Purton, Valerie (ed), Darwin, Tennyson and Their Readers: Explorations in Victorian Literature and Science

Valerie Purton (ed), Darwin, Tennyson and Their Readers: Explorations in Victorian Literature and Science (New York and London: Anthem Press 2013) 192 pp. £70.00 Hb, £25.00 Pb. ISBN 9780857280763

The real author of Tennyson’s poems was in fact Charles Darwin; or so asserted Algernon Charles Swinburne in a spoof published in the Nineteenth Century in 1888. This book does not go quite that far, but celebrates the shared culture of these two emblematic Victorian figures in ten essays by many of today’s leading writers on Darwin and Tennyson, including Gillian Beer, George Levine and Roger Ebbatson. The essayistic format allows these distinguished writers to expand on ideas and suggest fruitful possibilities for further research; Valerie Purton is the calm curator and her lucid introduction sets the tone. As she points out, definitions of science and literature were still fluid in the discourse of early Victorian Britain, and these essays examine the ‘easy commerce’ (xiii) of a community of scientific and literary scholars before the inevitable late nineteenth-century rupture pinpointed by C.P. Snow in his ‘two cultures’ formulation of the 1960s.

Fittingly, for a collection that emphasizes readers and the act of reading, we become familiar with a cast of characters who appear in several of the essays: Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Ruskin. There were lifelong scientific/literary friendships, such as that between Tennyson and Huxley, and brief encounters which sparked off ideas, including Ruskin and Darwin and indeed Tennyson and Darwin. Discussion was as important as reading, and not just among men: Rebecca Stott argues that Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) was inspired by new forms of scientific debate between men and women, and Gowan Dawson asserts that it was Charles Darwin’s poetry-loving wife Emma who alerted him to significant passages in Tennyson’s Idylls of the Kings.

The first four chapters are structured chronologically and consider Tennyson’s engagement with scientific debates from ‘Locksley Hall’, published in 1842 to ‘The Holy Grail’ of 1869. The pivotal fifth chapter considers how scientists read Tennyson, and the next four chapters concentrate on Darwin. In the final chapter Jeff Wallace outlines the pitfalls of seeing the Victorian scientist through twenty-first century eyes. The theme of changing attitudes to evolution threads through the essays, and in keeping with the collection’s title, almost all of the contributors consider the wider audience of readers and their different responses.

In the first chapter Roger Ebbatson describes Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ (published in 1842) as ‘precariously balanced between utopian and scientifically orientated visions of the future’ (1). He considers its composition (during a period of unprecedented social upheaval in the late 1830s) in the light of writings by Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno and Gadamer, and concludes that ‘the ‘shining form’ promised by science and evolutionary narratives disintegrated in Tennyson’s poem, under the impress of the social crisis of early Victorian England’ (11). In Chapter Two ‘Tennyson’s Drift: Evolution in The Princess‘ Rebecca Stott takes as her starting point Huxley’s tribute to Tennyson as ‘the first poet since Lucretius who has understood the drift of science’ (13). She examines the conscious ambiguity embedded in Huxley’s choice of the word ‘drift’ and discusses the long gestation of The Princess in the context of Tennyson’s occasionally reluctant participation in mixed-sex dinner table discussions of Robert Chambers’ influential Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In his precisely argued essay ‘History, Materiality and Type in Tennyson’s In Memoriam‘ (Chapter Three) Matthew Rowlinson also refers to Vestiges as he teases out the implications of the word ‘type’ in Tennyson’s description in In Memoriam of Hallam as ‘a noble type/ Appearing ere the times were ripe’ and Chambers’ conclusion that ‘our race’ might be ‘but the initial of the grand crowning type’ (43).

The only documented meeting of Tennyson and Darwin took place on 17th August 1868 at Farringford on the Isle of Wight. It was not a great success, apparently; the two men found little to say to one another.  However, it was followed by Tennyson’s completion of ‘The Holy Grail’ idyll in what Emily Tennyson called ‘a breath of inspiration’ in the following three weeks, and in Chapter Four Purton argues that meeting Darwin may have given Tennyson the confidence to explore a more sceptical reading of the grail theme.

In Chapter Five Michiel Nys examines Tennyson’s ‘evolutionary afterlife’ by tracing the twentieth-century echoes of T.H. Huxley’s writings for which Tennyson’s verse was a major source of inspiration. In a BBC radio dramatisation, broadcast in October 1942, the biologist Julian Huxley responds to his famous grandfather’s Lyellesque ‘tooth-and-claw perspective’ as ‘an undue simplification’ in his wish to absolve Darwin’s evolutionary theory from any responsibility for human warfare. In Chapter Six Gowan Davison returns to 1836, when Darwin deposited his megatherium fossil specimens from the Beagle in the Hunterian Museum. Ironically, as Gowan Davison points out, it was Richard Owen’s functionalist interpretation of these remains that seized the public’s imagination, and the megatherium took on a life of its own from the 1840s onwards, appearing in novels such as Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke and Thackeray’s The Newcomes. Clive Wilmer examines John Ruskin’s ‘notorious aversion to Darwinism’ in Chapter Seven as an objection to the Malthusian social theories underlying the Origin, its publication coinciding with the composition of Ruskin’s attack on free-market capitalism in Unto This Last (1860).

In Chapter Eight George Levine examines Darwin’s language, arguing that his ‘paradoxical’ aesthetic influenced writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde. In Chapter Nine Gillian Beer also celebrates ‘the principle of extravagance’ at the heart of Darwin’s prose, and its influence on George Meredith’s poetry. In the last essay in this collection, Jeff Wallace considers the idea that T.H. Huxley represents the ‘unique cultural agency’ of a scientist-figure. Reductive conceptions of science played a part in the culture ‘wars’ of the later twentieth century, he maintains. The collection ends on a positive note as Wallace envisages greater interdisciplinary debate between science and the humanities in the future, and a move away from C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ formulation.

Ann Kennedy Smith, Independent Scholar