Victorian Culture

Evelleen Richards and the Making of Darwin’s Theory of Sexual Selection

Tonight Evelleen Richards will be speaking at IASH on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In preparation for the talk, it has been suggested we read her 1983 essay, “Darwin and the Descent of Women.” It is a dated text, as many of her arguments have now become common parlance among Darwin scholars. Nevertheless, it is still relevant today, and thus worth familiarizing ourselves with its details.

Richards begins by pointing out that during the 1970s and 1980s social historians and sociologists were beginning to view scientific knowledge as a “contingent cultural product.” That is, scientific knowledge as socially constructed, as influenced by “non-scientific” content. She is careful to qualify the position, noting that “this is not to assert that science is merely a matter of convention…but rather that scientific knowledge ‘offers an account of the physical world which is mediated through available cultural resources; and these resources are in no way definitive.'” Richards supports this contention by citing work from M. Mulkay, B. Barnes, S. Shapin, R.M. Macleod, and a few others.

Using this new approach—i.e., that scientific knowledge is cultural constructed—Richards applies this method to Darwin’s conclusions on biological and social evolution, particularly his claims about women and sexual selection. Darwin has for too long (remember, this is a paper from the 1980s) been portrayed as an idealized, objective, “great man” of science. He has been “absolved of political and social intent and his theoretical constructs of ideological taint,” she writes.

But Richards wants to go beyond the feminist charge of sexism. Indeed, she aims to place “Darwin’s theoretical constructs and Darwin himself in their larger, social, intellectual and cultural framework.” In short, she wants to argue that Darwin was not merely a sexist or chauvinist, but that he was following an increasingly popular naturalistic explanation of nature—including human nature. Moreover, Darwin also derived his notion of sexual selection from the larger Victorian context, from socially sanctioned assumptions “of the innate inferiority and domesticity of women.” More interestingly, Richards wants to connect Darwin’s views on sexual selection to his relations with Emma Wedgwood, his wife, and their children. “I argue,” Richards writes, “that Darwin’s experience of women and his practical activities of husband and father entered into his concept of sexual selection and his associated interpretations of human evolution.” Finally, Richards wants to show how late-Victorian Darwinism was imposed on women, limiting their claims for social and political equality.

As soon as Darwin published his Origin of Species, he was feeling the pressure to apply his theory of evolution to humanity. According to his notebooks, Darwin had been thinking about human evolution since the 1830s. Indeed, “from the first he was convinced that humanity was part of the evolutionary process.” He delayed publishing his views once the storm over the Origin had subsided.

But that did not prevent others from making a go at it. Charles Lyell offered his own arguments in his 1863 Antiquity of Man. But Darwin was “bitterly disappointed” that Lyell did not “go the whole orang.” Darwin felt more assured by Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of natural selection. He was so confident in Wallace that he offered to share his notes on “Man” with him. Darwin was shocked when Wallace retracted his “belief in the all-sufficiency of natural in human physical, social, and mental development.” By 1869, Wallace had posited a “higher intelligence” guiding the development of the human race.

Richards suggests that these men, who seem to have lost their nerve, reinforced Darwin’s determination to demonstrate that the “human races were the equivalent of the varieties of plants and animals…and they were subject to the same main agencies of struggle for existence and the struggle for mates.” Human evolution, as with other species, could and should be explained by natural evolutionary processes.

Sexual selection was indeed the key for Darwin. When he published his Descent of Man in 1871, he subtitled it: or Selection in Relation to Sex. Sexual selection had been vital for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his Origin, Darwin distinguished the two. Sexual selection, he wrote

depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the results is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring. Sexual selection is, therefore, less rigorous than natural selection. Generally, the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave most progeny. But in many cases, victory will depend not on general vigour, but on having special weapons, confined to the male sex.

Perhaps more importantly, Darwin attributed sexual selection to another factor: female choice. This explained, for example, the seemingly useless and even disadvantageous colors of some male birds, or the long horns of the antelope. In other words, these elements made the male more attractive, and hence better at “wooing” the female during courtship.

Richards carefully notes that in his Origin, Darwin views females as mere spectators, entirely submissive to the males, who actively compete with one another. “Female choice” she writes, is still very much “passive.” Darwin’s “androcentric bias,” she adds, is even more pronounced when he considered human evolution. According to Richards, Darwin badgered “naturalists and breeders for corroborative evidence” to support his position. For Darwin, “human evolution and sexual selection had become inextricably linked.”

