Darwin and Darwinism in Victorian Literature

© Gary Hentzi

27 September 1998

Interest in theories of evolution is such a regular feature of English intellectual life in the mid to late nineteenth century that there is hardly a major writer of the period whose work is not in some way touched by the issue. Darwin himself is everywhere in Victorian literature, including a fictionalized portrait in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (1866), and he was by no means an isolated figure. On the contrary, the scientific debate in which he intervened so decisively dates back at least as far as the three volumes of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) and includes such other important (albeit less authoritative) influences as Robert Chambers' enormously popular Vestiges of Creation (1844). In nineteenth-century England, the writings of natural scientists as well as popular presentations of their ideas found a substantial readership outside of the scientific community itself, as poets and novelists-along with a notable slice of the thinking public-eagerly ordered the latest scientific works the moment they were announced by the publisher. To appreciate the motives for this interest, one must look to the social history of the period, which is essential to a full understanding of the relationship between literary and scientific developments.

England's progression from a largely agricultural society to a heavily industrialized one over the half century preceding the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) is so well known as to have made the concurrent social changes familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the era: the transformation of the very face of the land that came with the building of macadam highways, canals, factories, and railroads; the growth of a large urban working class whose sufferings raised the threat of dangerous social unrest; the passage of a series of reform bills that enacted successive levels of political compromise; and the tremendous intensification of economic competition at home and expansion of imperial ventures abroad. Almost as familiar as these external events is the anxious disorientation wrought by such rapid change in the minds of the Victorians themselves. As early as 1831, John Stuart Mill famously pronounced his era to be one in which "mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones"-a view that would be echoed at regular intervals for the remainder of the century.1 In many areas of life, there was a sense that while the pace and pressures of work had grown enormously, connections with tradition and established ways of thinking were being weakened or cut altogether. Out of the uncertainty bred by this diminished feeling of continuity with the past, combined with an enormous influx of new and unassimilated information and ideas, grew the characteristically Victorian struggle between hope and doubt, optimism and anxiety, which marks virtually all of the important writing of the period.

The role played by theories of evolution in this drama was a prominent one: again and again we read of crippling uncertainties triggered by encounters with Darwin. A case in point is that of Philip Henry Gosse, naturalist and fundamentalist Christian; and the narration of this painful bit of personal history in his son Edmund's remarkable autobiography, Father and Son (1907), offers perhaps the starkest example on record of the intellectual discord created by the idea of natural selection. A prominent zoologist as well as member of a sect known as the Plymouth Brethren, Gosse was deeply troubled by his conflicting beliefs and hoped to reconcile scientific evidence with biblical precedent by arguing, in a book entitled Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1857), that God had created the world exactly as described in Genesis but with the fossils already embedded in the rocks. Just as Adam would have had a navel though he was born to no mother, Gosse suggested, the earth displays misleading marks of a nonexistent pre-history. This desperate maneuver was accurately described by his son as a "system of intellectual therapeutics," its function as psychological medicine embarrassingly evident from the very beginning.2 Nevertheless, while Gosse's solution won little assent, his plight is emblematic of the situation of many religious intellectuals in mid nineteenth-century England.

Philip Gosse's personal crisis and public humiliation followed from the emergence of Darwinism itself (as a prominent scientific figure, he was one of those to whom Darwin spoke personally in an attempt to enlist his support); however, the crushing doubts that he tried to sweep under the rug had been felt by many of his contemporaries for some time. Even poetry bears the marks of this disquietude, including one of the most impressive and moving poems of the early Victorian era, where the large apprehensions prompted by scientific developments are described as part of an exhaustively rendered personal experience of crisis and recovery. This poem, Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H., is first and foremost an elegy for Tennyson's college friend Arthur Henry Hallam, a young man who had been regarded by all who knew him as one of the most promising minds of his generation. Hallam had been leader of the Apostles, a prestigious Cambridge literary group, and a mentor and friend to Tennyson, especially following the harsh reception of the latter's first book of poetry in 1830. Moreover, at the time of his sudden death in Vienna on September 15, 1833, Hallam was engaged to the poet's sister Emily. To Tennyson, Hallam was thus "Dear as the mother to the son,/ More than my brothers are to me"; and in the wake of this devastating loss, Tennyson began to compose the short lyrics that make up In Memoriam with no thought at first that they might be combined into a larger whole.3 Begun in the early winter of 1833, the work took shape little by little and was substantially completed by 1842, when the wedding of another sister, Cecilia, provided material for the Epilogue (although the finished poem was not published until 1850).

