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Peter W. Graham, Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists.

Peter W. Graham, Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists (Ashgate, 2008), xviii + 196 pp. $99.95.

You may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but occasionally a title by itself can tell a lot. As soon as I read Peter Graham's title I saw the light. Of course, Jane Austen and Charles Darwin were similarly fascinated by the natural history of human beings. Their work, whether it be fiction or scientific documents, is evidence of their interest in, and observation of, the details of our environments and behavior. But how similar are they?

Though Austen is a novelist and Darwin a naturalist, Graham sees their character and work as "at least partially interchangeable" (xi) "Partially" is a good word and it is important, if the study is to be valuable, to be clear about what parts they share. He claims they are "the great English empiricists of the nineteenth century" and offers this description of their similarity:
   both Austen and Darwin are naturalists who look with a clear, cold
   eye at the concrete particulars around them. In certain senses,
   both Austen and Darwin are novelists who rely on storytelling and
   the verbal strategies that it entails (selective and artful
   manipulation of detail, pace, chronology, diction, and narrative
   voice, among others) to convey their personal observations to a
   wider circle of readers. (xii)

These claims are not new and hardly controversial. We can easily see the naturalist and empirical qualities of both writers. Austen is obviously a novelist and Darwin's use of plots as organizing principles in his work has been well established by critics. Graham also describes both as "serendipidists," individuals whose "trained sagacity prepared [their] minds to profit by the accidental details that observation and chance brought before them (2).

The book is composed of four interlocked, but more specialized, comparative essays that explore, and dwell mostly on, this thesis, the similarity of interests, perspectives and conclusions. Although Graham occasionally takes ways that wander from this main path (he likens his method to Montaigne's) his chapters primarily are an expansion and refining of this thesis.

In Chapter One, "'3 or 4 Families in a Country Village,' or Naturalists, Novelists, Empiricists, and Serendipidists," Graham defines his terms and lays out the writers' similarities of background, adult life styles, qualities of mind, and views of the world, as well as their similar desire to draw macroscopic conclusions from detailed study of microcosms, i.e., small, knowable communities. Darwin quite self-consciously describes his origins and qualities in his Autobiography. Graham says Austen's "overarching values--keeping faith with plausibility as empirical observation understands it, deriving details from real life, relying on fresh language rather than cant phrases--are not announced but [can] be inferred inductively" (17). Her work, he asserts, is consistently about "correcting perspectives or revising hypotheses in light of carefully observed and fairly judged evidence" (29).

He offers, among other things, an extended analysis of Emma as support for this claim. Emma does learn that she has radically misunderstood clues and the relationships of those she has tried to help, but has this been an "empirical" education? As Graham admits, what blinds Emma is her imagination and "most crucially ... ignoran[ce] of her own heart," not exactly the empirical data that naturalists study (44). One might almost argue the opposite case, that her emotion shaped and reshaped her understanding of individual actions and relations.

In Chapter 2 Graham considers parallels between Darwin's ideas on adaptive variation and Austen's descriptions of the sibling development of sisters in all six novels. He uses the evolutionary psychologist Frank Sulloway's Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives as a "template for the assessment of personality development in sibling groups" (47). Once again he looks at the writers' personal circumstances, what we know of their family relations, as some clue to their ideas. But he concludes that Darwin's (i.e. Sulloway's) theory of "siblings diversifying in somewhat predictable ways to occupy different niches within the family ecosystem accounts with striking success for the brothers and sisters Austen portrays" (58). This seems to be stretching a parallel to say the least. Darwin's theory of adaptive variation was offered primarily to explain how a species changes by slow variation and adaption to environmental conditions. To consider the family as an ecosystem is at best a metaphor and it is not at all clear that Austen is explaining success as a result of adaptive variation. Children find, or find themselves, in different relations in the family. Austen sees that. But there is nothing in Austen's work that comments on the importance of that adaptive mechanism. Indeed Graham recognizes that Austen seems to depart from any of the connections of personality development and family position when he notes that, "Austen's eyes seems to glaze over at a point when attentive observation would be at odds with the generic needs of romance fiction" and in the conflict between "what realistic observations of character would tell [her]" and "the practical demands imposed by Austen's genre" the former disappears (80). Such choices make for aesthetic pleasure and moral clarity but hardly confirm a commitment to empirical observation beyond some common sense observations such as "changes in family environment can ... bring about modifications of longstanding patterns of behavior" (84).