In his Descent of Man, Darwin divides his argument into three parts. In part one he sought to demonstrate “that there was no fundamental difference between humanity and the higher animals.” At the end of this first section, Darwin introduced his theory of sexual selection to explain racial differences, including “skin colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc.” But sexual selection was also much wider in scope. As Darwin put it

He who admits the principle of sexual selection will be led to the remarkable conclusion that the nervous system not only regulates most of the existing functions of the body, but has indirectly influenced the progressive development of various bodily structures and of certain mental qualities. Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colours and ornamental appendages, have all been indirectly gained by the one sex or the other through the exertion of choice, the influence of love and jealously, and the appreciation of the beautiful in sound, colour or form; and these powers of the mind manifestly depend on the development of the brain.

Sexual selection, in other words, account for the “higher” features of humanity, mental powers—emotional, intellectual, and moral.

In parts two and three of his Descent, Darwin concentrated on demonstrating sexual selection in the animal kingdom, and then extended it to human evolution. The point needs re-emphasizing: Darwin was not concerned with “sex” but with human evolution. Interestingly, Darwin reverses his theory on sexual selection when it came to humanity. While females, however passive, choose in the animal kingdom, it is male selection that predominated among humans. Indeed, in the course of evolution, “man had seized the power of selection from woman.”

In turn, male humans had become “more powerful in body and mind than woman.” Richards argues that Darwin’s understanding of sexual selection led him to the conclusion that the “higher education of women could have no long-term impact on social evolution and was, biologically and socially, a waste of resources.” She claims that Darwin derived some of his ideas on sexual selection from Carl Vogt’s Lectures on Man, which was first published in English in 1864 by the racist Anthropological Society of London. Indeed, Darwin cited Vogt’s morphological arguments on racial and sexual differences, which posited that “mature females, in the formation of her skull, is ‘intermediate between the child and the man’ and that woman’s anatomy generally, was more child-like or ‘primitive’ than man’s.” According to Richards, “it was an extension of Vogt’s woman-as-child-as-primitive argument that provided the sole scientific underpinning of Darwin’s conclusion on the futility of higher education for women.” As it was for Vogt, so it was for Darwin: sexual inequality was the hallmark of an advanced society.

Richards argues, however, that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was supported by little actual empirical evidence, and that most of it depended social stereotypes. “The whole was a triumph of ingenuity in response to theoretical necessity in the face of a dearth of hard evidence,” she writes.

At the same time, this was not just some political ploy by Darwin. His theory of sexual selection was “part of a more general tendency of nineteenth-century thought to treat human mental and social development more scientifically or naturalistically.” Although Richards does not put it in these words, the obvious desire to explain everything naturalistically seems to derive from the abandonment or rejection of theological explanations. In an attempt to fill the void left behind when religious explanations were ousted, Darwin needed to find another way of explaining the course of human evolution. Darwin chose sex. In this new understanding of human evolution and human nature, woman took the backseat, stagnate and trapped in a childlike and primitive state. Man, by contrast, became the higher being, the breeder who selected, shaped, and moulded woman to his fancy. Richards contends that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was part and parcel of Victorian bourgeoisie social and political assumptions about the sexes. But I would argue that it was more than this. As I mentioned above, it was also the attempt to support such assumptions, wittingly or unwittingly, naturalistically.

Richards now turns to how “Darwin, as an individual, came to hold his beliefs on feminine abilities and differences.” In the 1830s Darwin was looking for a “nice soft wife on a sofa.” He found her in Emma. Ironically, as Richards puts it, it was Darwin, who suffered from much ill-health, who often occupied the sofa. Yet Emma was entirely submissive to Darwin. She bore him ten children, wrote letters at his dictation, nursed him, and proofed his writings. She was also, as Richards notes, “deeply religious, and many of [Darwin’s] opinions were painful to her.” But Emma remained undeniably faithful to Darwin.

Darwin did not want an intellectual companion. He actually advised against it. When Emma picked up Lyell’s Elements of Geology, Darwin told her to put it down. For Darwin, “science was an exclusively male preserve, which women entered, if they entered at all, only as spectators.” Richards adds that Darwin “did not expect or want women to converse intelligently about science, but rather to be tolerant of masculine preoccupation with it.” Emma was expected to adhere to the stereotypes of Victorian feminine servitude, domesticity, and piety. And she did.

