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.

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