In an age when transgressive readings of literary classics have become the norm, it is refreshing to hear from a scholar who takes Jane Austen’s works as he finds them, not as he wishes them to be…

Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists by Peter W. Graham (216 pages, Routledge, 2008)

Jane Austen’s novels have long been loved for what the Oxford Aristotelian Richard Whately spoke of as their “vivid distinctness of description” and “minute fidelity of detail.”[1] From the quality of Robert Martin’s penmanship to Robert Ferrars’ choice of a snuffbox, seemingly minor matters in her hands prove to be revelations of her characters’ souls. Although she left behind only six completed novels and a small stack of fragments and letters, Austen wrote with such economy that these scanty remains have provided sufficient matter for now dozens of scholarly commentaries. A more diffuse writer must write whole shelves in order to say half as much. It is precisely this fine-grained quality of her vision that Professor Graham praises, seeing in it an analog to Charles Darwin’s patient cataloging and describing of the natural world. In his “quartet of essays,” he presents Austen in the light of a number of Darwin’s works—not only The Origin of Species—and offers a consideration of these two “great English empiricists of the nineteenth century” that, he hopes, might help us to “learn to look closely at the social and natural phenomena around us.” It is an attempt worth making, and he is surely right in supposing that we may become better “attuned to reading the world by reading Austen or Darwin.” For nature, especially human nature, likes to hide, and we often best learn its secrets by seeing them in the mirrors that are the writings of the wise.

What he admires, Professor Graham imitates. In an age when transgressive readings of literary classics have become the norm, it is refreshing to hear from a scholar who takes Jane Austen’s works as he finds them, not as he wishes them to be. In the four long essays devoted to observation itself, sibling rivalry, marriage, and what he calls—borrowing from Darwin—”variation,” he displays an admirable independence from recent discussions of the novelist’s works. Instead of judging whole stories to be ironic, he rightly sees Austen’s playful irony as but one tool in her kit, and that used in the service of her satirical juxtaposition of folly and right reason. Instead of rejecting Austen’s happy endings as unrepresentative of what must have been the critical view of society held by such a loner and outsider, he sees, rightly, that good marriage is the chief personal and social good that Austen had in view in her tales. And, most wonderfully, instead of concocting wild theories of supposed influences on Austen’s thought based upon flimsy evidence, he sticks to the texts of the novels and wrings from them the meaning that they hold—and wring he surely does, devoting a full fifteen pages to the topic of blushing alone. When he does turn to the contemporary critical literature—usually in the notes—it is more often than not to take issue with one of the current fads. For Professor Graham roots his interpretation not in the rantings of some trendy postcolonialist, but in the staid, myopic theories of Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s own career, of course, was a long and complex one. Graham is surely right in reminding us that he was from first to last a great observational naturalist whose excursions into theory were long delayed, and, when they came, heavily belabored. It is a shame that alongside his patient readings of Austen’s novels, especially Emma, Graham does not offer us a tour of Darwin’s great work of natural history, his Journal of Researches, known popularly as the Voyage of the Beagle. In those pages, the reader circumnavigates the globe in the company of a zealous observer full of wonder at the variety and the order of nature. The young Darwin had not yet learned to reduce every explanation to one of origins, nor to explain away beauty and fruitfulness as the epiphenomena of the struggle for existence. He was still capable of seeing the “primeval forests” of South America as “temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature,” in the presence of which wonder became awe: “no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”[2] The young Darwin, like Jane Austen, responded generously to the mental gift she had been given; the older Darwin, brow deeply furrowed and vision crimped and narrowed, descended into a tragic melancholia. “If I had to live my life again,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.” He judged his loss of “higher aesthetic tastes”—to say nothing of his disbelief—tobe a “loss of happiness,” and perhaps even an injury to “the moral character.”[3]

Darwin’s own blinders, skillfully packaged by propagandists from T.H. Huxley to Richard Dawkins, have become those of our age. Consider our common scientific approach to nature. Instead of taking nature as we find it, beautifully varied but wonderfully ordered, we must collapse the universe we see into a mere moment of geological, nay, astrophysical time. We have convinced ourselves that a scientific account is an evolutionary one, and vice versa. So, for instance, a well-known textbook in ornithology frames the whole subject in evolutionary terms, beginning with a discussion of “origins” and ending with population dynamics and “speciation.” The marvels of flight, migration, song, nest-building, and reproduction according to kind—the objects of utter fascination to thousands upon thousands of avid birders—are subordinated to the evolutionary account. At least, that is, in rhetoric: “Some 150 million years ago, a small, bipedal reptile lived among the dinosaurs. Its stiff scales eventually became soft feathers. Its leaps and short glides led to graceful flight. Feathered insulation enhanced control of a high body temperature, increasing activity and endurance. Mastery of light opened a world of ecological opportunities. A new group of vertebrates, the Class Aves, evolved.”[4] Hard as it may be to believe that such bio-geo-fantasy can serve as a controlling metaphor for a sober textbook or that modern science would so brazenly resort to the passive voice in order to paper over explanatory gaps, such is indeed the mind of contemporary natural history. Darwin’s bland reductionism has become second nature to us; we no longer notice the cracks and distortions in his mirror.