Richards also notes that although the Wedgwoods and Darwins held unconventional theological and political notions, they were entirely “orthodox” in their views of the role of women. It is, however, not entirely clear what Richards means by “orthodox.” That is, she never defines the term. Does she mean religiously orthodox? socially orthodox?

At any rate, Richards goes on to show how Henreitta, one of Darwin’s daughters, actually proofed and in fact edited his Descent. But it appears that she had no qualms about the section on woman’s intellectual inferiority. Like her mother Emma, her only concern was Darwin “putting God further off.”

Richards then turns to Darwinism and the social context. The nineteenth century, she says, experienced the “secular redefinition of the world.” She stresses—perhaps too much—that evolution was central to this redefinition. But as many scholars have pointed out since her paper was published in 1983, Darwin’s theory of evolution did not come into the “theological world like a plough into an ant hill.”

Richards is correct, however, in connecting evolution to a “secular ideology of progress,” one which was “assimilated to the capitalist requirements of industrial and economic growth, catch-cry of a rapidly advancing liberal and ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie.'” Darwin of course was not disinterested in this connection. Indeed, as is now well known, he did not take a neutral position on the topic. He had incorporated contemporaneous social thought in support of his theory. As Richards puts it, “it was an alliance that made for success.”

In the last decades of the century, many turned to evolution rather than religion to corroborate their views on social values. “Social Darwinism” appealed, for example, to the “robber barons” of America, to J.D. Rockefeller and other powerful businessmen. We have even seen something of a rebirth of Social Darwinism recently with the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

In a succinct paragraph, Richards puts it thus:

Darwin, in pushing his case against the divine origin of human mind and conscience, argued for their evolution according to the same processes that had produced all living things. His refusal to concede any but naturalistic explanations of human intelligence and morality, hardened into a biological determinism that rejected all social and cultural causation other than that which could be subsumed under the natural laws of inheritance and thus become innate or fixed.

After the publication of Darwin’s Descent, there was a notable increase in treatises attempting to moralize naturalism. We see this, according to Richards, in the work of Huxley, Romanes, Galton, Lubbock, Spencer, and other popular works. “Those Darwinian theorists,” she writes, “raised insuperable evolutionary barriers against feminine intellectual and social equality.”

As feminism was rising to power in the last decades of the nineteenth century, social Darwinists declared it a direct threat to the bourgeois family. According to Richards, Darwin’s Descent appeared just in time. His “growing authority and prestige were pitted against the claims by women for intellectual and social equality.” There was also a massive upsurge of anthropological and medical studies used to support Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and more generally his views of women and their role in society.

Richards concludes that Darwin’s understanding of human sexual differences was “central to his naturalistic explanation of human evolution.” In this essay and her more recent work, Richards has demonstrated that scientific knowledge is not immune to the context of its reality. While science can transcend borders, it is also provincial. Science is situated knowledge; or, as David N. Livingstone has put it, it has a “place.”

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Transforming the Dominant Idea of Religion

In the Preface to his Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), son of famous headmaster of Rugby School Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), asserts that “the world is fast going away from old-fashioned people.” Culture and Anarchy, it has been said, is an attack on English narrowness, on Victorian parochialism and philistinism. Arnold saw his fellow Englishmen consumed with themselves, a markedly individualistic and liberal attitude. The creed of the Victorian, he quipped, was “do as one likes.” Arnold considered himself a “liberal of the future,” thus justifying himself in his critique of contemporary liberalism.

In his chapter on “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold writes

Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life.

In the first chapter, “Sweetness and Light,” Arnold claims that “religion” is the most “important manifestation of human nature,” more central to culture than art and poetry. But because Victorian society was at the “beginnings of confusion,” Arnold thinks it is time to transform this “dominant idea of religion.” This central element in human nature can never be abandoned. It is, he writes

the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself,—religion, that voice of the deepest human experience,—does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the great aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail; but also, in determining generally in what human perfection consists, religion comes to a conclusion identical with that which culture,—culture seeking the determination of this question through all the voices of human experience which have been heard upon it, of art, science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as of religion, in order to give a greater fulness and certainty to its solution.

We see here the beginnings of Arnold’s equating of “religion with morality.” These ideas foreshadowed his later definition of “religion” in Literature and Dogma (1873). There he writes,

Religion, if we follow the intention of human thoughts and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion. And the true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion. And this new elevation and inspiration of morality is well marked by the word ‘righteousness.’ Conduct is the word of common life, morality is the word of philosophical disquisition, righteousness is the word of religion.

