The young Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, battling seasickness and his Captain’s unpredictable temper, found some moments of calm when “in the evenings Captain FitzRoy [would] sometimes invit[e] the ashen-faced and nauseous Darwin into his cabin for conversation.” “[T]o their mutual pleasure,” they discovered that they shared “an admiration for the novels of Jane Austen” (Stott 44). Darwin’s son, Francis, describing the daily routine at Down House where his father lived and worked from 1842 until his death, confirms that this admiration continued:
[A]bout three in the afternoon, he rested in his bedroom, lying on the sofa, smoking a cigarette, and listening to a novel or other book not scientific. . . . He was extremely fond of novels . . . and would anticipate the pleasure of having a novel read to him. . . . He could not enjoy any story with a tragical end: for this reason he did not keenly appreciate George Eliot. . . . Walter Scott, Miss Austen, and Mrs. Gaskell were read and re-read till they could be read no more. (97-98)
Darwin’s reading, and rereading, of Austen’s novels would seem the opposite of “Austen Studies.” Novels were for the time when he was not studying, when he would escape the study for the bedroom and relax to the words of a book “not scientific.” Darwin’s treasuring of novels as an escape from his own profession, along with the particular attention being paid to his work in 2009, with celebrations marking the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, make him a particularly interesting example of an Austen reader. In exploring the way Darwin read novels, I want to suggest that, while Austen’s novels could offer him this safe and pleasant world, fulfilling his requirements of a “happy ending” and a heroine “whom one can thoroughly love” (Recollections 115), her writing, rather than offering complete escape, also engaged him for reasons that resonated with his scientific interests. Austen gives her heroines the task of forming the correct opinions, judgments, and theories on the world and the people around them. Her empirical approach emphasizes the need to look at particular details, to question “universal truths,” and to be always ready to revise opinions in the light of new evidence. These journeys of interpretation might well have appealed to the mind of a man who elsewhere was engaged in the ongoing process of examining evidence, drawing tentative conclusions, and questioning fundamental assumptions about the origins of life.
“He was born into Jane Austen’s England” is how Janet Browne begins her biography of Darwin (Voyaging 3). As well as coming from a gentry family similar to Austen’s, Darwin also grew up in the afterglow of the Enlightenment, surrounded by the same debates about learning and pursuing knowledge that surface in Austen’s writing. His grandfather, enlightenment philosopher Erasmus Darwin, expresses in a letter to Charles’s father the notion that learning is achieved most effectively by accumulating information from as many sources as possible so that comparisons and connections can be made. “In medicine,” Erasmus Darwin wrote to his son Robert, “unless one reads work of others, one is liable to perpetually copy one’s own prescriptions and methods of treatment; till one’s whole practice is but an imitation of one’s self. . . . Reasoning thus I am determined to read all the new medical journals” (Krause 51). Darwin proudly quotes this principle in his essay on his grandfather’s life as an example of the ideal mindset for a scientist.
Austen shows her own awareness of the importance of reading widely and critically as a means of developing the mind. In her novels, being a good reader is a mark of a character’s worth. When Mr. Darcy comments that an accomplished woman must engage in “‘the improvement of her mind by extensive reading,’” his indirect approval of Elizabeth’s preference of reading to cards is a subtle indication of the developing feeling and mutual compatibility of these two characters (43). In Persuasion the perceptive Anne recommends a wider range of reading for the grieving Captain Benwick, suggesting that reading morally improving texts in addition to Romantic poetry will have a healing and instructive effect on his mind. Darwin in his younger years read a remarkable range of different books as a partial reading list from one page of his 1840 notebooks testifies:
Midsummers N. Dream. Hamlet. Othello
Mansfield Park. Sense & S
Richd 2d poor. Henry IV
Northanger Abbey. Simple Story.
Sir. J. Mackintosh life. reread
Priestley Life & Dissert on Work
—Letters to Philosoph Unbeliever
Johnson. Tour to Hebrides by Boswell
Philip Van Artevelde. reread
Macaulay Art. on Bacon in Edin. R.
