Peter W. Graham, Jane Austen and Charles Darwin

Peter W. Graham, Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008). 214 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 978-0754658511.

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In Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists, Peter W. Graham brings together two distinct trends in the study of literature and science. On the one hand, his book is a literary critical analysis of Darwin’s writing, in the tradition of Gillian Beer. On the other, it is an application of Darwinian ideas to the interpretation and analysis of Jane Austen’s novels, in the tradition of literary Darwinism founded by Joseph Carroll and aligned to sociobiology. Graham acknowledges both Beer and Carroll in his introduction, making the odd claim that ‘The sort of literary darwinism Beer pioneered has lately cohered as a critical school’ (p. xvi) which includes Carroll. For all that he collapses the distinction between these different critical approaches, Graham is open and self-aware when it comes to his own approach as an ‘essayist’ on the model of Montaigne, ‘A person who’s trying out ideas in a highly personal thought experiment’ (p. xvi) and whose work is therefore ‘suggestive rather than definitive, eclectic rather than rigorous’ (p. 134).

Jane Austen and Charles Darwin consists of a short introduction, followed by four separate essays, each of which brings Austen and Darwin into alignment with one another. In Chapter 1, Graham draws out a number of general parallels between Austen and Darwin which are revealed by and in turn justify his project of reading the two of them alongside one another. After pointing out their similar backgrounds, and those of Austen’s characters—Graham enjoys imagining ‘the boundary between life and art’ as ‘a permeable membrane’ (p. 53)—he draws attention to their similar temperaments as ‘superficially conventional people who remained, at heart, uncompromisingly determined to keep faith with their respective vocations as novelist and naturalist’ (p. 2). Graham argues that both these vocations as they practise them are grounded in a combination of empiricism and ‘serendipity’, defined as the ‘accidental sagacity’ (p. 4) that results from a carefully trained and concentrated mind’s ability to interpret correctly situations and details as they happen to arise. Graham argues that both Darwin’s researches and Austen’s novels focus on ‘knowable communities’ (p. 9), a term he borrows from Raymond Williams. From these tight foci both writers derive far more wide-ranging empirical conclusions, whether about natural history or human social interaction and morals. As he points out, however, ‘Austen’s overarching values—keeping faith with plausibility as empirical observation understands it, deriving details from real life, relying on fresh language rather than cant phrases—are not announced but to be inferred inductively’ (p. 17). Austen’s novels are thus not only empiricist in their own realist principles, they also cultivate empiricism in their readers. ‘Emma’, for example, ‘is a tightly woven tissue of mysteries for the empirical eye to solve’ (p. 31).

The next two essays are more tightly focused on particular topics pertinent to both Austen and Darwin. Chapter 2 is on sibling rivalry. Although Graham discusses Darwin himself as a biographical subject in this chapter, alongside Austen herself, he is primarily concerned with exploring how far relationships between siblings in Austen’s novels tally with the Darwinian theory of sibling differentiation proposed by Frank J. Sulloway in Born to Rebel (1996). Chapter 3 focuses on marriage—Darwin’s own, including his (in)famous list of reasons for and against it, and those of Austen’s characters—in the light of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In Chapter 4, the book’s focus widens again. Entitled ‘Variations on Variation’, this is the freest and most eclectic chapter, ranging from Darwin’s discussions of variation among pigeons and orchids, to different accounts of blushes in Austen’s novels, to a suggestive analogy between Austen’s fiction and musical variations on a theme. The overarching argument that links these details is the suggestion that the uniformitarian emphasis on local but continual change that is fundamental to the origin and structure of Darwin’s evolutionism underlies Austen’s fiction too. As Graham remarks, ‘In Austenworld, hearts or minds change in ways they’ve given previous evidence of being able to change’ (p. 150). That said, it is a moot point whether or not his perceptive remark that Austen ‘saw her characters’ qualities … as evolving within specific, limited parameters, intensifying or fading but never drastically changing to something truly new’ (p. 149) suggests a proto-Darwinian view of variation or a more conventional pre-Darwinian one.

Graham’s frank admission that his book is essayistic is both a modest disclaimer—advising us not to expect the ‘definitive’ and ‘rigorous’ analysis exemplified by Beer and to which Carroll too aspires—and an invitation to join him in the pleasures of exploring what he openly admits is ‘a relationship that did not actually exist’ (p. xi) between Austen and Darwin. Graham’s essayistic approach may set limits to what he is able to achieve in Jane Austen and Charles Darwin, but it also defines the book’s strength. Graham is a fine writer, and it is indeed a pleasure to join him in his ‘thought experiment’. His readings of Austen are wide-ranging, confident and perceptive throughout, while in building up his account of the ‘character of Darwin’s mind’ (p. 145), he offers up some welcome readings of manuscripts and less well-known books which have not tended to draw much literary critical attention.

What Graham does not do, however, is offer much more than an essayistic justification for setting these two writers together. His discussions of sibling rivalry and marriage in Austen may be premised on Darwinian theory, but it is not clear that Sulloway’s and Darwin’s theories provide much more than a starting point. Most of the rich insights into Austen’s novels that follow could as readily have come without the Darwinian trappings. Similarly, the mini essay on blushing in Austen and Darwin in Chapter 4 runs for seventeen pages, but it is only in the last paragraph that the two writers are brought together, and then only in a comparison more incidental than fundamental. And yet, paradoxically, these weaknesses are again indications of Graham’s strength as a Darwinian literary critic. In contrast with Carroll, whose Darwinian analysis of Pride and Prejudice he cites in his introduction, he does not aim for a totalising critical method. As a consequence, he remains attuned to the subtleties of Austen’s writing that Carroll’s approach tends to efface. His insights into Austen may be indebted to Darwinism, but they are not in thrall to it. As a result, his criticism, while only loosely (although learnedly) Darwinian, is more productive and stimulating, in its own essayistic way, than many previous attempts at literary Darwinism.

John Holmes, University of Reading.