Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins

Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2016) xii + 339 pp. $55 EPUB, MOBI, PDF, $55 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-4214-2076-9

In The Age of Analogy, Devin Griffiths sets out to achieve several things at once. Firstly, he proposes a history of interactions between science and literature in the nineteenth century predicated on a shift within a third discipline, history. This shift is the replacement of an eighteenth-century conception of stadial history, in which comparisons between periods in the past are used to construct narratives of progress, to a nineteenth-century practice of comparative history which does not presuppose that moments in the past can be evaluated by a single standard set by the present. Although this was a change in how history was conceived and written, Griffiths argues that it was enabled by and mapped out within creative literature, and had some of its most profound reverberations within science. Crucially, it was achieved through a new mode of practising the literary device of analogy. This takes us on to Griffiths’s second aim for his book, which is to propose a new critical vocabulary for understanding how analogy itself works. Most significantly, he distinguishes formal analogy, in which one term has priority over the other – one is the tenor, the other merely the vehicle – from what he calls ‘harmonic analogy’, in which there is a constructive interplay as each term enables new possibilities for thinking about the other. In recasting historiography and critical terminology, Griffiths also makes a case for a fresh way of thinking about the history of science and indeed science itself. He argues both for the generative role and the value of literary practices and modes of thought – analogy, the imaginative construction of narrative, an attention to form – within science, implying and looking to demonstrate in turn the value of literary-critical techniques of reading to understanding science and its history. He has other, more local aims too: to reinterpret the relationship between Charles Darwin and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who he sets up as the dual termini of his argument; and, en route, to offer us new and revealing close analyses of the historical novels of Walter Scott, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and the journalism and fiction of George Eliot, as they bear on his overall arguments.

Given the extraordinary ambition of his project, Griffiths comes remarkably close to pulling it off. The difficulty he faces is that, although his first three aims are intimately related, they are not always perfectly aligned, and some sections of the book knot them more closely and persuasively together than others. There is also the challenge of how to convincingly underwrite these metanarratives through close readings of a relatively small selection of authors and, at the same time, such a broad range of genres. At the same time, the readings can gather momentum of their own, taking them in idiosyncratic directions which can temporarily obscure the main line of the argument, not unlike species being driven by the inheritance of acquired characteristics to depart from the main line of the evolutionary teleology as mapped out by Lamarck (to draw a – merely formal – analogy from Griffiths’s own book).

Looking across The Age of Analogy, the last two chapters are the most tightly structured and compelling, and they go a long way to draw together the argument of the book as a whole. Reading from the back, the last chapter makes a powerful case for seeing Charles Darwin’s thinking as structured by harmonic analogy as practised through comparative historicism. At the same time, Griffiths subtly reaffirms different forms of prose fiction, particularly the historical novel and Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy, as major models for Darwin’s use of comparative story-telling in constructing his science. The analysis of Darwin’s narrative artistry here is acute, both in On the Origin of Species and in his much less well-known volume On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, published in 1862. Griffiths’s reading of the orchid book in particular is richly pluralist, offering a new insight into how Darwin’s prose was able to sustain both materialism and natural theology.

In its attention to botany, the chapter on Charles Darwin brings the reader back to the first case study in Chapter One, which looks his grandfather’s poem The Botanic Garden and his textbook Zoonomia. This narrative arc complements the most sustained line of argument within the book. This sees Erasmus Darwin (Chapter One) as too committed to an overarching narrative of progress to realise the full possibilities of comparative history which Scott (Chapter Two) was able to achieve through his sustained experiments with the historical novel and Eliot (Chapter Four) through her work as editor of the Westminster Review – which Griffiths persuasively identifies as the first journal of comparative literature – and her own historical novels. The chapter on Eliot is, like that on Charles Darwin, a tour de force. Griffiths moves deftly between the Westminster Review, Eliot’s poem The Legend of Jubal and her notebooks, always circling back to return to Middlemarch. Eliot’s project to extend our sympathies through this novel, Griffiths shows us, is achieved through a subtle process of the exposure of false analogies, as the characters struggle to understand one another, and the realisation of rare, close, harmonic moments of contact. For Eliot, as Griffiths shows, the implications of comparative history necessarily pull us away from generalisations to these individual moments. For Charles Darwin (Chapter Five), by contrast, there are patterns – common descent, coevolution, shared environmental niches – and an overarching principle – natural selection – which accommodate and explain all these contingencies.

These four chapters tell a story that is at once progressive and teleological – it leads from stadial history to comparative history, in science, literature and history itself – and pluralist, as comparative history is by definition plural, and as Eliot and Darwin offer different conclusions as to where it takes us. The last two chapters in particular are worthy to stand comparison with the very best work on Darwin as a writer and on Darwin in dialogue with the novel, most obviously that of Gillian Beer and George Levine. The chapter on Scott is less tightly structured, and seems at times to wander a little, but is clearly fundamental to the argument. The chapter on Erasmus Darwin is engaging and welcome. Griffiths’s conclusion that Erasmus fails where Charles succeeds is underscored by a reading of the two sections of The Botanic Garden as an evolutionary epic driven by an overarching narrative which it fails to accomplish. Yet the poem is structured much more episodically than this, and not as a single narrative, so it is not exactly fair to hold it to a standard it does not ask to be judged by. Instead, Darwin knowingly reworks the epic tradition into new forms, much as his key models, Ovid and Lucretius, had done in their own day. That said, this disagreement is the kind of productive engagement that criticism should serve, and again this chapter works well within the argument as a whole.

The least satisfactory chapter, for me, is Chapter Three, on In Memoriam. Though the subject here is analogy – and Griffiths does some lovely work with the poem’s distinctive stanza to think through how it works to construct analogies – the main thread of the argument about comparative history is lost sight of here. There are several specific claims that Griffiths makes about the poem too which are not sufficiently robustly evidenced within the argument itself. He posits that Arthur Hallam was a key shaping influence on, even a partner in Tennyson’s poetic enterprise in his elegy, that Tennyson’s conception of the afterlife as an other world in the poem bears the stamp of astronomical speculation about life on other planets, and that the poem’s structure and Hallam’s place within it both mirror Richard Owen’s conception of the vertebrate archetype. All these claims are plausible as well as intriguing, but the textual detail that is used to substantiate them is very thin in each case. So while In Memoriam does contribute to Griffiths’s overall thesis by opening up possibilities for contact and then closing them down again in the ‘Epilogue’ – a point Griffiths himself makes very incisively – the place he assigns it in the book and the precise case he chooses to make about it mean that the chapter as a whole ruptures the development of the argument from Scott to Eliot rather than contributing very much to it. Given that the chronology is already distorted by placing Charles Darwin after Eliot, the argument might have been clearer, and easier to keep trim and in train, if In Memoriam had been placed after Erasmus Darwin as a second example of a reaching towards comparison that ultimately falls back to a single telos.

It is easy, though, for a reviewer to quibble about structure with distance and hindsight. The Age of Analogy is not beyond improvement, but what critical book is? This ambitious work should shape future thinking about historicism, science and literature in the nineteenth century and beyond in new and significant ways. Griffiths deserves to be congratulated on having achieved this and, in the process, on having written some of the best recent criticism on Charles Darwin and George Eliot in particular, which is no mean feat in itself.

John Holmes, University of Birmingham