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 …
- 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.