Tennyson's subtitle for this large and loosely organized structure (131 sections altogether, plus Prologue and Epilogue) is The Way of the Soul, and the poem as a whole describes an internal movement from doubt and profound despair to tentative assertions of belief and hope. No small part of its achievement lies in the success with which the poet evokes the slow process of reconciliation to his loss, a process that leads him through a series of stages and is given a very general sort of temporal organization by the three Christmas poems (numbers 28, 78, and 104), which serve as markers of his distance from the traumatic event. While In Memoriam is primarily a poem of emotional and psychological states rather than a poem of ideas, Tennyson's despair is nevertheless the despair of a man who is conscious of scientific developments; and his personal suffering takes on a larger dimension in meditations on newly available information about the age of the planet, the fossil evidence of extinct species, and the theory of uniformitism-that is, the suggestion that the present state of the earth is the result of a long, slow process of modification rather than a series of sudden, dramatic, and possibly divine events (catastrophism). Tennyson enountered this information and these ideas in Lyell, whom he read with deep interest over a period of months in 1837. Evidence of his reading appears in several places but most notably in sections 55 and 56, where the poet's grief is enlarged to include more general doubts about the significance of individual human beings and even humanity itself in the face of nature's impassivity. Observing that his wish for human immortality seems to come from "what we have/ The likest God within the Soul," Tennyson goes on to ask:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
  That Nature lends such evil dreams?
  So Careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life,

That I, considering everywhere
  Her secret meaning in her deeds,
  And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
  And falling with my weight of cares
  Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith and grope,
  And gather dust and chaff and call
  To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

Faced with the grim spectacle of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" (section 56), Tennyson found little to support his desire to believe. Nor is this all, for he was by this time aware of the evidence suggesting the extinction of entire species, and section 56 of In Memoriam continues by expanding the scope of nature's destructiveness:

"So careful of the type?" but no.
  From scarped cliff and quarried stone
  She cries, A thousand types are gone;
I care for nothing, all shall go.

All shall go, including "Man her last work, who seemed so fair," but who may nevertheless also end up "sealed within the iron hills"-a possibility that Tennyson could only contemplate with horror:

No more? A monster then, a dream,
  A discord. Dragons of the prime,
  That tear each other in their slime,
Were mellow music matched with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
  O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
  What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

From the wish that "No life may fail beyond the grave" (section 55), the poet finds himself confronting the possibility that humankind itself may one day disappear from the face of the earth as completely as the dinosaurs. In this anguished mood, feeling the need of Hallam's voice to comfort him, he can only hope for some eventual satisfaction "behind the veil" of death.

It was passages like this that led Tennyson's contemporaries to refer to him occasionally as the "poet of evolution" and to credit him with having anticipated Darwin, although the claim is misleading in some fairly obvious ways. It is true, as Tennyson himself remarked, that he had written "many a poem" about the subject of Chambers' Vestiges of Creation by the time he sent for a copy of the book in 1844; however, his interest in science was motivated by the hope that it might support his own beliefs about evolution, which contrasted rather sharply with Darwin's. For Tennyson's conception of evolution was idealistic or neoplatonic in orientation: that is, he regarded the transmutation of species as merely the external correlate of an essentially spiritual process of development. As he writes in the very opening lines of In Memoriam, he "held it truth" that "men may rise on stepping stones/ Of their dead selves to higher things"; and at a crucial moment near the end of the poem, he suggests that the evolution of humanity to this point can be seen to prefigure its own further refinement. In this characteristically Victorian vision, the suffering Tennyson has experienced is viewed as part of a larger process, the renunciation of animality and the forging of a greater human soul:

. . . life is not as idle ore,

But iron dug from central gloom,
  And heated hot with burning fears,
  And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And batter'd with the shocks of doom

To shape and use. Arise and fly
  The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;
  Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.

