a conspicuous visual representation of this.

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Screenshot courtesy of the BBC.

The inner struggle of Dr Corcoran’s son, John Goode is what ensures the episode does not become simply an overview for eugenic development. He is wholly representative of the struggle that the nineteenth century faced in accepting this newly expanding theme of hereditary progression that so fiercely challenged all previously held ideals of disability. Goode has been conditioned and used for experimentation by his father throughout his childhood, and is therefore trained to believe that any deviation from the norm is to be feared. His absolute insistence that his own son, born of Stella Brooks, should not suffer the same treatment is unequivocally emotionally driven, which is used to emphasise the stark difference between a clinical scientific approach towards physical difference and the emotionally-charged response it produces. To pull this struggle together in the form of a baby, then, is a particularly astute technique used here to portray both the relative infancy of the scientific field of study, and the vulnerability of those it affected.

Ripper Street takes the tried and tested genre of crime drama and places it in the underbelly of the ominous and depraved Victorian streets. It is both exciting and nerve-racking to witness a particularly niche field of study being so openly portrayed in mainstream entertainment, and yet ‘Am I Not Monstrous?’ pulls it off admirably. Handling the portentous issue of eugenic ideology in a sympathetic, compassionate, and anthropological manner, as this episode does, serves to both educate and entertain its public in much the same way as contextual nineteenth-century literature surrounding eugenic development did; any avenue that does this, with regard to any element of Victorian culture, is to be celebrated.

Ruth Ashton‘s PhD is entitled ‘Disabled Domesticity: Disabled Women in Nineteenth-Century Literature’

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