Chapter 3, "Marry--Mary--Marry," focuses on the writers' views on the institution of marriage. It is true that both Austen and Darwin had thoroughly unromantic views of the institution of marriage. Darwin's personal writings show his very practical and material thoughts on who and when to marry, and Austen's fiction certainly reveals the great consideration given to both class and wealth. Both writers seem to recognize that for males, questions of marriage are "squarely centered on the self" and unconcerned with the "personhood of the prospective female" (97). Graham's study of marriage patterns in Austen's work shows that hasty marriages, those that occur early in the novels, tend to be unsuccessful, while marriages that occur at the end, less hastily arranged, tend to be happy. Perhaps that, too, results from Austen's aesthetic choices? This time, however, they are thoroughly representative of her empirical conclusions.

In his last chapter, "Variations on Variation," Graham sees some surprising parallels in Austen's and Darwin's views on theories of change and the phenomenon of blushing. While admitting that the writers have as many differences as similarities on these issues, Graham still wants to claim that Austen, like Darwin, accepted uniformitarianism (as opposed to catastrophism) to explain how change occurs in the world. Both, he writes, "shared awareness that gradual changes are ever remaking the world [and that] change happens on all scales..." (132). These terms identify competing explanation of geological change. Uniformitarians believed geological change occurred quite gradually and could be explained by the same forces operating in the world at present. Catastrophists claimed massive, sudden and violent events caused geological changes. Uniformitarian theory was a crucial aspect of Darwin's evolutionary argument. Austen fiction shows that changes in human lives are small and gradual even when they are momentous and appear catastrophic on a personal life. But Austen doesn't comment or theorize about change, geological or social. If she wanted to there would have been no better place in her fiction than the visit to Lyme Regis, with its exposed cliff of fossils, in Persuasion. But she only uses the fossils as a symbol for the social traditions that Anne Elliot rejects. Claiming Austen is a "uniformitarian" is rather like claiming I believe in free market capitalism because I shop for food at the grocery store.

Graham is much more successful arguing for the similarity of the writers' views of blushing. He provides a highly detailed description of blushing in Austen's fiction--when it occurs, how it is described, what it is called (men "colour" more often than blush), and what it suggests about the blusher and his/her circumstances. Darwin's study of blushing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) shows Darwin using anecdotal evidence to make the case that animals and humans have common emotions and that blushing in both is caused for the same reasons. He is, in fact, analyzing like a novelist and Graham's conclusion, that "It is striking how closely Austen's presentation of blushing, its motivation, and its attendant effects corresponds to Darwin's description and hypothesizing," is well taken (167). Both describe a physical phenomenon and explore its emotional origins. Clearly Darwin's reason for doing this study was to enhance his argument that humans and animals are evolutionary relations. Blushing, previously considered a uniquely human phenomenon, was, he argued, a shared trait.

This difference pinpoints what is a basic problem with Graham's claims of similarity. Both Darwin and Austen observe the details in their world with a cold eye, and are rhetoricians, in the larger sense of the word, to present their views. But he exaggerates Austen's empiricism. Darwin's commitment to empirical observation is complete: he can't ignore any observed fact if his theories are to hold water. Austen can use or omit whatever details she observes in the world to present an aesthetically pleasing and generally instructive fiction. Furthermore, to say that both writers are naturalists and novelists offering "personal observations" is to obscure their very different goals. Darwin is no Montaigne: he is offering a tad more than personal observations, while Austen is shaping her personal observations for obvious reasons. Perhaps it would be better to say that Darwin is a naturalist and empiricist and Austen is a literary realist and moralist. But then who would publish a book making that commonsensical claim?

Michael Helfand

University of Pittsburgh
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Author:Helfand, Michael
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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