Jessica Straley, Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children’s Literature

Jessica Straley, Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children’s Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) xi + 252 pp. £64.99 Hb. £29.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781107127524

Jessica Straley’s Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children’s Literature innovatively blends an account of texts from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature with an investigation of the intellectual impact of evolutionary ideas on Victorian thinking about the child, and in so doing takes issue with a received narrative within studies of children’s literature which characterizes this ‘Golden Age’ as a ‘retreat from reality into fantasy’ (9). Straley argues instead that the ‘antirealist literary modes and techniques’ (9) which define Victorian children’s literature are best understood as a response to the impact of evolutionary thought on the conception of human identity. She uses this perspective to offer an overview of the development of Victorian children’s literature from the providentialism of natural theology to the immaterialist perspective characterizing the Christian Science which was so influential on Frances Hodgson Burnett, taking in concerns about degeneration and the new category of ‘adolescence’ along the way.

Central to Straley’s argument about the centrality of evolutionary theory to Victorian conceptions of childhood is the notion of evolutionary ‘recapitulation’, according to which the individual’s development re-enacts the evolutionary stages of the species, a process summed up in the well-known formulation ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. In her introduction, Straley traces how this conception of the mirroring of evolution in the individual’s life-history emerged in the pre-Darwinian evolutionary thinking of Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, Serres, von Baer and Haeckel, forming part of these thinkers’ reaction against the notion of a pre-ordained divine order which underlay the tradition of natural theology. Straley shows that the notion of evolutionary recapitulation assumed a central place in the highly influential educational thinking of Herbert Spencer, a key figure in Straley’s study, meaning that the late nineteenth-century ‘Romantic child’ carried with them ‘vestiges of our savage and bestial prehistory’ (21). Straley’s first chapter then sets out the context of early nineteenth-century natural theology which these thinkers were reacting against, examining particularly children’s popularizations of Paley, before moving on to discuss Margaret Gatty’s popular series of short stories Parables from Nature, which, as Straley notes, critics of children’s literature have often characterized as straightforwardly Paleyan allegory (41). Straley, in contrast, finds a more sophisticated religious hermeneutic at work in Gatty’s stories, in which the notion of ‘direct, unmediated access’ (56) to divine intentionality is problematized in favour of an emphasis on the active reshaping of individual character to fit a higher purpose (56).

Straley’s second chapter then proceeds to examine how Charles Kingsley assimilates the Spencerian equation of recapitulation and education to the natural theology tradition by interpreting it as central to the development of ethical ‘character’ (58). Straley situates Spencer’s ‘recapitulative pedagogy’ (63) in the context of the post-Rousseauian educational thought of Pestalozzi, Spurzheim, and Froebel. She sees Kingsley as taking issue with Spencer’s dismissal of literature as educationally valueless through the insistent self-consciousness of the narrative voice he deploys in The Water Babies, which, within the Lamarckian paradigm of evolution which frames the narrative, highlights the element of ethical choice in the evolutionary process (71-73), in a way which might be compared to the  ethical characterization of evolution within the present-day X-Men superhero narratives. Straley then proceeds, in the following chapter, to explore Lewis Carroll’s radical hostility to the naturalist philosophical perspective represented by evolution as expressed in the disruption of stable categories by ‘nonsense’ (96-97) and his use of parody, which she reads as situating the evolutionary dialectic between continuity and change under the control of the human agent (113). Straley usefully contextualizes Carroll’s work within a range of children’s books influenced by him, such as Albert and George Cresswell’s The Wonderland of Evolution (1884), and relates his intellectually conservative educational position to Matthew Arnold. 

Building on the arguments of Allen MacDuffie about the role played by a Lamarckian conception of evolution in The Jungle Books, in her fourth chapter Straley offers an examination of the role played in Kipling’s narrative of Mowgli’s development by the emerging concept of adolescence as the ‘midpoint between animal savagery and civilized softness’ (120), suggesting, controversially, an equation between Baden-Powell’s exploitation of the mythos of The Jungle Books in the constitution of the Cub Scouts, which she argues represents a construction of Kipling’s work as a ‘progressive and imperial Bildungsroman’, and the way The Jungle Books are interpreted in ‘postcolonial literary criticism’ (138). In a final chapter, Straley traces the role played in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden by eugenic ideas about the centrality of female sexual selection to evolution (157), developing the arguments of Angelique Richardson’s classic 2003 study Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth-Century Novel, before turning to the critical debate about Colin’s apparent domination of the narrative by the end of the book (168), which she suggests is balanced out by the ‘spiritualism’ (172) of the Christian Science which was such a potent influence on Burnett’s thinking, since from this perspective what is important is not so much the physical garden itself as the ‘mental garden’ (172) into which Mary inducts the sickly Colin when she soothes him to sleep by telling him about the garden as if it were a fantasy. In her conclusion, Straley gives an account of the twentieth-century migration out of evolutionary discourse taken by the concept of recapitulation, via the psychoanalytic account of ‘the achievement of a cohered and integrated consciousness’ (179), into the popular culture of ‘parenting self-help manuals’ (180), after its expulsion from evolutionary thinking in consequence of the new dominance accrued by the Darwinian account of evolution following its incorporation of Mendelian genetics. 

Straley’s monograph represents an impressive exercise in historical contextualization in the field of children’s literature studies, where historicist approaches are not very dominant. In particular, its reading of Lewis Carroll as fundamentally conservative in his emphasis on the linguistic construction of thought represents a fresh approach to this tricky and elusive writer, and convincingly relates the Oxford don’s mathematical interests to his writing for children. 

Gavin Budge, University of Hertfordshire