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

  • Sandra den Otter

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  • Sandra den Otter
    Queen’s University, Canada

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 …