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The Darwin Continuum: The Influence of Charles Darwin on Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction

Abstract In 1859 Charles Darwin challenged the Victorian worldview with his first controversial publication, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The Victorian understanding of species-relatedness had primarily rested on the biblical idea of species-specific design by God, in which animals are considered wholly separate, and unrelated to, the human species. The Origin outlines the conflicting theory of evolution by natural selection, whereby animal species descend from one another over time, in response to factors such as climate, resource availability, and competition. Darwin thus suggests the mutability and connectivity of species. The Origin does not explicitly address human evolution. It does, however, imply that humanity is not exempt from possessing animal ancestry. The apparent need for empathy, respect and equality across all species is emphasised. Human evolution was given greater attention in Darwin’s second work, The Descent of Man and, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Herbert Spencer regarded natural selection as the ‘survival of the fittest’, a term which Darwin adopted in his fifth edition of The Origin in 1869. Described within The Origin as the survival of those better adapted for an immediate local environment, Darwin did not intend for the idea to transcend biology. Spencer, however, believed that survival of the fittest could be applied to sociology, and thus, as Social Darwinism, it became connected to ideas of racial superiority, eugenics, and justified genocide. This thesis aims to analyse the nature of Darwin’s influence on novelists from the nineteenth century to present day. Of particular focus is how his ideas are represented and, on occasion, altered in the work of creative writers. The first half of this thesis focuses on late nineteenth-century authors writing in the immediate wake of The Origin. These novelists were inevitably influenced by Darwin’s ideas. Their fiction reflects both the Victorian fascination with Darwin, and the cultural, social, and theological unease that his theories stirred. Chapter One examines H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and War of the Worlds (1898), highlighting Wells’ intimate knowledge of Darwin’s theories, but also Wells’ anxieties about devolution and extinction. In Chapter Two attention turns to five late nineteenth and early twentieth-century novelists writing scientific romances and gothic fiction. Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies (1863), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) all exhibit respect for Darwin as a scientist, whilst also echoing Wells’ anxieties for the possible degeneration and regression of humanity. Having established these nineteenth-century contexts, I then move forward more than a century to explore neo-Victorian re-imaginings of Darwin and his ideas. Chapter Three focuses on The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles; Morpho Eugenia (1992) by A.S. Byatt; This Thing of Darkness (2005) by Harry Thompson; The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton (2005); and The Naturalist (2014) by Thom Conroy. These works showcase contemporary acceptance of many of Darwin’s views. Repulsion towards the way in which Darwin’s theories were applied in relation to issues of race creates a tension in these works, with Darwin perpetually mediated through a late twentieth and early twenty-first century lens. A similar self-reflexivity is evident in the Steampunk authors discussed in Chapter Four. In K.W. Jeter's Morlock Night (1979), Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy (2009-2011), and Mark Hodder's The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (2010), however, the seriousness of the neo-Victorians gives way to a playful spirit of fun.
Type of thesis
Nelson, E. A.-R. (2015). The Darwin Continuum: The Influence of Charles Darwin on Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction (Thesis, Master of Arts (MA)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/9899
University of Waikato
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