John Glendening, The Evolutionary Imagination in Late-Victorian Novels

John Glendening, The Evolutionary Imagination in Late-Victorian Novels: An Entangled Bank (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007), 225pp, £55.00 hb, ISBN 9780754658214

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In his exploration of late-Victorian fiction’s engagement with the complexities and confusions produced by Darwinism, John Glendening focuses on novels which critics have long acknowledged to be influenced by evolutionary theories:  H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896); Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891); Bram Stoker’sDracula (1897); and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Moreover, the argument that Darwinism drew attention to the relativity and indistinct ideological boundaries between numerous concepts that the Victorians liked to keep strictly binary (progress/degeneration, nature/culture, primitive/civilized, and so on) is hardly new. This makes Glendening’s claim that previous critics have not recognized the extent to which evolutionary theory ‘broadly and deeply’ infuses these fictions (107) something of an exaggeration. However, Glendening distinguishes his book from the numerous critical works which have tackled both this subject matter and these novels (most famously Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots), by taking as his inspiration Charles Darwin’s famous concluding paragraph to The Origin of Species(1859) which seeks to soothe the possible unease of readers faced with the implications of natural selection by describing the order and harmony underlying the seeming chaos of an ‘entangled bank’.

Observing that ‘entanglement’ tends to hold negative rather than positive connotations, Glendening shows how Victorian evolutionary theories and processes are fraught with confusion and indeterminacies, and argues that the novels under consideration pick up on these darker ‘implications of natural selection that the entangled bank disguises’ (41), implications which Darwin himself tried to play down. Instead of complex but ordered networks, these novelists depict, more or less strongly, the ascendancy of chaos over order. Relativism emerges as key in depictions of a theory which ‘offers no sanction for reading biological evolution as progress or “devolution” as its opposite; there is just adaptive and nonadaptive change’ (113).

Glendening shows how, in The Island of Doctor Moreau, Prendick comes, through the unpredictable working of circumstance, to abandon his sense of culture and partially identify with the beast-men on the island. This emphasises the effects of chance and contingency in relation to survival (potentially negating the sense of progress that could be inferred from the concept of “survival of the fittest”) and the uncertain distinction between human and animal. The chapter also draws out the entanglements that occurred between different late-Victorian evolutionary theories with an assessment of Wells’s reception of Darwinism, neo-Lamarckism and August Weismann’s germ-plasm theories, and how this may have influenced the writing of Doctor Moreau.

The chapter finishes with a brief but important discussion of rhododendrons in The Time Machine (1895): successful at the expense of the surrounding wildlife, whether they are seen as “good” or “bad” in evolutionary terms is entirely relative, and this paves the way for the subsequent chapter on Tess. Beautiful and fertile, Tess has the potential to be an evolutionary success in terms of both natural and sexual selection but ultimately proves to be maladapted to her ‘natural and cultural environments’ (69). The allure which could attract a suitable husband instead leads to tragedy. Glendening also draws attention to Hardy’s prizing of individual humanity (in this case the life of Tess) in the face of natural, cosmic and social indifference, and reveals another form of evolution-influenced complexity by identifying the multiple facets of Tess’s biologically and environmentally determined personality.

Dracula explores modernity’s ability to counteract the perceived threats of primitivism and degeneration. Concepts posited as morally opposed – good civilization and bad barbarism – become ‘entangled within characters’ minds and actions’, and as a result ‘Dracula, while ostensibly supporting Western ideology, overturns the idea of progress, exposing its relativistic and unstable underpinnings’ (108). Jonathan Harker’s experiences in Transylvania provide an effective basis from which to discuss this argument as he (much like Wells’s Prendick) discovers his own hidden atavistic and primitive nature, becoming the double of Dracula who is himself variously degenerative, progressive, and a participant in ‘an unpleasant Darwinian survival-of-the fittest scenario’ (129). This reading fits well with Glendening’s broader theme of entanglement. The chapter concludes with a welcome further discussion of neo-Lamarckism, although the focus on the ‘optimism’ of such theories means that Glendening largely ignores a late-Victorian train of thought (the fear of acquiring of negative characteristics such as addictive tendencies) which could add to his already impressive array of ‘entanglements’.

The next chapter looks at jungles in Conrad’s early fiction which, tangled and fecund, are literal examples of evolution that reveal the abundance of death resulting from the struggle for life and the unimportance of individual existences, but they also symbolise human confusion in a Godless world, demonstrating the ‘decay and degeneration—of habitations, bodies, and minds’ which distinguishes ‘Conrad’s Darwinian vision’ (143). A comparison with T.H. Huxley’s ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1894) reveals the extent of Conrad’s negativity and culminates in a thorough and persuasive reading of Heart of Darkness, in which nature and civilization cannot be entirely disentangled from each other, nor provide lasting hope or comfort.

These close readings of novels published within a decade of each other are framed by a prologue and introduction, conclusion and epilogue which broaden the scope and relevance of the book by drawing out the ongoing repercussions of theories primarily conceived in the Victorian period. Glendening’s introduction draws analogies with modern scientific developments, such as chaos theory, as a means of approaching the tensions between order and confusion in the novels at hand. The conclusion serves a similar function in its discussion of A.S. Byatt’s post-modern, “neo-Victorian” novel Possession (1990), which also addresses the implications and impact of Darwinism. Glendening demonstrates howPossession’s romantic element actually allows for a more optimistic interpretation of evolution, and how in fact the fin-de-siècle texts in their scepticism, anxiety and awareness of relativity and contingency have a more post-modern attitude towards notions of self, fact and truth. Finally, a reminiscence of Glendening’s own visit to the Galapagos gives (much like Darwin’s evocation of the entangled bank) an upbeat ending to a book largely about confusion, anxiety and the dominance of chaos.

Helena Ifill, University of Sheffield