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Gowan Dawson, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN-13: 9780521872492. Price: US$96.00/£50.

  • Sandra den Otter

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  • Sandra den Otter
    Queen’s University, Canada

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Gowan Dawson in Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability presents an engaging and wide-ranging analysis of the attempts adopted by Victorian scientific naturalists to establish their respectability against accusations of sexual decadence and scandal, and by detractors to impugn the moral probity of Darwinian science. The author argues that scientific naturalists throughout the nineteenth century were highly vulnerable to charges of impropriety, and in the face of these charges adopted complex stratagems to assert their respectability. This is a subtle cross-disciplinary study that recreates and analyzes a highly charged debate about science and respectability. Essential to establishing the authority of Darwinian science was maintaining and demonstrating the moral probity of this new science. The book follows the intriguing intersection between Darwin’s Descent of Man and contestations over respectability and literature.

Algernon Charles Swinburne looms over Dawson’s study as an ever-present threat to scientific pretensions to respectability. The Descent of Man coincided with the publication of Songs Before Sunrise, and for some reviewers, anxieties about the possibly corrupting influence of Darwin’s Descent became bound up with a condemnation of Swinburne and his embodiment of aesthetic decadence, sexual debauchery and political radicalism. Dawson traces Darwin’s scrupulous efforts to protect his treatise from charges of sexual impropriety, noting, for example, that Darwin translated potentially shocking passages into demure Latin to veil their content. Nonetheless, the overt discussion of sexual inheritance became bound up in some with the disorder of the French commune and the libertine politics of Swinburne, and this, Dawson argues, disturbed Darwin more than current scholarship has recognized. Sometimes Dawson’s arguments are somewhat conjectural: for example, he wonders about the accident of editorial decisions to place reviews of Darwin adjacent to reviews of Swinburne or, in the case of Punch, cartoons about the Descent next to those about the Paris Commune. Dawson uncovers multiple instances of the intermingling of hints of sexual impropriety running between Swinburne, the French Commune and Darwin. He notes the parallel language used by reviewers to castigate Swinburne’s “feverish sensuality” and Darwin’s investigation of “sensuous facts” (48). Dawson argues that Darwin went to great lengths to avoid attributing sexual predatory instincts to the female sex. Darwin’s description of the female spider devouring her male partner with the sobriquet she “carries her coyness to a dangerous pitch” is a striking instance of Darwin’s careful separation of female erotic desire from his account. Another arena for contestation over respectability was the interpretation of primitive societies, and Darwin carefully navigated this contentious debate by insisting on the immutability of male desire and female decorum, even though such declarations ran counter to his assertion of male choice in sexual selection. A central question was whether the evolutionary process indicated a rationale for sexual respectability or quite the opposite.

Dawson argues that contemporary newspaper accounts of the violence of sexually debauched women of the French commune mingled with hostile reviews of Swinburne’s voraciously sexual women to create a climate hostile to scientific theories that might question the virtue of the female sex. In a perusal of Victorian visual culture, Dawson tracks images of simian sexuality in pornographic etchings and more widely circulated representations to further demonstrate the potential threat to sexual propriety represented by The Descent of Man. He reconstructs the insidious assaults launched on the respectability of evolutionary science by St George Mivart, an early follower of Roger Owen and for some time part of Darwin and Huxley’s circles.

Subsequent chapters develop in greater detail elements of this mingling of human descent and sexuality. Dawson takes a further look at John Tyndall’s infamous Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast. He skillfully analyzes how selective and partial the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for the classical world was and why Tyndall’s address was so controversial. Many Victorians favored those classical authors in whose writings their own yearnings or moral preoccupations resonated; they highly esteemed Plato and Aristotle but shunned Lucretius, Democritus and Epicurus whose atomism and materialism they rejected as unethical and unprogressive, and of whose sensual and libidinous writings they disapproved . In looking back to the atomism and materialism of these classical theorists, rather than to Plato and Aristotle, Tyndall transgressed in a way that cast doubts on the claims of the modern science to forward-thinking and rigorous analysis, and exposed Tyndall to damaging charges about his own character in approving the libidinous and superstitious inclinations of these suspect philosophers. The experience left Tyndall extremely wary about hostile reviewers and careful to avoid giving his audiences any grounds for drawing potentially damaging implications from his speeches and writings. This chapter helps to validate Dawson’s central contention that evolutionary theorists thought strategically about how to create and maintain a reputation for exhibiting a sage and respectable character, and eschewed alliances that would endanger their respectability.

