Bernard Lightman and Bennett Zon (eds.), Evolution and Victorian Culture

Bernard Lightman and Bennett Zon (eds.), Evolution and Victorian Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2014), xviii + 320pp. £60 hb. ISBN 9781107028425

At first glance, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the academic world needs another books about Evolution and Victorian Culture. Monumental 1980s studies of Darwin’s influence on his society (most famously those by Gillian Beer and George Levine) are often justly considered to be the flashpoint for Literature and Science as a concerted critical undertaking. Since then, and especially around the 2009 Darwin celebrations, a host of excellent scholarship has nuanced the picture drawn by those cornerstone works. Whilst it would be churlish claim that the subject has run dry, it is surely forgivable to dream of the vast other realms of Victorian science, comparatively neglected, and wonder why evolution remains, as it were, our flagship subject.

A glance into Lightman and Zon’s collection, though, reveals that it is itself a response to these exact concerns, seeking not only to consolidate the existing critical conversation around Victorian evolution but also to advance it in at least two striking and unique ways. Firstly, the editors are keen to move beyond the limits of individual humanistic disciplines: studies into evolution in subjects as diffuse as dance and architecture, which might not otherwise have had contact with each other, are here brought together. “[E]volution shaped culture in its entirety, not just in pieces”, write the editors, “[s]o our aim was to cast the net as widely as possible” (12). A second widening of the net is to be found in the declared intention to move beyond Darwin, who, as Peter Bowler has written, played a routinely overstated role in perceptions of evolution before the modern synthesis. The introduction therefore opens with a pithy summary of wider evolutionary thought in the nineteenth century, including detailed mention of figures like Lamarck, Chambers, and Spencer and serving anybody wishing to represent their complex history to undergraduates. Darwin’s striking absence from this account testifies to two things: his relative lack of cultural prominence in his own time, and the extent to which knowledge of his life can be assumed in our own. Following this introductory sketch, the collection proceeds through essays detailing evolutionary engagements with eleven distinct areas of Victorian culture. In order of appearance, they are: fiction, poetry, photography, cinema, art, theatre, dance, music, architecture, exhibitions, and popular science.

Each chapter provides a broad overview of the state of research in its particular area before augmenting it with case studies and indications of potential future directions. As a student of English Literature, this reviewer is unqualified to comment on how robustly a lot of these essays manage their brief (as perhaps any single reviewer would be), but if the rest of this work is as authoritative as are the chapters from Cannon Schmitt (fiction) and John Holmes (poetry), then it is surely indispensable for anybody wishing to bring themselves up to speed on the present wider conversations around evolution.

The division of this book by cultural area plays into the expertise of its contributors and no doubt provides structural reinforcement to the editors’ picture of a breadth of evolutionary engagement with culture. Yet it also throws up some problems. It will be tempting for individual scholars to read only those chapters relevant to their personal expertise – an activity which each essay would surely reward and yet which would also undermine the synthetic work which the editors are so deliberately undertaking. The use of the word ‘synthetic’ here is not coincidental: the editors see their own interdisciplinary approach as “the fashionable evolutionary descendant of the fashionable synthetic programme of Victorian culture” (8), a formulation which deliberately draws parallels between their wide view and the philosophy of Spencer. Yet Spencer was one person, and the fact that eleven separate experts now need to be assembled to conduct a similarly ambitious programme – with the reader structurally empowered to opt out of any given portion of it – underscores the considerable differences between our view of these issues and his. The disciplinary subdivisions of the book, one suspects, occlude as much as they reveal: Holmes’s current work on museum architecture, for example, is invisible as long as he remains the collection’s poetry expert; the intriguing mention of a Julian Huxley poem in Oliver Gaycken’s chapter on cinema feels out of place and rushed over. Whilst it is refreshing to see these different elements of humanistic study represented in one volume, then, the boundaries between those elements sometimes feel reified rather than challenged.

It is hardly Lightman and Zon’s fault, of course, that the map of the disciplines has grown so involved since the nineteenth century, and although their claim for a link between modern humanistic criticism and Victorian evolutionary thought remains a trifle risky, it is also one of the more incidental objectives of a collection that does indeed, if read in full, challenge the reader to think about the ways in which our scholarship has evolved (such language is, of course, unavoidable) in recent years. It is striking, for instance, that Holmes and Schmitt do indeed locate a considerable level of Darwinian influence on literature, whilst chapters such as Sadiah Qureshi’s (on exhibitions) find the competing theories (such language is, of course, unavoidable) of equal or greater prominence.

This is a book which invites consideration of scholarly priorities in reading Victorian evolution. It is interesting to note that some chapters, such as Elizabeth Edwards’ on photography, focus on practical works and examples, whilst others such as Zon’s are interested in Victorian theories of art – indeed, Zon’s chapter is better thought of as a history of Victorian musicology than of Victorian music. Noticing this, it seems reasonable to wonder where the right emphasis might be between nineteenth century theory and practice. This question leads contemplation of this collection towards its most conspicuous absence: there is no chapter on Victorian historiography, despite the subject’s clear importance to and effect on every single other contribution.

This weakness in the book hardly condemns it – indeed, that it is discernible at all is testament to the fresh ways of thinking which these excellent essays open up. They rearticulate one of our most persistent discussions in a provocative new light, and will be useful on the shelf of anybody who cares about the complex fabric of evolution and the ways in which we attempt to understand it.

Will Tattersdill, University of Birmingham