In each of which she kept a little husband

Rosemary Ashton

  • The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Vol. IV: 1847-1850 edited by Frederic Burkhardt and Sydney Smith
    Cambridge, 744 pp, £32.50, February 1989, ISBN 0 521 25590 2
  • Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction by George Levine
    Harvard, 336 pp, £21.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 674 19285 0

How clever of Nature to ‘choose’ Darwin to teach the world that she has, against the prevailing view of natural theology, no purpose, no teleology, no choice. No one could be more gentlemanly, cautious, desirous of conforming, unwilling to shock or upset – yet no one could be more deliberate, more stubborn in holding to an opinion once embraced – than Darwin. Volume four of the immaculately edited Correspondence, covering the years 1847-1850, shows him at work amongst his ‘beloved Barnacles’, doggedly yet excitedly making his discoveries in that relatively small field of zoological study. George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists is at least as interesting in its excellent study of the Origin of Species and Darwin’s tactful relation to natural theology, as represented here by William Whewell, as it is in its analysis of novels by Jane Austen, Dickens and Trollope in the light of the Darwinian theory and method.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge was everything to Darwin. All his correspondents were scientists – Lyell, Chambers, Owen, Hooker and so on – and all his talk was of science. Even in his loving letters to his wife Emma (‘my dear Mammy’), science is always on his mind. ‘What a very good girl you are to write to me such very nice letters, telling me all I like to hear,’ he tells her in 1848, ‘though you have not mentioned the 2 new Azaleas.’ And: ‘you were quite right to send the Barnacles; but mind that in all ordinary cases, they must instantly be put in spirits.’ While European capitals resound to the sounds of revolution in the spring of 1848, and even London has its Chartist demonstration on 10 April, Darwin continues undistracted with his research on cirripedes and his zoological discussions with his correspondents. One of these, Edward Cresy, was in Paris around April 1848, and Darwin wrote begging him to ‘consult a work for me on sheep, (which would not take you more than half an hour) which I can not otherwise see.’ Not a word about French politics.

Yet all work and no play, even all science and no politics, did not make Darwin dull. Technical as most of the discussions in the letters are, they become accessible to the ordinary reader – as does the Origin itself – through the extraordinary charm of the writer. Darwin had a natural gift for flattering his correspondent while assiduously extracting information, advice, and specimens of use to him in his painstaking researches. His letters are full of deferential requests for half an hour of someone’s time (and most of his correspondents – Owen and Lyell, for example – were more eminent than Darwin at this period) for discussion of ‘a few zoological points’.

To the Argentinian naturalist Francisco Muñiz Darwin writes both sympathetically and self-interestedly:

I cannot adequately say how much I admire your continued zeal, situated as you are without means of pursuing your scientific studies and without people to sympathise with you, for the advancement of natural history; I trust that the pleasure of your pursuits affords you some reward for your exertions. Some time since you were so kind as to send me through Mr E. Lumb some most curious, and to me most valuable, information regarding the Niata oxen. I should be deeply obliged by any further facts about any of the domestic animals of La Plata; on the origin of any breed of poultry, pigs, dogs, cattle, etc. I should be much interested by a brief description of the habits and appearance of the pigs, dogs, etc, which have run wild, and especially on the habits of these wild breeds, when their young are caught and reared. Will a puppy of one of the run-wild dogs, if brought up carefully, be as tame as a common dog? Any information on all such points would be of real service to me; and my address, should you find time to write to me, will always be at the head of this letter.

Though the chief emphasis is on how Muñiz may be of service to him, Darwin shows respect for Muñiz’s efforts and his admiring astonishment that a man can carry on without colleagues to discuss his work with. He does more. He writes on Muñiz’s behalf to the influential Richard Owen of the Royal College of Surgeons. Will Owen arrange for the South American’s ‘wonderful collection of Fossil Bones’ to be shipped to the College, and will he, in addition to paying for this, send him some of the College’s publications? ‘I shall send him my Geology.’ Darwin also tries to get Muñiz’s paper on a new genus of carnivora, the Machairodus, translated and published in England. He is willing to take trouble for those engaged in scientific research, both for their sakes – ‘I think it would greatly encourage Muñiz’ – and for the sake of science: ‘the pamphlet on Scarlatina [by Muñiz] I send to your Library; it may perhaps be worth depositing; someone working on fevers might someday be glad to see an account of the ravages of the Scarlet Fever in the Pampas.’ As nothing is too much trouble for Darwin himself if it might lead to scientific advance, so he can assume, quite naturally, that others will be willing to take endless pains to assist him. There is, too, the sheer curiosity value of Muñiz, a poor doctor working in isolation in a village in Argentina, for, as Darwin tells Owen, ‘a S. American osteologist is a prodigy in nature.’