There is a wonderful irony in Professor Graham’s use of Darwinian theory to attempt to illuminate Austen’s novels, for he unwittingly provides a reductio ad absurdam of Darwinism itself. Take, for instance, his treatment of the middle Bennet daughter, the mousy Mary, the one who devotes her time to books and the piano and rather likes the censorious Mr. Collins. Professor Graham’s observations about Mary are a fine example of his astute reading of the importance of birth order in Austen’s novels: She falls uncomfortably between the elder sisters Jane and Elizabeth and the younger tandem of Kitty and Lydia, and sois, as it were, doomed to an unhappy position in the family, even had she not been plain. But when it comes time to draw a conclusion, the Darwinian rhetorical overlay is thickly spread: “Loneliness among her sisters and lack of beauty drive Mary to choose a studious niche in the family ecosystem.” It is worth asking how the older rhetoric would have made the same point; how might Dr. Johnson have put it? “Set in an uncomfortable middle between two closely-matched pairs of sisters and lacking in grace and beauty, Mary sought solace in her books.” Does the ecological jargon in fact make for a more illuminating explanation? Or again, consider this repackaging of the famous love-story: “In proposing to Elizabeth, Darcy has clearly followed the imperatives of sexual selection, which in this case felicitously correspond with rather than fight against civilization’s cultivated tastes. First struck by Eliza’s fine eyes, healthy body, and abundant vitality, he later comes to value her mental powers, temperament, and moral principles.” But has anyone ever doubted that man’s natural inclination for union with woman has involved bodily as well as mental attraction? Does the phrase “sexual selection” really explain anything, or does it rather appeal to a certain habit of mind because it seems to have the unvarnished, cold, even unmasked character that we have come to expect from science?

Darwinism, in its pure form, is little better than systematic pessimism. The glass is always half-empty: apparent balance and order is only the chance result of competition; instinctive behavior of tremendous sophistication is only part of a successful life-history strategy; evident and consistent differences in kind are only unsteady appearances. At least it can be said, however, that some Darwinians, and Professor Graham among them, still hold—beyond what their principles can justify—that nature is worth investigating, deeply intelligible, and even in some ways normative. To train a biologist’s eye upon Jane Austen’s novels is not such a bad idea. For a naturalist rightly sees that she depicts individuals thriving in family “ecosystems.” Graham is very right to notice her positive treatment of married couples such as the Crofts and families such as the Musgroves, and, most perceptively, to chart the generally bad character traits of her only child characters such as the unstable Frank Churchill, the reckless Willoughby, and the reprobate Wickham. The only complaint that one could lodge, beyond noting the shortcomings of the Darwinian rhetoric, is that he does not carry his analysis far enough. When, for instance, he discusses entail and primogeniture, he leaves behind the family as a biological unit and relapses into an individualist account, alleging that primogeniture has for one of its ends keeping “the family name consequential over generations”—as if the custom had been a matter of emotion or of livery and silverplate. No, entail and primogeniture were almost ruthlessly biological, but the locus of “selection” was the family as a biological community seeking to perpetuate itself over time. And this was very plain to Jane Austen, who in Sir Walter Elliot painted a portrait of a thoroughly emasculated and sterile landed aristocrat. His failure to perpetuate his estate by siring an heir was the biological manifestation of a thoroughgoing lack of generosity in his soul. Conversely, Mr. Knightley is the very paragon of fruitfulness: not only are the strawberry beds, fields, and woodlots of Donwell Abbey abounding in produce, but their lord will also marry and, we have every hope to expect, perpetuate his line to the good of his extended family and, indeed, the entire village community of Highbury. It is true that Jane Austen had a deeply natural view of human thriving; she was in no way alienated from her femininity or from her human nature. Yet in the mirror of her novels, we do not see the warped and twisted Darwinian cosmos, but the bountiful, beautiful, and ordered nature of Dr. Johnson, Aristotle, and the Psalms.[5]

Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2010 – Vol. 52, No. 3). 

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  1. Richard Whately’s review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in Quarterly Review (1821), reprinted in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B.C. Southam (London: Routledge, 1968), 96.
  2. Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, ed. Janet Browne and Michael Neve (London: Penguin, 1989), 374.
  3. Darwin, Autobiography, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Norton, 1958), 139.
  4. Frank B. Gill, Ornithology (New York: W.H. Freeman,1990), 13.
  5. See Scott D. Evans, Samuel Johnson’s “General Nature”: Tradition and Transition in Eighteenth-Century Discourse (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1999).

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