Gowan Dawson, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability

Gowan Dawson, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xii + 286 pp. £64 ISBN: 9780521872492

Charles Darwin did not much care for literature. His autobiography confessed an intolerance of poetry, a love of middlebrow fiction and, in later life, feelings of nausea when reading Shakespeare. It is, therefore, perhaps ironic that Darwin and all things Darwinian have become objects of intense interest for literary scholars in the decades since the publication of Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983). One of the most significant recent additions to this field, published in a series of which Beer is the general editor, has been Gowan Dawson’s Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability.

Although Dawson characterizes his book as ‘overtly interdisciplinary’ (25) – ostensibly combining the approaches of contextualist history of science with literary and cultural studies  – it is his ‘literary’ perspective that leads him to look afresh at the reception of evolutionary science, and connect it to ‘the murky underworlds of Victorian pornography, sexual innuendo, unrespectable freethought and artistic sensualism’ (6). His particular innovation is to situate the debates that follow the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) within the context of contemporary controversies around aesthetic literature and, to a lesser extent, developing definitions of obscenity. The result, according to Dawson, is the uncovering of a ‘surprisingly recurrent connection’ (4) between Darwinism and sexual immorality, and a tale of the efforts of Darwinists to frame their naturalistic worldview in a way that distanced them from aestheticism’s sexual and moral transgressions.

Recognition of the importance of ‘respectability’ to Darwin’s success is hardly new, but Dawson goes further than previous studies in exploring the specific threat posed by an association with Algernon Swinburne’s poetry. His depiction of the 1860s and 1870s as a time of sexual anxiety is at odds with Michael Mason’s account of the period as one of relaxation and reform of sexual codes, and Dawson aligns himself with Stefan Collini’s emphasis on the enduring primacy of morality as a feature of Victorian intellectual life. Nor is this the only point at which Dawson looks askance at the prevailing historiography. One of the book’s recurrent refrains is the extent to which its author is supplying something absent from the accounts of previous historians (‘even the most assiduous and resourceful historians of science’ (15)) who are charged with having failed to acknowledge the correlated receptions of Darwinism and aestheticism.

There is some truth in this complaint and Dawson is to be commended for developing a fresh angle on familiar material; but there is also good reason for some of the neglect: the relative absence of firm evidence. This point is well illustrated in the second chapter, which deals with ‘sexualized responses to evolution’. Dawson’s aim is to show how the Descent was implicated with the sensualism of Swinburne’s poetry but, as intriguing as his discussion is, the actual evidence remains scant and slippery. For example, much is made of the ‘close proximity’ of reviews of the Descent and Swinburne’s Songs before sunrise (1871) in the Edinburgh Review of July 1871, but unable to flesh out a much more definite link, Dawson resorts to surmise and suggestion. In just one page (47) the reader is regaled with multiple modal verbs and conditionals –  ‘may’, ‘might’, ‘likely’, ‘perhaps’ – designed to bolster Dawson’s case. Soon after, again unable to find any direct link between two cartoons – one of Darwin the other of the Paris Commune – that appeared on adjacent pages of Punch in April 1871, Dawson asserts that they were engaged in ‘implicit dialogue’ (58). In both instances the physical proximity and contiguity is interesting, but its significance easily exaggerated.

A similar lack of circumspection is evident when Dawson discusses a cartoon of Darwin as an ape with an erect tail, which appeared in Fun magazine, and a pornographic depiction by the Belgian Félicien Rops of an ape performing cunnilingus on a Caucasian woman, subtitled ‘Troisiéme darwinique’. Neglecting Freud’s apocryphal warning that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, Dawson asserts that Darwin’s tail was a potent image when viewed, ‘as it may have been’ in the light of ‘other visual images’ such as that of Rops (74 Emphasis added). Thus simultaneously speculating on a reading for which there is no evidence, and forgetting his own acknowledgement that Rops’ work was ‘known only to a very small coterie of gentlemanly connoisseurs on the other side of the Channel’ (72). This is not to dispute Dawson’s essential point – Darwinian scholars ought to think more about aestheticism – merely to caution that much of his detail is debatable.

The remaining chapters have less to do with Darwin than the book’s title implies. The most rewarding is chapter four, which examines the role of scientific publications in relation to legal definitions of obscenity, with particular reference to the Bradlaugh-Besant trial of 1877. It repays close attention, despite overplaying an unsubstantiated connection between Darwin and George Drysdale; exaggerating the affinity between Darwin and William Carpenter; and misunderstanding Bradlaugh and Besant’s strategic citation of Carpenter’s Principles as a reductio ad absurdum. Least convincing is chapter five, which explores the posthumous ‘refashioning’ of William Kingdon Clifford’s reputation in order to demonstrate that ‘for the proponents of Darwinism, the maintenance of a respectable reputation was more important than ‘the truthful acknowledgment of all aspects of … beliefs and principles’ (189). This conclusion depends upon casting Clifford’s widow – a novelist and literary journalist, who was principally responsible for the ‘refashioning’ – as one of these ‘proponents’, but excluding Karl Pearson, who wanted to publish Clifford’s potentially scandalous ‘Mistress or Wife’ manuscript.

The final chapter argues that ‘the pathologisation of aestheticism’, evident in the Darwinists’ development of degeneration theories, was part of a self-conscious strategy, led by T. H. Huxley, to detach science from ‘pejorative associations with aestheticism’ (214). In discussing this, Dawson deftly makes the point that the ‘One Culture’ assumption, of an almost exclusively positive and creative interaction between Victorian science and literature, depends upon the omission of aesthetic art and literature from consideration. This is an important argument, with implications for the contemporary drive to interdisciplinarity. The main value of Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability, however, is that it will encourage future scholars to consider aestheticism’s due place in accounts of the reception of Darwinism. In doing so they may find it to be less central than Dawson contends.

David Stack, University of Reading