Here Arnold united the themes in his earlier “Hebraism and Hellenism.”

In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold was merely one of many attempting to redefine Christianity by moralizing religion.  Theologians, writers, and even men of science employed a vague, moralizing notion of “religion” in order to re-describe the essential features of Christianity. We see this particularly in the scientific naturalists, including the so-called co-founders of the “Conflict Thesis,” John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper, for instance, saw the politicization of Christianity as the end of “religion.” “True religion,” he maintained, is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Its doom came with Constantine. According to White, a pure and undefiled religion in found in the “recognition of ‘a Power in the universe, not of ourselves, which makes for righteousness,’ and in the love of God and of our neighbor.”

Anti-Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Anti-catholicThe last few days I have been exploring anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Hugh McLeod, in his Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914 (2000), in his chapter on “Identity,” observed that a general feature of nineteenth-century Protestantism was marked by a pervasive anti-Catholicism. A number of other scholars have also noted a pronounced anti-Catholicism in the Victorian era. An older, but still useful, study of this tradition is E.R. Norman’s Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England (1968). In more recent times, historian of religion John Wolffe’s The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860 (1991), Hartmut Lehmann’s “Anti-Catholic and Anti-Protestant Propaganda in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America and Europe” (1991), and D.G. Paz’s Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian Britain (1993) offer additional insight. More recently, Marjule Anne Drury’s 2001 review article, “Anti-Catholicism in Germany, Britain, and the United States,” in Church History (2001), provides a helpful bibliography of the transnational character of anti-Catholic discourse then raging in the nineteenth century. Finally, in a series of fascinating articles in the 2013 issue of European Studies, demonstrate how “anti-Catholicism was a transnational cultural phenomenon, and similarly negative accusations and stereotypes regarding Catholicism existed in a number of countries.” In their introduction to the issue, Yvonne Maria Werner and Jonas Harvard provide a brief outline of the origins of anti-Catholicism in early modern Europe, beginning with the principle cuius region, eius religions of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. According to Werner and Harvard, “anti-Catholicism as well as anti-Protestantism was…part of the legal and cultural system of the time, and in several countries it was bound up closely with questions of monarchical succession.” By the nineteenth century, with religion increasingly becoming a “private matter,” anti-Catholicism began “shifting to target the Catholic Church and the papacy on matters of national integrity, progress and modernity.” Or, as John Wolffe puts it in his article in the issue, in England “much of the animus that had earlier been directed against the Roman Catholic Church was now focused on ritualist clergymen in the Church of England, who were seen as advancing Popery by subverting the Protestantism of the establishment from within.”Griffin - Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Opposition to “popery” was of course not a new feature of life in nineteenth-century Europe. Fear of Catholicism extends as far back as Protestantism itself. A number of historical events in the nineteenth century, however, increased the intensity of anti-Catholic sentiment. The passing of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act; the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement in the 1830s, led by John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Bouverie Pusey; Newman’s Tract XC in 1841 and later his conversion to Catholicism in 1845; the “no Popery” movement of 1850-51; Irish immigration; the notorious pastoral letter, “Flaminian Gate,” from Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Nicholas Wisemen; and a lecture entitled “The Decline of Protestantism, by John Hughes, Catholic Archbishop of New York, all played a role in increasing hostilities between Protestants and Catholics.

Anti-Catholicism was undoubtedly a significant feature of the Victorian period. It was manifested in sermons, petitions, tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines. But as other recent scholarship has demonstrated, it was decisively through fiction that anti-Catholicism was largely disseminated. Susan Griffin’s Anti-Catholicism and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2004) and Diana Peschier’s Nineteenth-Century Anti-Catholicism Discourses (2005) persuasively argue that the Victorian novel dramatized the supposed evils of Catholicism. As Griffin argues, the Protestant obsession with Rome was “distilled to provide Victorians with a set of political, cultural, and literary tropes through which they defined themselves as Protestant and therefore normative.” From Sarah Josepha Hale, Charlotte Bronte, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry James, Frances Trollope, and Charles Kingsley, Victorian fiction provided plots, characters, and imagery for an anti-Catholic imagination.