The geological metaphor in this passage obviously reflects the poet's scientific interests, but its high-minded, purposive thrust has nothing in common with the most radical implication of Darwin's theory: that species evolve not toward any particular goal but rather in whatever direction is dictated by their ability to survive in a given environment.4

Of course, to be fair to Tennyson, no major Victorian writer would actually choose to celebrate such an unsettling idea. Even apologists for the "survival of the fittest" tended to assume that natural selection bred species that were somehow inherently superior, rather than merely better prepared to survive in an arbitrarily formed environment. Nevertheless, for certain key figures, Darwinism played an important role in the development of representations of English life that would be faithful to their rapidly changing age, and it is above all in the novel that the most sophisticated engagement with scientific thought takes place, as some noteworthy books have demonstrated.5 Whereas older scholarship tended to content itself with showing how Darwinian ideas are directly addressed in literature, the emphasis of such recent writers as Gillian Beer and George Levine is rather on the extent to which Darwin and the novelists shared certain strategies for understanding the world. For these scholars, as for so many whose thinking is informed by the writings of philosophers like Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, and Michel Serres, Darwin's work is not just a set of influential ideas but an entire discourse about nature, an enormously complex and self-referential construction of words.6 Moreover, like the Victorian novelists themselves, Darwin was telling a new and in many ways revolutionary story, and the object of recent scholarship has been to reveal the extent of the intellectual commerce between these seemingly different kinds of narratives.

Such commerce takes a variety of forms, some as simple as the inclusion of a single key word, which invokes an entire scientific debate well known to the thinking public of the late nineteenth century but now grown unfamiliar. Gillian Beer calls attention to just such a passage in the opening pages of George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72), where the author comments on the difficulty of making definitive pronouncements on the limitations of women:

. . . if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's coiffure and the favorite love stories in prose and verse.7

The relevant word here is variation, which alludes to the scientific debate about the feasibility of describing species through their characteristics. To what extent can similarities of appearance identify creatures as belonging to the same category? How many of these resemblances are merely "adaptive or analogical"8-that is, similarities between very different kinds of creatures caused by a similar evolutionary reaction to the pressures of the same environment? The existence of such misleading resemblances (for example, the degree to which a mammal like the whale has come to resemble the fish) illustrates both the power of an environment to shape its inhabitants and the unexpected amount of variation in appearance that creatures of the same family are capable of manifesting. Although Darwin's name has become synonymous with the pitiless workings of the former process, he regarded variation as a fundamental creative principle in life and extolled it as such.

Indeed, the word appears prominently in the very first chapter of On the Origin of Species, entitled "Variation Under Domestication," and this is perhaps the most suggestive source for George Eliot's use of it. Domestic life allows women little in the way of variation, substantially less than they are capable of. The point is a simple one, but it benefits immeasurably from being presented by means of this gesture toward the world of Darwinian discourse, with its well known description of the implacability of environmental restrictions and celebration of diversity over truth to type. Thus, Eliot offers a way of thinking about the social world of Victorian England that operates by poetic analogy to the most influential contemporary theory about the natural world.

Another of Beer's comparisons provides an even more striking example of Eliot's use of scientific materials as a springboard for poetic invention, in this case a sentence from T. H. Huxley's essay "The Physical Basis of Life":

. . . the wonderful noonday silence of a tropical forest is, after all, due only to the dullness of our hearing; and could our ears catch the murmur of those tiny Maelstroms, as they whirl in the innumerable myriads of living cells which constitute each tree, we should be stunned, as with the roar of a great city.9

To be sure, Huxley's sentence does a fine job of evoking the dynamism of the natural world, whose workings are so minute that, for the most part, they escape our attention. But look at what happens to this conceit in a famous passage from Middlemarch commenting on the plight of Dorothea Brooke, whose idealism has led her to marry a man much older than herself. Such things happen all the time, Eliot admits, and this might understandably keep us from feeling much moved by Dorothea's sadness.

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frame could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. (226)

The net gain in poetic power is unmistakable, and its sources are not difficult to single out. Huxley's passage draws a comparison with the human world ("the roar of a great city") in order to suggest the imperceptible hubbub of the natural world. For him "the dulness of our hearing" is an impediment to our ability to register this extraordinary activity, and his imaginative hypothesis-if we could hear it, we would be "stunned"-is simply a means of making nature seem more extraordinary than it already does. In Eliot's passage, by contrast, the emphasis is entirely on the human world, and her culminating comparison employs finely chosen subtleties from the natural world ("the squirrel's heartbeat") to suggest that we are actually sheltered by our limitations from feeling the unendurable tragedy of human life. Scientific reflection on nature becomes the point of departure for a rhetoric that aims at a more acute sense of what it means to be human.

