Taking Darwin in

Michael Mason

  • Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and 19th-Century Fiction by Gillian Beer
    Routledge, 303 pp, £17.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9505 8

This is at once an impressive, even thrilling book, and quite a bad one. Its virtues and vices are connected. The author has a precisely-grounded exhilaration about The Origin of Species; perhaps more than any other literary writer on the work she communicates its exciting essence. Her exhilaration also leads her to claim far too much for the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory on Victorian literature. Like others, she sees that The Origin – by virtue of its cultural situation and Darwin’s response to this – is one of the most interesting pieces of prose rhetoric ever penned. She has some brilliant things to say about Darwin’s style, but others that are unsatisfactory and ill-formulated: figments of her absorption with the text, or half-baked thoughts that too often scuttle to a modish vocabulary for refuge (it is undignified in a scholar of Mrs Beer’s seniority to use ‘deconstruct’ when she means ‘dismantle’, ‘recuperate’ when she means ‘recover’, and ‘fracture’ and ‘problematise’ when she means scarcely anything at all). She feels the nuclearity of The Origin, how you can go from it backwards, sideways, forwards into almost any phase of our culture, and her range and variety of reference are exceptional. She also writes, some of the time, with a fervid, self-indulgent miscellaneousness, in a kind of spray of allusions. There are too many one- and two-sentence paragraphs in this book: too many asides appropriate to a lecture, but making for jerky reading on the page.

It must be said, indeed, that disjointedness is to some extent intrinsic to the whole design. This is because Mrs Beer wants Darwin’s influence on his non-scientific contemporaries to run beyond what is plausible both in degree and, more importantly, in kind. The ‘plots’ of her title are the sequences envisaged by the new natural history, unfolding under the control of variation and natural selection, and also the narratives of certain Victorian novels: especially the work of George Eliot and Hardy, which is taken up in the last two-fifths of the book. Mrs Beer does not want to say that Darwin’s new biological history is on the same footing as fiction; she has too much respect for the veridical power of Darwin’s great hypothesis (though she sometimes lets drop unwary formulations, such as ‘Darwin was seeking to create a story of the world – a fiction’, which could give encouragement to those who like to diminish the sciences). Victorian fiction, however, is permeated by Darwin on her account. The ‘profuse interconnection of events and characters’in Dickens’s mature novels, the surely unremarkable titles of the individual books of Middlemarch, the ‘idiosyncratic ... yet accessible human voice’ in other works of the period, are all implied to be the inheritance of The Origin.

George Eliot didn’t only forget about Darwin more than Mrs Beer would like: she didn’t agree with The Origin when she remembered it. All the surviving direct references to evolution by George Eliot indicate that she at first failed to grasp Darwin’s theory, and later preferred a Lamarckian view of descent. Mrs Beer knows this really, but she acknowledges it in terms that fudge the fact of Eliot’s disagreement: she ‘moves within shared controversies’, and exhibits ‘an engagement with the controversies and enquiries’. I absolutely cannot see why Mrs Beer so wants Victorian reactions to Darwin to be, or seem, positive, but such is unmistakably her general inclination. The repudiation, shrinking away, and defensive distortion, which widely characterised the educated response to The Origin are made to sound like their opposites: ‘I want to track the difficult flux of excitement, rebuttal, disconfirmation, pursuit, forgetfulness, and analogy-making, which together make up something of the process of assimilation.’ To rebut and forget is not to assimilate.

An especially sad result is that Mrs Beer is sometimes obliged to blur her own sharp sense of Darwinism, of the barrier which unambiguously divides this version of evolution from others, a fence not to be sat on. As she well remarks:

Darwinian theory ... cannot be made to mean everything ... [It] excludes or suppresses certain orderings of experience. It has no place for stasis. It debars return. It does not countenance absolute replication ... pure invariant cycle, or constant equilibrium. Nor ... does it allow either interruption or conclusion.