Victorian Scientific Naturalism

A numDawson and Lightman - Victorian Scientific Naturalismber of books of recent date have made significant contributions to our understanding of the Victorian coterie known as the scientific naturalists. A comprehensive survey of the last few decades of scholarship in this field can be found in Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman’s introduction to their Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (2014). Dedicated to Frank Miller Turner, who was one of the first scholars to use “scientific naturalism” as a historiographic category to describe a group of Victorian intellectuals—such as, e.g., Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, John Lubbock, Edward Tylor, George H. Lewes, E. Ray Lankester, Henry Maudsley, Frederic Harrison, Leslie Stephen, John Morley, Grant Allen, and Edward Clodd—with the supposed common goal of redefining nature, humanity, society, and science, Dawson and Lightman have collected a group of essays first presented at a workshop on “Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture” at York University in 2011.

They begin their introduction with an etymological survey of “scientific naturalism,” showing that long before Huxley used it in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), it was employed by American evangelicals in the 1840s as a pejorative epithet. In the 1860s and 70s,  Scottish Free Church theologian David Brown and journalist and owner of the Contemporary Review William Brightly Rands also complained that scientific naturalism was the cause of “an inescapable sense of melancholy” and “moral decay” of their time. Only at the turn of the decade, in a letter published in the Secular Review, scientific naturalism was used, seemingly for the first time, as an “entirely positive designation for the scientific rejection of all nonmaterial phenomena.”

Returning to Huxley, Dawson and Lightman highlight his attempt to give the term a lengthy intellectual lineage. More interesting, however, is Huxley’s claim that the Bible is “the most democratic book in the world,” and that its strength lies in its “ethical sense,” and as such the “human race is not yet, possibly may never be, in a position to dispense with it.” In short, Huxley’s strategy was to make scientific naturalism “unimpeachably respectable, scrupulously cleansed of all the deleterious ethical and political connotations it had accrued since first coming into usage in the 1840s.”

Indeed, Huxley’s usage matched earlier connotations of the scientific naturalist, which simply meant being an expert and specialist practitioner of the life sciences. This leads Dawson and Lightman to suggest that scientific naturalism and scientific naturalist were “actor’s categories for much of the nineteenth century,” polemical constructs “employed by both evangelicals and secularists even before it was taken up by the archpolemicist Huxley.”

Dawson and Lightman then turn to twentieth and twenty-first developments. The work of Frank Turner is of course mentioned. But they also point out Robert M. Young’s collection of essays in Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (1985), where an overarching theme of continuity is pronounced, “pointing out that while natural theology was built on an explicitly theological theodicy, scientific naturalism similarly rested on a secular theodicy based on biological conceptions and the assumptions of the uniformity of nature.” Two years later Lightman published his The Origins of Agnosticism (1987), which argued that “there were many vestiges of traditional religious thought embedded in Victorian agnosticism” and the “possibility that agnositicism originated in a religious context.” They also mention the influential work of Ruth Barton, especially her essays on the X-Club, John Tyndall, and the origins of the scientific journal, Nature.

More recently, historians of science have begun marginalizing Turner’s notion of an emerging, professional scientific elite. Adrian Desmond’s The Politics of Evolution (1989), Ann Secord’s “Science in the Pub” (1994), James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), John van Wyhe’s Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), and Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), pushed “back the establishment of a secular naturalistic tendency in British science into the 1830s and 1840s,” essentially placing the scientific naturalists on the periphery. We should add here Lightman’s own collection of essays on Evolutionary Naturalism in Victorian Britain (2009), which examined the enduring strength of religion in the late nineteenth century and the vestiges of religious thought among the scientific naturalists, the problems of communicating their message to the general public, and Victorian critics of scientific naturalism and their strong resemblance to postmodern criticism.

Despite being pushed to the periphery in modern scholarship, Huxley and the scientific naturalists continue to fascinate. Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003) demonstrates that Huxley’s self-identity was “drawn, in part, from his understanding of domesticity, literature, and religion.” Dawson‘s own Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (2007) shows how advocates of scientific naturalism constructed “their model of professional scientific authority in line with their opponents’ standards of respectability.” Here again we should also add Lightman and Machael S. Reidy’s The Age of Scientific Naturalism (2014), which focuses on physicist John Tyndall, but also contains exemplary essays on Herbert Spencer and the metaphysical roots of his evolutionary naturalism, William Clifford’s use of Spencerian evolution, and many others.

