A Superfluous Woman by Emma Brookes is a novel about a society woman forced into marriage with a decadent aristocrat – a man described as ‘the biggest rake in Great Britain’. After giving birth to two severely disabled children she wills that her third child should be born dead. The family line, which has sunk into ‘insanity, disease, and shocking malformation’, is thus ended. The two older children die in a way that is more hinted at than described in a single sentence:
In one moment of fierce horror, the brood concealed therein had destroyed itself, the hand of the idiot girl having been lifted suddenly and dexterously against her helpless brother.
It is clear that ‘the idiot girl’ has killed her ‘helpless brother’, and that the ‘brood’ has ‘destroyed itself’, but we are never told how the girl dies.
The Daily Telegraph described A Superfluous Woman as ‘a novel upon which has been expended an infinity of thought, and the pages of which betray a capacity for analysis of human feelings and emotions rarely to be met with’. The Literary Guild in Hearth and Home described it as ‘crude in some ways, but written in good literary style, and healthy and interesting,’ (29 March 1894), while Isabel Somerset writing in The Woman’s Signal (1 March 1894) wrote that it was merely an old story in which the position of women and men had been reversed.
A Superfluous Woman was published in 1894, the year before Jude the Obscure, and may be seen as a literary precedent for the child murder and suicide in Thomas Hardy’s work. We do not know whether Hardy read the book, but we do know that it was popular and was widely reviewed in the general, critical and feminist press.