(Conversely, she puts an enlightening emphasis on how Darwinism dignifies the variant or abnormal: a familiar element in the theory which one may neglect to notice as one of its central, revolutionary tendencies.) But two pages earlier we hear that ‘Darwinian theory will not resolve to a single significance nor yield a single pattern. It is essentially multivalent.’ While there is no strict inconsistency here, the focus shifts sufficiently to puzzle the reader. As soon as the Darwinian barrier is crossed, it is easy to show that evolution was welcomed by Victorians, because they very much wanted evolution – only not on Darwin’s terms. It is true that ‘during the past hundred years or so evolutionary theory has functioned in our culture like a myth in an age of belief,’ but wrong of Mrs Beer to offer this as a justification of her enterprise: of discussing Darwin. What is the puzzled reader to think when he or she is later told that ‘curiously and revealingly, Lamarck’s account of evolutionary process is still the popular one’?

There has been a surprising amount of disagreement over the question of what the style of The Origin is like, and a surprising number of admirers of Darwin who claim to find it boring and ineffectually written. The explanation is perhaps that the ordinary literary-critical vocabulary for describing discursive prose, though it caters for rhetorical questions, is not generally used to assess actual persuasiveness. There are very few pieces of High Victorian prose argument that could produce a change in the views of the average modern reader, and that reader, even while judging a style as ‘effective’ or ‘convincing’, doesn’t envisage being persuaded. How many critics, in their hearts, have any time for the views of Carlyle, Arnold, or Newman (Ruskin, in Unto this Last, is perhaps just a live issue still)? Darwin is different. Most readers do rightly care about whether The Origin is true or false, and every reader who deems it true must betoken a certain rhetorical prowess – real rather than notional prowess – in the book’s language and procedure. Even Mrs Beer concedes too much to the old feeling that the argument of The Origin emerges ‘gradually and retrospectively ... from the profusion of example’.On this T.H. Huxley himself misidentified his reactions. Other readers have recognised The Origin as, in Darwin’s own words, ‘one long argument’, brilliantly, if subtly, urged from the start.

Mrs Beer also notes that Chapter One opens with the words ‘When we look ...’, a telling observation tellingly developed, and one of many in this book (another is that the word ‘fact’ is commonly qualified by Darwin with ‘wonderful’, ‘great’, and similar intensifiers). In general, she writes more vividly and infectiously about the rhetoric of The Origin than anyone else I know. She gives her reader pleasure on the subject, and pleasure is itself part of her theme. For if the persuasiveness of The Origin is an important topic, so is a stranger and – until now – neglected aspect of its effect: its power to exhilarate, its ‘poignant tension between happiness and pain’, in Mrs Beer’s words. It is common, perhaps usual, for readers to come away from The Origin assenting to its uncomfortable leading ideas – the immense length of biological time, the restricted considerations that direct evolutionary change, the arbitrary mechanism that makes the latter possible – but with spirits raised.

Partly we achieve this by avoiding a too-direct gaze at the uncomfortable ideas, no doubt. One may know the facts of the biological time-scale, and yet hold back from a full sense of it (whereas, with some inconsistency, we readily feel all the bleakness of a post-nuclear world without Homo sapiens). We also receive a legitimate intellectual excitement from the simplicity and power of a great scientific theory: and in this case our satisfaction has special features or connotations. The existence of Darwin’s theory directly mitigates the pain of its contents. As Mrs Beer puts it, ‘though his [Man’s] presence is diminished in the raw time-scale, his is the only source of powerful interpretation.’ To this it may be added, that our rational and imaginative capacities are themselves the result of Darwinian adaptation. Finally, Mrs Beer identifies very instructively what she calls the ‘Romantic materialism’ of The Origin, which may ‘comfort as well as disturb’. She stresses Darwin’s ‘delight in the individual example’, and his ‘relish for fertility, reproduction, generation, variety in all the species of life’ – for all the detail, in fact, whose profusion in the world is a precondition for natural selection, and whose profusion in the text makes Darwin’s unsettling vision so irresistible. Such insights thoroughly compensate for the overblown formulations they will sometimes be found jostling against in this book.