Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/August 1903/Discussion and Correspondence



As the question of the size of family appears to be much discussed just now, I should like to call attention to the low birth rate in novels and plays, which, united as it is with a high death rate, will inevitably lead to the rapid extermination of the hero and heroine. I am under the impression also that the birth rate is decreasing, and while families of a respectable size may be found occasionally in Thackeray and Dickens, they scarcely exist in Meredith, Hardy and James. Although, so far as I am aware, attention has never been called to the alarming conditions, their existence will be recognized readily by readers of novels and play-goers. It will suffice to refer to two novels, which I think are fairly typical—'Vanity Fair' and 'Beauchamp's Career.'

Becky Sharp was an only child, nor do we hear of uncles or aunts. 'Vanity Fair' is a novel without a hero. Sir Pitt Crawley, twice married, has four children, his brother five and his sister none; so there is an average family of three, just sufficient to maintain that questionable line. Osborne and Dobbin each have two sisters, and we have again the family required for a stationary population. The Sedley family consists of brother and sister. In the next generation, however, things are worse. Amelia has two husbands and two children, Becky one child, Sir Pitt one and Josh none. This is apparently an average family of 1.83, which is almost exactly that of the Harvard graduates, according to President Eliot.

In 'Beauchamp's Career' Nevil is an only child and leaves a child to survive him; Everard Romfrey, marrying childless Mrs. Culling, has one child who dies in infancy; his brother has none; old Mrs. Beauchamp has none. Austin, Baskelett, Lydiard and Dr. Shrapnel leave no posterity. Of the three heroines, Jenny and Cecilia are only children; Renée is of the typical French family of two, but has herself no children. This is obviously a very bad state of affairs—an average family of one half child and a net fertility of only 0.43. As these statistics have been collected in large measure from a fallible memory, they may not be exactly correct, and they may not be entirely representative, but I am confident that they would be substantially confirmed by more accurate and extensive data. They certainly foretell the rapid extermination of the population of the novel.

The conditions appear to be still worse in the drama. It is true that here the marriage rate is high, and something may be left to the imagination. But Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Romeo have no lines of descent, nor does Lear, though he has three daughters. In the current play the woman with a past may occasionally have a child; she certainly never has the average family of four to five; but her extermination is not so deplorable.