It was Darwin’s belief in the community of science and scientists, his sense that everything would be of use to someone some time, which kept him going through illness, doubt and delay. His study of cirripedes, the class of marine animals which includes barnacles, was to take eight years to complete, and he often despaired of its ever reaching a conclusion or being of use. But optimism, humour and sheer appetite for the subject ensured the survival of the project. He wrote to Lyell in September 1849 after four years’ work:

I sometimes after being a whole week employed & having perhaps only 2 species agree mentally with Ld Stanhope that it is all fiddle-faddle: however the other day I got the curious case of a unisexual, instead of a hermaphrodite, cirripede, in which the female had the common cirripedial character, & in two of the valves of her shell had two little pockets, in each of which she kept a little husband; I do not know of any other case where a female invariably has two husbands. I have one still odder fact, common to several species, namely that though they are hermaphrodite, they have small additional or as I shall call them Complemental males: one specimen itself hermaphrodite had no less than seven of these complemental males attached to it. Truly the schemes & wonders of nature are illimitable.

Though he talks here of nature’s ‘schemes’, he does so metaphorically. He accepts without fuss what others, before and more urgently after the publication of the Origin, agonised over – namely, the reign of chance in the world. His study of species has convinced him of the wonders of nature, of the existence of natural laws, such as inheritance, but law does not, for him, imply a law-giver or a purpose to be served. For every example in the natural world of observable order there are as many illustrations of waste or disorder; though species conform in general to the scientist’s expectations, there are surprises, aberrations, exceptions to the rule. The existence of natural laws does not exclude chance, and Darwin finds this exciting, not frightening. As George Levine points out in his new study, the Origin of Species is packed full of descriptions of ‘the unique, the individual, the aberrant, the grotesque’. Though the theory is concerned with adaptation, ‘how things fit’, examples abound also of animals which have endured despite evidence of misfitting, and of the survival of rudimentary or disused parts of the anatomy in various species. Darwin celebrates plenitude, variety, energy, but he abjures design or perfection.

George Levine discusses these apparent contradictions in Darwinism with considerable sophistication and intellectual tact. In an excellent chapter on Whewell and Darwin he shows how the latter both ‘used and disrupted’ the themes of natural theology as pursued since Paley. The argument is complex, but Levine demonstrates convincingly, I think, that whereas in the natural theology of the 19th century chance is allowed into the scheme of things as a servant of ultimate design (God’s), in Darwin’s world view chance and law are the same thing: order exists in the natural world, but it does so randomly. There is no evidence for design or a designer. In chapters on Darwin and some Victorian novelists (excluding the most obvious, George Eliot, because Gillian Beer’s book, Darwin’s Plots, deals with her), Levine addresses the idea that the 19th-century novel progressively ‘imitates’ – the question of whether it does so ‘by design’ is, appropriately enough, put aside – the Darwinian view of order without design. Thus Trollope’s relatively loose plotting and his allowing chance, not providence, to determine rewards and punishments, thereby invalidating the very conception of rewards and punishments, make him, in this sense, the most Darwinian of the Victorian novelists. Jane Austen, then, illustrates in Mansfield Park the natural theological view, with disorder, uncontained energy, intrusion constituting a threat, via Henry and Mary Crawford, but the narrative, albeit precariously, ‘resolving everything into the telos of the story’. Levine’s is a sensitive reading of the problematic Mansfield Park, a valuable interpretation in the terminology of 19th-century science and religion to supplement the now familiar discussion of the novel in terms of its social and political conservatism.

Levine is best of all on Darwin and Dickens. Bleak House is, in the wide terms of reference established by this study, ‘like’ the celebrated ‘entangled bank’ with which Darwin concludes the Origin, observing its variety; its conformity to laws of growth, inheritance, variability; its profusion; its conditions of life, such as use and disuse; the struggle for survival going on amongst the many species of plants, animals and insects which share the location. Everything in Bleak House, too, is connected. Though Dickens, unlike Darwin, makes chance finally serve the purpose of meaning, his eye for the aberrant rivals Darwin’s. Of course the novelist does, perforce, have a design, and Levine is sensitive to the approximate and metaphorical nature of the relationship he is positing between Darwin and the novelists.

The aspect of Darwin’s writing which strikes Levine as most interesting is its breath-taking revolutionariness expressed in a ‘cautious, charming, self-deprecatory style’. All is modesty and methodicalness, but the theory undermines comfortable views of the world. As Levine shows, the very title of Darwin’s work is stunningly self-parodic, as it is not about the origin of anything, denies the objective existence of species, and begs the question in its subtitle about how or by what agency ‘races’ are ‘favoured’ and ‘preserved’. Yet the Origin is, on the whole, a joyful work. The key, as in Darwin’s letter to Muñiz, is in the pleasure of the pursuit. The letters show how Darwin’s passionate study of the minutiae of natural science leads him to the calm and sometimes humorous acceptance of the conclusions to which his studies point. Writing to his wife in 1848 about his cousin (and her brother!) Hensleigh Wedgwood’s inquiries into human understanding, he observes:

Hensleigh thinks he has settled the Free Will question, but hereditariness practically demonstrates, that we have none whatever. One might have thought that signing one’s name to one’s letter was an open point, but it seems it is all settled for us ... I daresay not a word of this note is really mine; it is all hereditary, except my love for you, which I should think could not be so, but who knows?

                      Yours

                      C.D.