Like the scientists, Eliot wanted to show us that there is much more to life than meets the eye, and she recognized the ability of scientific investigation to renew our sense of the world's mystery. As Mr. Brooke puts it in Middlemarch, "I went into science a great deal myself at one time, but I saw it would not do. It leads to everything . . ." (39). His reservations are comic, but the thought is one that Darwin himself never lost sight of, as George Levine has illustrated by calling attention to a remarkable passage in the Origin. Commenting on the complex interrelationships that make up the natural world, Darwin uses the example of Paraguay, where feral cattle and horses have never been able to gain a foothold in the ecosystem because of certain parasitic flies. If these flies were to be destroyed in greater numbers by insectivorous birds (which are themselves kept in check by hawks and other predators), then feral cattle would increase and have an impact on the vegetation. This again would affect the insects, which would affect the birds, "and so onwards in ever-increasing circles of complexity." The passage seems to take for granted our ability to grasp this complexity by means of an intellectual construction like the one it is offering, but the author's next remark brings us up short: "Not that in nature the relations can ever be as simple as this."10

The work of the novelist in representing human society, like the work of the scientist, is potentially infinite, although in both cases the aim is to present one's findings in an orderly, meaningful framework. In fact, Middlemarch is one of the most self-consciously taxonomic of nineteenth-century novels: it presents characters and events by means of elaborate parallel structures and is divided into books with titles like "Old and Young," "Three Love Problems," and "Two Temptations." Moreover, as Eliot writes in the very first sentence of the novel, the object of her investigation is "the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time," indicating immediately that, like the theorists of evolution, she has moved beyond the static taxonomies of eighteenth-century natural history and recognized the temporal dimension as a constitutive feature of the world. If the natural world can no longer be studied by means of timeless categories, how much more strongly does human society demand to be understood in narrative terms. It is no exaggeration to say that the elaborate plots of Middlemarch and other nineteenth-century novels represent an attempt to locate meaning in a world that had come to seem fantastically complex, with no recoverable beginning and no discernible end in sight.

Viewed from such a perspective, the nineteenth-century novel appears as a project deeply informed by modern science and in many ways sympathetic to its procedures. Apart from scientific investigation itself, no other cultural activity addressed the contemporary world with a comparable ambition and freedom from preconceptions, and no other cultural activity responded to the profound turmoil of the era-including those shocks to the system provided by Darwin and other scientists-with a comparable recognition of imaginative possibilities and human realities. Novels like Middlemarch stand between those who saw nothing in Darwinism but a threat to comforting beliefs and those who would apply the precepts of natural science directly to human society, with no allowance for differences. In this respect, it is an example that we would still do well to emulate.


1 John Stuart Mill, The Spirit of the Age (1831), quoted in Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1957), 1.

2 Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 105.

3 Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., in Tennyson's Poetry, ed. Robert W. Hill, Jr. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 9.19-20. All further citations appear in the text.

4 On Tennyson's conception of evolution, see Georg Roppen, Evolution and Poetic Belief: A Study in Some Victorian and Modern Writers (Oslo: Oslo UP, 1956).

5 See Gillian Beer, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) and George Levine, Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988). My own discussion of Darwin and George Eliot draws heavily on the works of these two writers, above all Beer's chapter on Middlemarch (149-80). Other important books on the subject include Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984) and Roger Ebbatson, The Evolutionary Self: Hardy, Foster, Lawrence (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982). The best known older study is Leo Henkin, Darwinism in the English Novel, 1860-1910 (1940, repr. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963).

6 See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962); Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1970); and Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982).

7 George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (Hammondsworth: Penguin English Library, 1965), 25-6. All further citations appear in the text. See also Beer, Darwin's Plots, 149-50.

8 See Darwin's discussion of this problem in chapter 13 of On the Origin of Species (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964), 414.

9 T. H. Huxley, "The Physical Basis of Life," Fortnightly Review, 5 (1869): 132.

10 Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 72-73. Levine comments on this passage in "Darwin: The Problem of Authority," Raritan, 3.3 (Winter 1984): 44.

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