Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists

By Redford, Catherine | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists


Redford, Catherine, The Byron Journal


JANE AUSTEN & CHARLES DARWIN: NATURALISTS AND NOVELISTS. By Peter W. Graham. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. 214. ISBN 978 0 754 658511. £50.00.

Jane Austen and Charles Darwin are an unlikely combination for a comparative study. Not only did they work in different genres and in quite separate intellectual fields, but they are also commonly seen as belonging to two distinct ages: Austen was writing during the Romantic period and died in 1817, just eight years after Darwin, who was to become an iconic figure of the Victorian era, was born. By his own admission, Peter W. Graham is writing about a relationship that did not exist; instead he is combining two of his interests in a 'highly personal thought experiment'. Yet the conclusions at which he arrives indicate that these separate interests are not as distinct as one might initially suppose.

In prompting an 'intellectual conversation' between Austen and Darwin, Graham recognises some points of convergence between Austen's literary writing and Darwin's scientific investigations. Both figures, he convincingly argues, are 'naturalists' in the sense that they are fascinated by the detail of the world around them; at the same time, both are 'novelists' because of a shared reliance on storytelling in their writing. Through four interconnected essays, Graham thus attempts to unite Austen, Romantic novelist, and Darwin, Victorian scientist, as the two great English empiricists of the nineteenth century.

Graham's opening essay examines how Austen's ideal community of '3 or 4 families in a country village' can be used to represent the type of micro-environment that proved so important for Darwin's observations as a naturalist. The essay begins by identifying some of the main similarities between the pair, and although Graham does not shy away from acknowledging significant differences between Austen and Darwin, he understandably does not dwell on these. Instead, he focuses on some shared experiences that can be viewed as having shaped the working lives of both figures, including their shared position as younger children in large families and the love of village life they had in common. This analysis leads Graham into a consideration of how these empiricists also profited from embracing serendipity, using the details brought to their attention by accident or chance to their benefit. After considering how Darwin devoted large stretches of his life to the observation of small communities, including those of barnacles, with which he had an enduring obsession, Graham turns to Austen's observations of Highbury, the setting for Emma. Here, he playfully suggests, the citizens are 'stuck like barnacles on the spot', paying great attention to detail from their static perspective.

In his second essay, rather than positioning Austen and Darwin in conversation, Graham uses the Darwinian theory of adaptive variation as a starting point from which to explore sibling relationships in Austen's novels. The concept of sibling differentiation (which, as Graham acknowledges, is as much indebted to the science historian Frank Sulloway as to Darwin himself ) is used to consider the different ways in which siblings in Austen's writing, especially sisters, develop in relation to the other members of their family. Graham starts by examining sibling relationships within the Austen and Darwin families in light of the patterns of adaptive divergence that Sulloway puts forward, asserting that the respective places of Jane and Charles within their families can be used to explain the development of some of the characteristics that allowed them to succeed in their chosen fields. He then turns to Austen's fictional constructions of the family, considering sibling groups in all six of her novels. …

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