Michael Tondre, The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender

Michael Tondre, The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press 2018) 242 pp. $45.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780813941455

Michael Tondre considers the ways in which mathematical physics influenced Victorian literature, science, and statistics from 1850 to 1880. His book is divided into two parts, with four chapters that survey a broad range of educational manuals, scientific research, and fictional works. He isolates representations of probability and traces their transformative effects on the depiction of alternative possibilities within four Victorian novels that altered the classical bildungsroman: George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of Father and Son (1859), Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1864-66), Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846-48), and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72). The works depict 'other ways of being and becoming, of growing in the world and escaping into altered futures' (4). Tondre’s first two chapters examine how probabilistic calculus stimulated the Victorian sciences and literature. Rather than arranging a 'dialogic conversation between science and literature,' Tondre proposes a more 'fluid model of network relations' by probing the holistic development of 'form, feeling, and historical experience in mid-Victorian culture' (12,13).

Chapter One reviews the historiographical thinking of the late 1850s to evaluate whether 'mathematical models of probability' supported 'deterministic conceptions of history or conditional conceptions of what might have been' (13). Tondre focuses on Meredith’s novel and exemplifies how alternative possibilities might represent the 'actual ideal' of his writing (29). Tondre briefly discusses Pierre-Simon Laplace’s 'demon,' a metaphor for an all-encompassing vision of past, present, and future, which was described in Laplace’s Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1801). He historicizes Laplace’s influence on the calculus of probability before considering the contributions of other British intellectuals, including Henry Buckle, Augustus De Morgan, and John Herschel. These theorists introduced 'arcane formulas' of probability to a growing market of middle-class readers intrigued by counterhistories and 'the plenitude of alternate routes between the past and the future' (34, 40). Tondre argues that Richard Feverel represents the 'shifting form of historical possibilities' for mid-Victorian readers (41), since Meredith evidences how systems of education affected conventional notions of masculinity. When these notions were infused with ideological-hegemonic aspects of power, control, and entitlement, they strengthened determinist views of historical causality. Consequently, the difficulty was in considering the concept of causation without also debating what might have happened if specific causes had been modified. By speculating on 'nonnormative potentials' (27), Victorians multiplied their alternate possibilities of becoming.

Tondre deploys Collins’s sensation novel in Chapter Two to demonstrate fiction’s ability to test 'modern notions of time as empirical, homogenous, linear, and shared' (63). In narrating the character of Ozias Midwinter’s story, Armadale considers how murderous acts might be reproduced along the line of descent from father to son. Midwinter ( Armadale) suggests the influence lineage has on him while reading his father’s confession: 'As long as there is a page left, I shall read it. And, as long as I read it, my father gets the better of me, in spite of myself!' (qtd. in Tondre 76). Collins places the character within a 'curve of temporal possibilities' to explore both statistical and sensorial timescapes (63). Midwinter’s persistent strategy of hesitation allows him to withdraw from the social and cultural orthodoxies of Victorian experience and 'open up the prospect of divergent trajectories to the future, so that deviations in the present lead to new routes of living' (84). Collins’s novel 'upholds the value of fiction in negotiating between competing observations on the present' without fully embracing a 'single, composite claim of truth' (73). By experiencing various temporal disorientations, Midwinter 'learns to stand back from the world that threatens him' to produce a future that may distinguish him from the previous generation (86).

Tondre’s final chapter considers how Charles Darwin’s conceptions of chance variation and nonreproductive altruism were fictionally imagined in Dickens's Dombey and Son, the story of a wealthy owner of a shipping company who hopes to raise the 'perfect Dombey' to inherit his business. His young son’s death leaves him without an heir, as he regards his daughter Florence in Chapter One as 'merely a piece of base coin that couldn't be invested — a bad boy'. Tondre misses the opportunity to elaborate on the instructional pressures of 'brain forcing,' which traumatize Paul’s education at Blimber Academy and accelerate his demise. His affliction inspired Robert Brudenell Carter's On the Influence of Education and Training in Preventing Diseases of the Nervous System (1855) and his subsequent article 'On the Artificial Production of Stupidity in Schools' (1859). In his article, Carter describes the condition of young boys and girls 'crippled alike in mind and body by the effects of excessive and premature study.' Sally Shuttlesworth explores this condition more fully in The Mind of the Child (2010). Tondre might have enriched his argument further by reflecting on Carter’s or Shuttlesworth’s work.

Dombey’s wish to extend his lineage 'conflates the drives toward production and reproduction, mixing the domains of Dombey House and home' to satisfy his '"master-vice" of self-interest' (qtd. in Tondre 107). In criticizing the 'narcissism of patriarchal controls, the narrative accentuates how character can shift between generations' (113) to reveal the genetic and hereditary factors that propagate lines of descent. The novel identifies 'binarisms between failure and development, [and] sexual stagnation and reproduction' to expose the fractures in both genealogical and social processes that might be mended through alteration (113).Through the characters of Walter Gay and Florence, Tondre traces 'how abstemious sexual sacrifice [or failure] could yield more roundabout routes of communal regeneration,' particularly in introducing new genetic, moral, and social combinations to ensure the future of the Dombey lineage (96, 109).

In departing from Victorian science’s pessimistic calculation of diffusion as loss, Tondre suggests that Eliot repurposes the 'theory of energy diffusion as a model of eternal fulfillment' within Middlemarch(127). In Chapter Four, Tondre evaluates Eliot’s use of diffusion within her narrative structure to 'open possibilities for social improvement' (127). In so doing, she counterbalances the 'fact of individual defeat' with the 'prospects for moral amelioration' (127). Through what Tondre calls 'diffusive reading,' Eliot’s novel accumulates 'ethical influence through ongoing cultural circulation' (128) among its readers. It also becomes a tool for channeling the 'futile feelings' (131) of characters such as Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate into a meaningful contribution to the 'life of the collective' (144) beyond Middlemarch.

Tondre offers a robust commentary on his selected novels while also documenting the convergence of physical sciences and historiographical thinking in the mid-nineteenth century. He evidences how fictional works 'contributed to theories incipient in science' (167) and redirected the 'physics of variation toward [more] progressive social agendas' in Victorian Britain. Tondre constructs a comprehensive framework of historical, scientific, and literary artefacts to help readers recognize the boundlessness of possibility and the inherent value in striving toward it.

John C Murray, Curry College