Some of Burke’s Speeches
Some Arabian Nights. Gullivers Travels Robinson Crusoe
(“Books,” Notebook 119, 10r)
When it came to his studies, Charles Darwin took his grandfather’s advice, endeavoring to acquire information from as many sources as possible. He had a comprehensive system for keeping track of any relevant facts or ideas. “I have bought many books,” he reflected, “& at their ends I make an index of all the facts which concern my work; or if the book is not my own write out a separate abstract, & of such abstracts I have a large drawer full.” When it came to beginning a subject, Darwin would “look to all the short indexes & make a general & classified index,” which gave him “all the information collected during my life ready to use” (Recollections 114). Darwin’s way of reading a book—“often annotating heavily, preparing his own index of interesting passages, breaking it in half at the binding if it was too heavy and stopping to write about it in his notebooks”—shows, as Howard Gruber puts it “a man at work using books as tools for getting knowledge, not as exhibitions of knowledge already crystallised”(62).
Gillian Beer characterizes Darwin’s reading style, as “full of questions and exclamations, enthusiastic rebuttals and problem raising queries” (547). His marginalia—for example from John Abercrombie’s Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers and the Investigation of Truth (1838 edition)—demonstrate this habit of mind:
Darwin not only continually challenges and examines the views of the author but questions his own thoughts and definitions as a result.
These studies were also part of wider networks of debate. Darwin was continually corresponding with other writers and experts in all manner of scientific fields. The nature of science as a discipline is that it invites collaboration and correction; it is a process of continual discovery. Darwin’s theory of evolution argued that the features that categorized animals into different species were not fixed but were instead continually evolving and always open to new interpretation. In On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin highlights the difficulty in even defining the terms “species” and “variety.” A young naturalist commencing the study of a group of organisms, he says, will at first be “much perplexed to determine what differences to consider specific and what as varieties; for he knows nothing of the amount and kind of variation to which the group is subject.” As the scientist becomes familiar with more and more different organisms, he will eventually “be enabled to make up his own mind which to call varieties and which species; but he will succeed at the expense of admitting much variation,—and the truth of his admission will often be disputed by other naturalists” (50-51).
Darwin’s writing reflects his reading style and his view that judgment of the world around us can never be complete. A new fact or contribution is always potentially around the corner ready to disrupt what we think we know and make us think again. The ending of his book—“that from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (490)—is a testament to this principle.
With novels, however, Darwin found pleasure in a definite, and happy, ending. In his autobiography he laments losing his “high aesthetic tastes” for poetry as he grew older, but “on the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief & pleasure to me, & I often bless all novelists.” He likes a happy ending rather than an unhappy one (“against which a law ought to be passed”), and he insists that “a novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class, unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, & if it be a pretty woman all the better” (Recollections 115). Janet Browne, speculates on the “wonderful relief” novels provided for his mind on these restful afternoons. “His critical faculties were suspended,” she writes. “In these pages he did not have to examine the accuracy of facts or delve far beneath the surface: the books did not require any of the penetrating scrutiny he employed for other kinds of reading matter” (Power of Place 70).
The certainty of an ending might also have provided a comforting structure to Darwin’s afternoon reading sessions. He could immerse himself in each story, as a contrast to sorting through the numerous documents and multiplying indexes that filled his study. Here were intelligible worlds, where events and actions are significant and part of the overall structure of a plot. The geologist Simon Lamb, who, like Darwin, studies vast timescales of minute changes to understand how the planet evolved and who, like Darwin, has a preference for Jane Austen, chooses her endings as a reason for returning again and again to her novels: “I suppose my number-one favorite is Jane Austen. I have read her novels many times over, and I intend to keep on reading them in the future. I don’t know why I like Jane Austen so much. Perhaps it is because there is something confident and unspoiled about the world she describes—something I find very settling—and, of course, all her stories have happy endings” (Ross).
