It may come as no surprise that Charles Darwin was a great reader. On the Origin of Species is lucid and literate, even poetic at times. Nevertheless, it may surprise some to learn that Darwin was a Jane Austen fan, evidenced by his 1840 reading list, which includes three of her novels: Northanger Abbey,Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park (Vorzimmer 125). In Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists, Peter Graham provides an in-depth comparison of Austen and Darwin as empiricists. His engaging study softens the distinction between scientific and literary practices, and reveals the unexpected simpatico between the writer of “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” and the analyst of the earth’s species (Austen, Letters 275).
Through biographical material and philosophical and textual analysis, Graham uncovers strong affinities between Austen and Darwin, and, fittingly, uses an inductive method for his study. The similarities in Austen’s and Darwin’s lives range from geography (each grew up in the country) to social class (each belonged to the gentry) to sibling order (each was the penultimate child in a large family). Graham draws out the significance of these commonalities, showing how the similarities in their physical, social, and familial environments contributed to shared sensibilities and habits of mind. But Graham does not stop with biography. In an unusual move, he extends the common ground between the naturalist and novelist through an asymmetrical comparison: Darwin’s personal circumstances, he notes, resemble those of some of Austen’s fictional characters. Though these are hardly the findings of a sober empiricist, Graham reveals the delicious fact that friends and family members actually noted such resemblances, underscoring the lingering influence of “Austenworld,” as he calls it, on Darwin.
Graham shares with Austen and Darwin a love of concrete particulars, and he examines their books with the patient fascination of a naturalist. His study is especially effective in establishing Austen’s credentials as an empiricist. Graham shows, for example, her “rejection of abstraction and tradition in favor of experience and observation” by meticulously cataloguing information about her characters (8). Her canon of six is well suited to an inductive approach, and Graham uses it to full advantage to analyze such matters as sibling groups, sibling configurations, evolving attachments, and marriages. The catalogs he generates impel him to take the next step in forging an Austen/Darwin link, one which places Austen squarely in the mindset of an evolutionist. As Graham shows, Austen’s characters are variations on a type, and they reappear in successive novels in modified form. Whether by accident or by design, her novels, taken as a whole, illustrate key principles of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. It is true that what Graham notices is not unique to Austen’s canon, but characterizes the creative output of many writers whose work reads as variations on themes and characters. Nevertheless, he demonstrates that Austen’s decision to work with “so fine a Brush” signaled she had the temperament—the curiosity, patience, and attention to detail—of a scientist (Austen, Letters 323).
Though Graham is a literary scholar, he is conversant in Darwin’s published works and shows the compatibility between the specifics of Darwin’s theory and Austen’s worldview. He observes, for example, that “In Austen as in Darwin, change is change but not necessarily `improvement’” (66) and later states, “Despite [their] differences in spheres of observation and control over data, a crucial part of Austen and Darwin’s shared awareness that gradual changes are ever remaking the world is their understanding that this change happens on all scales and that the great and small changes are linked” (133). To demonstrate Austen’s nuanced handling of change and her sensitivity to the ways the great and the small are interconnected, Graham puts one of Austen’s heroines under a literary microscope. Though he admits that Emma is more artist than scientist, he selects her as the subject of his exuberant analysis of an Austen empiricist, albeit one in training for most of the novel. However, in spite of Graham’s heroic efforts to read Emma as an empiricist, she does not quite fit the part. Graham, for example, associates her late-blooming self-knowledge with “unbiased empiricism” (44), yet that self-knowledge is the result, in Austen’s words, of her becoming “acquainted with her own heart,” an acquaintance that is more the byproduct of emotional maturity than disinterested observation (Austen, Emma 407). Graham’s not-so-subtle crush on Emma is forgivable, if not downright charming: “What’s wondrous is that Emma’s vision is as empirically grounded and sensible as it is” (32). (Wondrous?) Nevertheless, his attraction to her, like Edmund’s to Mary Crawford, closes his eyes to the consummate empiricist in Austen’s novels: the undazzling, but wisely observant Fanny Price. Fanny, unlike Austen’s other heroines (excepting perhaps Anne Elliot), does not change in the course of the novel. Often silent and at times motionless, she assumes the role of the incisive observer of people and events. The only time she alters the course of events is when she declines Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal, and that “action” is, of course, a refusal to act.
