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evolution and imagination

3 september 2019

Jessica Straley's Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature is a sophisticated, impressively contextualized re-reading of some classics of English children's writing. Straley's insights, for my money, are better when they operate on more obscure texts: the long-forgotten Christian-moralist works of Margaret Gatty, for instance, or the now comparatively little-read Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley (familiar to Victorianists but I daresay not to all that many 21st-century parents and children). If Straley is somewhat less interesting on Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, it is perhaps just because criticism on those endlessly-discussed authors offers less of a niche to make original claims. Still, Straley integrates her discussion of these canonical texts very well with her less-canonical backgrounds. Specialists in children's literature, Victorian culture, or both will find much to think about in these pages.

Straley's new contribution is to home in on the theory of recapitulation. This venerable approach to thinking about evolution, now discredited in literal terms, still has a powerful symbolic appeal. The idea is that an individual living organism goes through a series of stages in chronological order – recapitulates them – that corresponds to the history of its evolutionary lineage. If recapitulation applied to baseball seasons, they'd be playing with bare hands in April, flimsy shin guards in May, the lively ball in June, Astroturf in July, going on strike in August, and ending with interminable games full of home runs and relief pitchers in September.

Recapitulation seemed like an observable, objective fact to the Victorians. So whether you were convinced by evolutionary arguments or appalled by them, you somehow had to deal with recapitulationism, as you either backed Darwin or attacked him. Supporters and opponents of evolution alike, says Straley, shared the value of learning from direct observation. Even the hoary example of finding the watch in the field (and thus inferring the Watchmaker as Creator) depends on inference from your senses.

But if the observational data seemed to lead you to Darwinian conclusions, there must be something wrong with the empirical method. Margaret Gatty, who wrote many a natural-theology fable for children, found the observable world lacking in various ways. Straley observes Gatty abandoning the evidence of the senses and asking her readers to rely on something better, a faith-based principle of observation.

Charles Kingsley was a complicated guy, even for a Victorian. By turns a Christian moralist, a social progressive, a reactionary, a Romantic, a rationalist, and always a writer of florid, hectoring fiction, Kingsley can bewilder a modern reader (and probably bewildered his contemporaries). Straley's emphasis on recapitulation serves her best when discussing Kingsley, because it offers a key context for his Water-Babies. When protagonist Tom descends to the wetlands and becomes an "eft" (i.e., Kingsley turned him into a newt), most readers assume that Tom has entered a new spiritual plane. And that he has, but he has also climbed back down the (Victorian) evolutionary scale to the amphibian stage (and thus re-re-capitulated a stage of his own embryonic development). Climbing back up again takes Tom on a journey that parallels (partly seriously, partly in parody) the paths of ontogeny and phylogeny.

Straley then reads Lewis Carroll's Alice stories as making a parodic intervention in the recapitulation debate. The point here seems to reduce to the observation that Carroll was a parodist, which is obvious, but perhaps the stronger observation is that Carroll can be linked to evolutionary debates at all, since he was scornful of them (in an aloof, not a dogmatic Christian, sense) if he ever took notice of them. Kipling's Jungle Books have a more "natural" connection to the stages of human evolution, and Straley follows them into practical discourse over scouting and the more muscular reaches of Christianity. Straley's treatment of The Secret Garden likewise looks at Christian physical and moral culture for girls as a way of evolving in paths more wholesome, for many readers, than the Darwinian.

Throughout, Straley sees children's literature of the period as a defense of literature itself, an Arnoldian value in an age when technocrats like Herbert Spencer were eager to see imaginative writing discarded in favor of scientific training. This is not a new insight either, but here too Straley does valuable work by charting just how savvy even the most whimsical of Victorian children's writers were when it came to the weeds of the Darwin debate.

Straley, Jessica. Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. PR 990 .S77