Austen’s “confident and unspoiled” world is something that George Levine, in Darwin and the Novelists, picks up on when he uses Austen as an illustration of pre-Darwinian scientific thought. “Jane Austen’s worlds,” he writes, “are neither timeless nor perfect,” but they do “reflect the assumptions and possibilities also present in natural theological predispositions of pre-Darwinian science” (56). In Austen the “social and natural world are out there to be described,” and “truth and morality are bound up in using the right word to mean the right thing.” Threatening or unstable forces are ultimately contained “by placing at the center a keen observer” (56), a heroine who can name, understand, and therefore exert some control over feelings. Her “passive observations become a source of power,” and in this way the novels “dramatize[ ] one of the key principles of scientific and novelistic practice” (56). Levine highlights a certainty in Austen that is perhaps what Simon Lamb finds “very settling”—that the heroine can understand her feelings and find the correct language to express them, and that her efforts will bring about meaningful and deserved happiness. Levine also notes the similarity between Austen’s individual observers, faced with the difficult tasks of correctly interpreting the people and events surrounding them, and the position of the scientist. I want to explore the possibility that, rather being worlds apart, Austen’s and Darwin’s approaches share affinities, and it was perhaps these likenesses that encouraged Darwin to return again and again to Austen’s world.
There must be something sufficiently engaging in Austen’s world for it to bear repeated readings. George Henry Lewes found that reading and rereading increased his admiration for Austen and furthermore felt that listening to a novel read aloud was a “test” of its enduring quality.
We have read them all four times; or rather, to speak more accurately, they have been read aloud to us, one after the other; and when it is considered what a severe test that is, how the reading aloud permits no skipping, no evasion of weariness, but brings both merits and defects into stronger relief by forcing the mind to dwell on them, there is surely something significant of genuine excellence when both reader and listener finish their fourth reading with increase of admiration. (342)
Such “forcing the mind to dwell” on the detail of Austen’s writing would certainly not allow Darwin to have his critical faculties entirely “switched off,” as Browne implies some novels did. Some degree of the combative approach Darwin took to other reading would have been involved in deciding whether a text was worth listening to again. Gillian Beer suggests that he read fiction with the “expectation of debate in abeyance” so that its impact was to “quietly describe shapes for experience,” with “established expectations never brought into conscious scrutiny” (547). It is interesting to speculate whether reading Austen’s novels and encountering her characters as they discover the correct ways of using their minds and of interpreting their lives and the lives of others might have quietly described some shapes for experience in Darwin. Certainly it is no surprise that these novels, with the value they place such on an open, questioning mind, particularly resonated with him.
Peter Graham, in Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists (2008), suggests that one reason why Darwin continued reading novels after losing his taste for poetry was that “the shared approaches and goals of naturalists and novelists allowed novels to keep appealing when other less empirically grounded aesthetic pleasures had paled” (14). Peter Knox-Shaw’s Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (2004) emphasizes the empirically-grounded qualities of Austen’s mind and suggests that she had a “special appeal to readers with a scientific background” (23). Indeed the empirical aspects of her work—her talent for describing the minute details of the ordinary, real world—were noticed frequently by her nineteenth-century readers. One quite satisfying coincidence is that the “Mrs Pole,” who appears in Austen’s collection of opinions on Mansfield Park, had in fact been the second wife of Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus.1 Mrs. Pole praises Austen’s “natural” descriptions of her society in contrast to writers who “are not experimentally acquainted with what they describe.” She may primarily be declaring satisfaction that Austen “belong[s] to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates” (Later Manuscripts 234), but she also asserts the enlightenment notion of knowledge being gained through firsthand observation.
Following Walter Scott’s famous review of Emma, an unsigned review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by the clergyman and naturalist Richard Whately was in 1821 one of the first pieces of literary criticism to take note of Austen’s novelistic techniques in detail. Whately commends Austen for the individuality he finds in her characters and for extending this feature to her foolish characters as well as the more refined ones. He comments that many writers “exhibit to us mere folly in the abstract, forgetting that to the eye of the naturalist the insects on the leaf present as wide differences as exist between the elephant and the lion” (98).