Though, as Graham observes, “Nowhere else in Austenworld is the collection and interpretation of data as intense and widespread a preoccupation as in Emma,” much of the data analysis in the novel is faulty, thanks to the undisciplined methodology of the chief analyst (30). Emma actually reveals the limits of the scientific method, at least in the hands of an interested observer who wishes to assume imaginative control over the subjects of her scrutiny. By contrast, Mansfield Park of all of Austen’s novels has the closest affinity to Origin of Species, both in subject matter and in its leisurely pace. Graham’s careful examination of how various factors in the lives of the Ward sisters “worked together in the process of adaptive variation” illustrates the novel’s strong evolutionary theme (72). One might also note that the plot is set in motion by the transplanting of Fanny Price to an unfamiliar and generally inhospitable environment, and in this alien environment Fanny is treated by most as a member of a species (i.e., the lower class) rather than as an individual. In addition, the familiar coupling concerns in Austen—ranging from choosing a mate who will improve one’s circumstances, to competition for a romantic partner, to the implicit struggle to avoid extinction—take a twist in Mansfield Park. In a highly unromantic fashion, Edmund and Fanny come together in the end, not by cosmic design but (as a romantically-weary student of mine observed) by process of elimination. Though Mansfield Park deserves more attention in a study of Austen and Darwin, Graham’s analysis of the different fates of the Ward sisters gives one an idea of why Darwin was so taken with Austen.
Graham’s book situates Austen so naturally into a Darwinian world it is hard to imagine her novels were ever considered to be primarily about manners. Since Austen, of course, preceded Darwin, Graham’s study does invite a reciprocal question: Did she influence his rhetorical practices? As Graham notes, Darwin consumed novels throughout his life, a fact confirmed by Darwin’s son Francis, who reports that during morning and evening breaks from scientific activity, his father would lie down on a couch while a family member read to him from a novel. Francis Darwin goes on to say that the novels of “Miss Austen” were among those that were “read and re-read till they could be read no more” (Autobiography 98). Though in his autobiography Darwin states that novels provide “relief and pleasure” but are not of “a very high order,” it is apparent that Austen’s writing seeped into his imagination and reemerged in the preeminent scientific text of the nineteenth century (Autobiography 74). Darwin’s prose, with its extended and often lyrical syntax, bears marks of an Austen ancestry, and his attempt to put a positive spin on natural selection appears to be an adaptation of the felicitous conclusions of her novels. Darwin’s preference for novels that “do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed” (Autobiography 74) may explain the sentimental tone with which he concludes his discussion in Origin of the struggle to survive: “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply” (79). He echoes this sanguine view of the natural laws of the universe in the final statement of Origin: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (490). Thanks to Austen, evolution turns out to be a feel-good narrative.
The portrait of Darwin as an eye-twinkling grandfather belies his complex attitude toward women and people of color, however. To his credit, Graham does not shy away from this aspect of Darwin but addresses head-on the uncomfortable suggestion that Darwin had a limited view of women and their potential and, at the very least, was racially unenlightened. In a musing to himself on whether or not to marry, Darwin states in the “Marry” column that a wife would be “an object to be beloved & played with” and would be “better than a dog” (Correspondence 444). He goes on to note that if he marries he “will be worse than a negro” but consoles himself with the thought, “There is many a happy slave” (Correspondence 445). The inclusion of these unsettling comments, whose tone and intention, as Graham notes, is uncertain, is anything but gratuitous. However evolved Darwin was or was not as a social being, his comments remind readers that his ideas circulated in a society whose members, in some instances, would appropriate his theory to legitimize racial and sexual inequities.
Graham’s premise that “human societies and natural ecosystems alike work in systematic ways,” and the corollary that novelists practice induction and naturalists construct narratives, underscore the inadequacy of the epistemological assumptions that have separated the humanities from the sciences (9). In his introduction Graham writes, “Although one of the juxtaposed thinkers and writers [in this study] is generically termed a naturalist and the other a novelist, the characterizations seem at least partially interchangeable” (xi)—a hypothesis he convincingly proves in this study. Through the counterintuitive yet serendipitous linking of Austen and Darwin, Graham has added momentum to the interdisciplinary movement that is reuniting those fields of endeavor.
Kathleen Lundeen is Professor of English at Western Washington University. A specialist in British Romantic literature, she has published on Blake, Keats, Hemans, Austen, Wordsworth, literature and science, and intermedia studies (including film), and is the author of Knight of the Living Dead: William Blake and the Problem of Ontology. She teaches courses in British Romanticism, biblical literature, critical and cultural theory, literature and science, prophetic literature, epic poetry, and intermedia theory and art.
- Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1933; repr. 1988.
- Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1934, repr. 1988.
- Darwin, Charles. Autobiography of Charles Darwin, with two appendices, comprising a chapter of reminiscences and a statement of Charles Darwin’s religious views, by his son, Sir Francis Darwin. London: Watts & Co., 1929.
- Darwin, Charles. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt and Sydney Smith. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
- Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition, with an introduction by Ernst Mayr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.
- Graham, Peter W. Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists. Hampshire, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2008.
- Vorzimmer, Peter J. “The Darwin Reading Notebooks (1838-1860). Journal of the History of Biology 10, 1 (1977): 107-153.