Jenny Davidson, Breeding

Jenny Davidson, Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century(New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), xx+292 pp. £22.50 hb. ISBN 978-0-231-13878-9 (book), ISBN 978-0-231-51111-7 (ebook).

Jenny Davidson’s original synthesis appeals equally to specialists in eighteenth-century literature and science, and readers interested in the history of the life sciences, agriculture, education or language. With elegance and lucidity, she deploys a wide range of material, from ancient Greece and Rome, and a cosmopolitan long eighteenth century where Dryden, Locke and Swammerdam encounter Maupertuis, Spallanzani, Condorcet, John Adams, Malthus and Mary Shelley, to a formidable array of modern experts on a dazzling, yet unfailingly relevant, variety of subjects: the notes are scrupulously researched and generously informative.

The book grows out of its first sentence: ‘The word breeding sets a place for nature at culture’s table’ ([1]). While examining this term ‘that can refer to nature or nurture, generation, pregnancy, hereditary resemblance, manners, moral character, social identity, or all of the above’ (2), Davidson explores a constellation of topics in many genres, constantly attending to ‘the particularity of each use of each word’ (11). Partial in the title signals her decision to take ‘the part for the whole, operating by means of congruity and association’ rather than ‘the more accepted modes of analogy and argument’ (12). In fact, rigorous argument abounds: Davidson wishes only to avoid rehearsing ‘grand narratives of Enlightenment’ (11). She has therefore constructed ‘an auditorium in which the voices of actors in and commentators on the story of heredity in the eighteenth century can be heard’ (7-8). Through these ‘long-gone conversations’ (8), Davidson traces a ‘convergence of intellectual excitement about the science of generation’ in which ‘widely held beliefs in progress and perfectibility, a georgic passion for the sciences of agricultural improvement, and an emerging science that would one day come to be called physical anthropology enabled fascinating and often quite disturbing speculations about man’s genetic perfectibility’ (88).

Davidson preserves academic integrity by ‘self-immersion’ in ‘a vast sea of eighteenth-century materials’, conducted ‘without letting subsequent developments in the history of the state’s interventions in the health of citizens determine the outcome of the investigation’ (6). Yet she keeps the present in view. When she examines ‘without excessive squeamishness’ the arguments on ‘the races of man’ in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), she acknowledges that they are ‘most likely to produce outrage or disgust in modern readers’ (161). The resulting analysis clarifies the origins of this disgust by revealing Jefferson’s desire for ethnic cleansing. Her last chapter, ‘Shibboleths’, shows that relationships between language, education and racial discrimination are still damagingly controversial. Having learned that ‘the alignment of nurture with freedom and nature with necessity is quite culturally specific’ (6), she concludes with warnings against applying any kind of ‘deterministic thinking’ to human development (205).

It is generally accepted that there was no eighteenth-century consensus on the parents’ respective contributions to the child at conception, the effects of maternal imagination during pregnancy, and the relative importance of nature and nurture. Davidson uncovers further confusion by demonstrating that the ‘language available’ blurred distinctions between animal and vegetable reproduction (3). She also highlights uncertainties about the boundary between human nature and nurture: Rousseau’s claim that ‘the faculty of perfecting oneself’ was a natural human endowment threatened to demolish it completely (117). There was, however, some good fishing in these muddied waters: Davidson demonstrates the resourcefulness with which dramatists and novelists adopted whichever opinion best suited their moral and artistic purposes. Her examination of eighteenth-century adaptations of The Winter’s Tale is particularly fruitful. She links literature with science even more closely by suggesting that Darwin, who paid little attention to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works on generation, owed some of his scientific insights to ideas about nature and nurture in novels like Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story (1791) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Mansfield Park (1814) (36).

Davidson is, however, a little too speculative in her comparison of a passage in Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) with Ben Jonson’s celebrated country-house poem, ‘To Penshurst’ (1616). The animals of Penshurst display suicidal longings to be eaten—a motif recurring to hilarious effect in Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). The chief difference is that Jonson’s account acts as a hyperbolical compliment to the lord of the manor. Davidson claims that Smollett’s Matthew Bramble, when describing his diet on his own estate, pays a similar compliment to himself when he mentions ‘the preposterous details of “rabbits panting from the warren” and “trout and salmon struggling from the stream”’ (102). Yet the language is probably intended to indicate their extreme freshness rather than their motivation: this is consistent with Bramble’s celebration of a menu including “‘game fresh from the moors”’ and sea-fish that he can eat “‘in four hours after they are taken”’ (102). Nevertheless, her discussion of the tension between ‘plot and metaphor’ in the novel as a whole is admirable (111).

Davidson uses an enormous number of texts, well-known, obscure, or vaguely known but unduly neglected. The last category includes the Hippocratic ‘Airs, Water, Places’ (ca. 400 BC), a vital source for the history of the nature-nurture debate, and The Tatler: like other periodicals, it provides excellent material for the study of eighteenth-century ideas, and Davidson makes excellent use of the issue for October 1, 1709, which describes a fictitious family’s attempts to make its members taller by a breeding programme extending over several centuries. On more familiar territory, Davidson dissects Gulliver’s ‘distinctly disorientating’ use of the noun ‘species’ with ruthless precision (70). Introducing her ground-breaking account of elocutionists’ attempts to level social and ethnic playing fields, she justifies the use of texts possessing ‘little more than antiquarian interest’: they can ‘let us hear other things more clearly in the conversation in which they participate, in many instances precisely because they are less original or less skilfully argued than some others’ (124). The book sparkles with freshly-mined gems, like a letter from the Earl of Bristol to Fanny Burney, encapsulating his conviction that agriculture promotes morality in the expression ‘farming your heart’ (64). Both useful and ornamental, they exemplify the quality of this uniquely illuminating study.

Carolyn D. Williams, University of Reading

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