This tendency is further demonstrated in an effective chapter on the Obscene Publications Act, in which Dawson demonstrates that it was essential for Darwin’s friends and colleagues to remain aloof from contemporary radical protests against obscenity laws, and so protect themselves from damaging associations. Dawson also investigates, sleuth-like, Darwin’s well-hidden connections to proponents of contraception which he maintained despite his public disavowal of contraception as a check on population. In a valuable discussion of the conflict between evolutionary theorists who advocated greater sexual freedom and those determined to prevent it, Dawson demonstrates why prominent evolutionary and naturalist thinkers separated themselves from more radical free thinking secularists who also advocated sexual liberation. Secular free thinkers like Huxley and Tyndall were desirous of preserving their claims to respectability against the more unruly and less respectable atheism of Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society and its endorsement of birth control.

Dawson extends his central argument about the vulnerability of natural scientific authority by examining how even posthumous reputations were carefully manipulated to forestall imputations that scientific naturalism was allied with sexual immorality. He investigates how Lucy Clifford managed her husband W.K. Clifford’s reputation long after his death in 1879. Clifford had been an early radical secular thinker, reader of Swinburne, and advocate of free-thinking and nonetheless, in the subsequent decades, Lucy Clifford, along with others in Darwin’s circles, created a much more sanitized and non-threatening public account of Clifford’s mathematical and scientific discoveries.

Gillian Beer’s work resonates throughout the study, as well as that of other scholars of Darwin and Victorian science and sexuality, yet Dawson also extends the existing scholarship in several valuable ways. He enlarges our understanding of how delicate and uncertain the reputation of Darwinian theories and scientific naturalism more generally remained up to the end of the century by exploring vividly their vulnerability to charges of sexual misconduct and licentiousness. By drawing out these themes in very different corners of Victorian society and letters over a period of several decades, Dawson argues persuasively for the vulnerability of Darwinian theorists to accusations of sexual impropriety and illustrates their strategies for resisting these attributions. Dawson is especially effective in tracking the shifting and contradictory reception of evolutionary ideas and suspected ideas. He trawls through a wide range of the Victorian periodical press, crossing political divisions and genre. Although Dawson deftly unpicks the religious responses to the “primitive heathenism” of Tyndall, Pater and others in the third chapter (86), the study might have incorporated to a fuller extent the rich scholarship on religion and the natural sciences to enable, for example, a more complete understanding of Mivart’s polemics or to understand more fully the role of religious thought and practice in fueling attacks on scientific naturalists and how religious argument intersected with other elements of Victorian culture and society to accuse the new sciences and aestheticism of sensual decadence.

One of the virtues of the book is its expansive range; it moves smoothly and effectively among different locations in which the author highlights attacks on the character of evolutionary theorists and their often spirited attempts to rehabilitate their honor in the face of these polemics. Just as the reader may begin to think that the argument is now too familiar, the author offers another study that highlights another element that complicates our understanding of the relationship between scientific reputation and literature. The last chapter, for example, follows the contemporary anxiety about aestheticism and degeneration so inimitably expressed by Henry Maudsley and H.G. Wells into the 1890s. Dawson concludes by questioning the commonly held assumption that science and art invariably benefit from cross-fertilization and that the fragmentation of a single culture that earlier embraced the sciences and the arts is to be lamented. In this he concurs with recent critiques of the “One Culture” model. He suggests that we might consider whether cross-disciplinary interconnections in the nineteenth century between science and literature created more difficulties than opportunities for evolutionary theorists, and that the relationship between science and literature might more usefully be described as pragmatic and strategic connections that scientists managed, aware both of the creative and dangerous consequences of literature.

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