Whately’s delight in Austen’s detailed approach and his comparison with the “eye of the naturalist” suggest the nature of her appeal to those enthused by the study of the real details and objects around them. Austen’s study of the responses and behavior of people in everyday situations was appreciated by readers, such as Lewes, who found that Austen’s characters “become equal to actual experiences. They live with us, and form perpetual topics of comment” (343). Browne tells us that Darwin “took a vivid interest in plots and characters, treating them like real events and real people” (Power 70). Darwin’s demand for a novel of the first class was that it center on a person “whom one can thoroughly love” (Recollections 115). To Lewes, “the heroines—at least Elizabeth, Emma and Catherine Morland—are truly lovable, flesh-and-blood young women,” and Elizabeth Bennet is “one of the few heroines one would seriously like to marry” (342). When Charlotte Brontë wrote to Lewes asking, “[W]hy do you like the novels of Jane Austen so very much?” she complained at the ordinariness she found in Pride and Prejudice. She saw only “an accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face” with “no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy.” Lewes’s response is that Brontë shows an “almost contemptuous indifference to the art of truthful portrait painting” (350). It is the depth and ordinariness of Austen’s characters that allow her readers to imagine thoroughly loving and marrying them.
Joseph Cady and Ian Watt note a division in Austen’s nineteenth-century reception that is perhaps exemplified by this exchange between Lewes and Brontë. Writers such as Scott, Whately, Southey, and Macauley, they comment, “had temperaments in which the head had at least as much importance as the heart and so delighted in the exquisite play of intelligence and judgement afforded by Austen’s novels” while “more fervid protagonists of the reasons of hearts could only find unimaginative and complete acceptance of the confines of mundane reality” (235). Lewes agrees that “Miss Austen has nothing fervid in her works” (343). She centers her vision on the immediate, everyday world, and this focus, according to Peter Knox-Shaw, indicates her empirical habit of mind, as science itself is “tied in with the celebration of the ordinary” (18).
Darwin spent years studying the intricacy of tiny details of commonplace organisms—barnacles and pigeons, for example—that to some might seem insignificant. When he came to finally publish his theory in On the Origin of Species, the concept of natural selection was carefully introduced to the reader through the more familiar and graspable example of artificial selection, where Darwin focuses in still further to the minute details and variations in domestic pigeon breeds. Darwin felt that this specific knowledge of domestic breeding afforded the “best and safest clue” to understanding the massive implications of his theory (4).
Austen also saw that the tiniest and most ordinary-seeming of examples could be the vehicle for the larger implications and for strong emotions, rendered more intense when constrained into the ordinary. Moments such as Mr. Knightley nearly kissing Emma’s hand (E 420), Darcy smiling during his conversation with Elizabeth at the Netherfield Ball (PP 104), or Anne Elliot feeling Captain Wentworth lift her troublesome nephew off her back and “the little particulars of the circumstance”—his silence and avoiding her thanks—producing “a confusion of varying, but painful agitation” (P 87) are all examples of “those little matters on which daily happiness of private life depends” (E 126). The feeling of love is personal and particular in each of these relationships, and it is these distinctive moments between each couple in which feelings beneath the surface are only hinted at that give the characters texture and individuality and make them so engaging to the reader. As Levine points out, happy endings “could have provided relief” for Darwin only if they concluded narratives that had engaged him and “were rich with the variety, particularity, complexity, and toughness of his own world” (20).
This interest in tiny details, part of either the natural or the social world, made both Austen and Darwin keenly aware of the risks involved in making truth-claims and in abstracting theories from the particularity of life, from the peculiar coloring of a beetle to the peculiar behavior of a clergyman. Just as Darwin’s young naturalist should expect his version of species categorization to be disputed by other naturalists, and as Darwin would question and challenge the claims of scientific texts, general truths are set up in Austen’s novels so that they can be interrogated. After Pride and Prejudice begins by declaring, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (3), we discover that this generalization is merely the opinion of Mrs. Bennet, the mother of five daughters, each in want of a husband. Theories are introduced through the voices of Austen’s characters or with irony from her narrator precisely so that the readers might question them and consider how true and how universal they might be.
