Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Can Reading the Novels of Jane Austen Give Us Access to the Inner Life of Charles Darwin—and the Dynamics of Sexual Selection?

More than a few observers have made analogies between the life and ideas of Charles Darwin and the novels of Jane Austen. These analogies tend to arrive in two forms:

  • Jane Austen’s novels, it is claimed, give us a way of accessing the Victorian milieu and social class that Darwin grew up and lived in—and thus tell us something about the way Darwin’s mind, in a broad sense, functioned.
  • Jane Austen’s novels are said, by literary scholars interested in exploring the intersections of “evolutionary psychology” and literary criticism, to be obsessively concerned with mate selection, status, and control of resources—subjects of characteristic interest to Darwin—and evolutionary study. 

An example of Darwin’s life set in comparison with Austen’s novels comes from UC Irvine biologist Michael Rose’s book, Darwin’s Spectre: Evolutionary Biology in the Modern World (Princeton 1998):

The Darwins and the Wedgewoods could have been lifted wholesale from their lives and plunked into the middle of one of Jane Austen’s novels and no one would have been the wiser. In this we are singularly fortunate, because there are few feats of the imagination more difficult than understanding a person of a different historical period “from the inside.” In particular, it is hard to understand a person before he or she has become “Great,” and thus heavily documented by their own writings and those of others. This is the task that we are presented with when we try to understand the young Charles Darwin. This is where Jane Austen comes to our rescue. (17)

Rose offers Edward Ferras, a character in Sense and Sensibility, as a Victorian prototype of the young Darwin, quoting this passage from the novel:

He was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behavior gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart. His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement.

The first volume of Janet Browne’s widely acclaimed biography of Darwin (Charles Darwin: Voyaging, Princeton 1995), also begins with a Jane Austen reference, and even floridly moves along like an Austen novel:

He was born into Jane Austen’s England. Indeed, the Darwins could have stepped straight out of the pages of Emma, the four girls sharply intelligent about the foibles of others, their father as perceptive as Mr. Knightly. The boys had several equally distinctively qualities. Charles Darwin and his older brother, Erasmus, were obliging and sympathetic young men full of the gentle humour, domestic attachments, and modest tastes that made Austen’s characters stand out in the drawing rooms of local notables, with a good range of idiosyncratic failings to match. These natural attributes were enhanced by a substantial family fortune. . . .

The Darwins, like Austen’s fictional families, lived in a sleepy market town in the countryside, in their case in Shrewsbury, the county capital of Shropshire, standing on the River Severn halfway between the manufacturing Midlands and Wales. (3) 

I don’t question the correspondances of Darwin’s life with Austen’s novels, but what purpose (aside from strictly informative) does it serve?

Might it be that most people are frightened by Darwin’s vision of the world as “nature red in tooth and claw”—and thus writers intuit the need, upon introducing Darwin to a broad audience, to present him in sepia-soft Victorian tones—and so make him, and his ideas, seem less threatening?

Or, at the least, isn’t our interest in linking Darwin to Austen an interesting irony—for wasn’t Darwin, in part, responsible for blowing-up Jane Austen’s gentrified and comfy world?

Or could it be said that Darwin justified it—that, in fact, the world IS about mate selection, status, and the control of resources?

As can be seen, giving thought to Darwin’s relation to Austen opens up a can of worms.

And one begins to wonder if Darwin actually read Austen.

Indeed, Browne says that he did. In fact, love of Austen’s novels was something that Darwin and Major FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle, shared in common:

As the ship ploughed onwards, they discovered a mutual enthusiasm for Jane Austen. (167)

This is highly suggestive, for it must be wondered if Austen was unconsciously brewing, and for many years at that, in Darwin’s psyche, assisting him in the formulation of his theories about sexual selection in nature.

Perhaps it could be said that, just as the writings of Thomas Malthus led Darwin to his insights regarding natural selection and the “survival of the fittest,” Jane Austen’s novels may have led Darwin—at least in part—to his insights regarding sexual selection, resource control, and group status—the “survival of the sexiest.”

This would certainly be a vindication of sorts for literary scholars who might see Darwinism in Austen’s novels—or Austen unconsciously at work in The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

And it might also give us insight into what Darwinism means for us as humans.

What, in other words, does it mean to be a sensitive and free, open-ended consciousness, living, as it were, in a body and mind shaped by “baser” impulses?

Isn’t this exactly the crux of the dilemmas that Austen’s more intelligent characters find themselves in?

Literary critic Joseph Carrol, a leading advocate of reading literature in the light of Darwin, in an essay in The Literary Animal (Northwestern University Press 2005), asks us to consider the first two sentences of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

The humor and irony functioning just below the surface of this opening, suggests Carrol, is exactly where all thoughtful people live—acknowledging our flungness into the competitive world and the mating game, and yet also being free, conscious and ironic individuals:

[I]n the space of two sentences Austen has established a fundamental tension between her own perspective—a perspective that takes account both of point of view and of individual differences—and the common perspective of the neighborhood. The common perspective is also the perspective of the common world outside the novel. In the course of the novel, an inner core of protagonists, civilized, cultivated, and capable of making stylistic distinctions, will ultimately constitute a small in-group that distinguishes itself from the common world of their own community. . . . Austen’s own point of view defines and dominates this inner group—she is its normative mind—and she tacitly invites receptive readers also to join this group. The criterion that permits a reader to join the group is the ability to read and judge the letters and conversational style of Darcy, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, and all the rest. Readers who pass this test of literacy succeed in segregating themselves from the common world that operates exclusively at the level of the lowest common denominators of life-history analysis—the reduction of other people to general cases—and the identification of people exclusively in terms of “property.” (97)

By contrast with these ironic, open-ended, and not strictly “Darwinian” driven characters, Carrol offers Mrs. Bennet:

Mrs. Bennet has access to a big chunk of the truth. Resources and mating do in fact form elementary building blocks in the human relations that provide the basis for stories. But in grasping this elemental reality, Mrs. Bennet neglects all other considerations of mind and character. She neglects the minds of other people, and she thus demonstrates the poverty of her own mind. The successful protagonists fully acknowledge the hard and sometimes harsh logic in the human reproductive economy, but they do so without neglecting the significance of the human mind and individual differences in identity.

In short, the novelist with whom Darwin enthusiastically engaged as a young man, and may have led him, unconsciously, to insights about sexual selection, can also be a guide to ironic moderns, grappling with what it means to be human in the midst of the Darwinian mating game.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Can Reading the Novels of Jane Austen Give Us Access to the Inner Life of Charles Darwin—and the Dynamics of Sexual Selection?

  1. Ken says:

    We know there is more to the stories of natural selection and sexual selection than Darwin told. I think he did too.

    He built an argument that had all the right components to convince his contemporaries that evolution working through natural selection, not divine selection, and not special creation accounts for the origin of species. I imagine he would construct his argument somewhat differently today. I suppose we have done that for him, to some extent.

    But the Darwinian story we have is still largely the one constructed according to the perceptions of reality in Darwin’s century.

    You raised the question, “What … does it mean to be a sensitive and free, open-ended consciousness, living, as it were, in a body and mind shaped by “baser” impulses?” It does seem to be a question that Austen considered.

    I think the question must be reframed. We can only ask the question Austen considered when we believe in higher and baser impulses, only when we believe we are sensitive and free consciousness. I don’t think we believe that anymore, or if we do believe it we no longer can say what the basis for such a belief is. The implications of Darwin’s work is that we are not what our ancestors thought we were and this place we call the universe is not what they thought it was. I don’t think we know who we are, or where we are, or what we are. We find ourselves unable to distinguish reality from illusion, or high from low.

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