Austen hints in her letters at her interest in the ways in which behaviors and opinions are established and shift within certain communities. She notes patterns and for the amusement of her recipient suggests her own theories and social truths, as in this example where she comments on the behavior of young girls: “What is become of all the Shyness in World?—Moral as well as Natural Diseases disappear in the progress of time, & new ones take their place.—Shyness & the Sweating Sickness have given way to Confidence & Paralytic complaints” (8-9 February 1807). Knox-Shaw writes that Austen’s “fascination with Shyness and Sweating Sickness and other passing vogues or social symptoms is one aspect of an intelligence riveted on the interface between the general and the particular” (24). Similarly, Alison Case and Harry Shaw assert that “the relationship between the general and the particular fascinated Austen, . . . and the idea that there could be an easy fit between general pronouncements and specific situations always excited her suspicion and often amused her” (22-23).
In this uncertain space between particular details and general rules, Austen places her keenly observing heroines. She situates their individual consciousnesses within set routines and established social truths, and they must achieve a reading of the world that balances these “general pronouncements” with their own experience. As Tony Tanner writes, “in such a world, a change of mind—an act by which consciousness demonstrates some independence from patterns of thought which have predetermined its readings of things—can indeed come to seem a fairly momentous event” (105). Darwin was keenly aware in his own work that such striving towards understanding is a process of ordering and reordering, of demonstrating some independence from patterns of thought:
I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis, however beloved, (& I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it. . . . [W]ith the exception of the Coral Reefs I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified. (Recollections 119-20)
Austen’s heroines discover the virtues of keeping their minds free and not judging too quickly. The momentous “change of mind” scenes are points at which the heroine in question must revise all her hypotheses, however beloved.
When Elizabeth Bennet reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, for example, she must read and reread its contents, and as a result she is forced to rethink everything she thinks she knows up to this point in the novel. When she is handed the letter, we are told that if she “did not expect it to contain a renewal of his offers, she had formed no expectation at all of its contents.” What she reads is wholly unexpected and provokes “a contrariety of emotion.” After beginning with “a strong prejudice against every thing he might say” and resolving to find Darcy’s belief in Jane’s indifference to Bingley “false,” she comes to the account of Mr. Wickham. This material is “read with somewhat clearer attention,” providing “a relation of events, which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth” (226). Like Darwin’s beloved hypotheses, Elizabeth’s cherished opinions must be given up or greatly modified to accommodate new information. The realization that she has been “‘wretchedly blind’” is painful, especially considering the confidence she has placed in her judgment of character: “‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment!’” she cries, “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’” (230). But this moment of self-examination is only reached through careful and detailed reading. “[S]he read, and re-read with the closest attention” and “weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality” (227). Austen makes clear that this process is by no means straightforward. Complete impartiality is impossible, as shown by Elizabeth’s reaction to the part of the letter that concerns her sister; moreover, versions of events on both sides are “only assertion”: “But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent, as to render Mr. Darcy’s conduct in it less infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole” (227-28).
Darwin in his Recollections records a frustrating moment when as a student he told one of his tutors, Adam Sedgwick, of a “large worn tropical Volute shell” that had been found by a laborer in a gravel pit near Shrewsbury. Sedgwick “at once said . . . that it must have been thrown away by someone into the pit; but then added, if really embedded there it would be the greatest misfortune to geology, as it would overthrow all that we know about the superficial deposits of the midland counties.” Darwin is “utterly astonished” at Sedgwick’s “not being delighted at so wonderful a fact” (44-45). For him, the possibility of “all that we know” being overthrown, of “the affair” being “capable of a turn,” is astounding, humbling, and what motivates him to try to know more. Readers of Darwin must learn the same lesson as Austen’s heroines: to read and reread, to weigh every circumstance, and to look again at the facts stored in their minds. These were the qualities of mind that Darwin himself strove for, and it is perhaps no surprise that we find them explored in the novels he “read and reread till they could be read no more.”
1. This connection was pointed out by Arnie Perlstein at the New Directions in Austen Studies 2009 conference and also featured in his paper, “The charade, the acrostic, the abominable puppy and Mr Elton.”
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