“The time is right,” writes Dawson and Lightman, “to return to those canonical figures, in the light of the new scholarly agendas, and reevaluate their status as icons of the Victorian scientific scene.” With a focus on “forging friendships,” “institutional politics,” “broader alliances,” and “new generations,” this volume of essays offers “new perspectives on Victorian scientific naturalism that…produce a radically different understanding of the movement centering on the issues of community, identity, and continuity.”

The Nineteenth-Century Decline of Religious Orthodoxy

During the nineteenth century, scholarly clergymen like Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), J.R. Green (1837-1883), and J.E. Thorold Rogers (1823-1890) “felt it their duty of conscience to resign their orders.” Doubt and unbelief in the nineteenth century, it has been said, brought on by the concept of evolution and the “higher criticism” in biblical scholarship, led to such abdications of clerical duties. The revolt against evangelical or Catholic orthodoxy, however, was largely against the apparent immorality and inhumanity of certain doctrines within Christianity (e.g. “divine favoritism,” “substitutionary atonement,” “everlasting torment in hell,” etc.). The impression that Darwin’s evolutionism cannot be reconciled with Genesis, or that German scholars had shown that neither the Old nor the New Testament are reliable, and thereby leading to the abandonment of Christianity, is an altogether false impression. “Contemporary developments in geology, biology, and Biblical scholarship provided indispensable ammunition,” to be sure, “but they did not generate the attack.” According to H.R. Murphy, in his “The Ethical Revolt Against Christian Orthodoxy in Early Victorian England” (1955),  “the attack was generated by a sensed incongruity between a vigorous and hopeful meliorism and the doctrinal legacy of the Christian tradition.”

Murphy goes on to show that it was on these grounds, and not on account of natural science or biblical criticism, that Francis William Newmen (1805-1897), James Anthony Froude (1818-1894), and George Eliot (1819-1880) abandoned Christian orthodoxy.

This is not to say that the new science caused no stir among Victorians. The publications of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) and Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) caused a sensation, decades before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). When Darwin did finally publish his great work, Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873) publicly attacked him in the Quarterly Review. Yet there was some Christian believers, both scientists and theologians, who were not at all alarmed by Darwin, and some even came to his defense. The eminent American botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888), for instance, saw no conflict between the theory of evolution and orthodox Christianity. Richard William Church (1815-1890), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, claimed that the theory was compatible with a “higher and spiritual order.” Even F.J.A. Hort (1828-1892) and B.F. Westcott (1825-1901), who, working in cooperation, published a revised text critical edition of The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881, found Darwin’s Origin a “treat to read.”

Wanting the draw secularists back into the church, sermons were even preached in favor of the new science. Stewart D. Headlam (1847-1924), for example, preached a sermon in 1879 declaring:

Thank God that the scientific men have…shattered the idol of an infallible book, broken the fetters of a supposed divine code of rules; for so they have helped to reveal Jesus Christ in his majesty…[who] is the wisdom in Lyell or in Darwin…[Evolution ultimately] gives us far grander notions of God to think of him making the world by his Spirit through the ages, than to think of him making it in a few days.”

There were many others who preached in favor of Darwin and the new science. It suffices to say that accommodating science was one possible response. The other impression, that biblical criticism shattered Victorian belief in Christianity, is also overstated. But there is indeed more truth in this impression than the other. The publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860 by publisher John William Parker (1792-1870) caused much turmoil. The Essays and Reviews was a collection of seven essays by seven “broad churchmen,” H.B. Wilson (1803-1888), Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), Frederick Temple (1821-1902), Rowland Williams (1817-1870), Baden Powell (1796-1860), C.W. Goodwin (1817-1878), and Mark Pattison (1813-1884). The essays were an attempt to adapt the Church of England to the critical and historical study of the biblical text pioneered by German thinkers some fifty years earlier. The essays were relentlessly attacked—and for disparate reasons—in the press. Deposed High Anglican Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), for example, writing in the Westminster Review in October of 1860, decried against the essayists, saying “you have no business to adopt this reasonable view of the Bible and to remain in the Church.” Wilberforce, again in the Quarterly Review, argued that the essayists presented a “scarcely veiled atheism.” A more moderate position came from English churchmen A.P. Stanley (1815-1881) in the Edinburgh Review, arguing that the church would benefit from such critical insights, endorsing the remark made by Jowett that “doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door.” But perhaps the best response came from Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), in a letter to The Times newspaper in 1861:

What we all want is, briefly, not a condemnation, but a refutation. The age when ecclesiastical censures were sufficient in such cases has passed away. A large portion of the laity now, though unqualified for abstruse theological investigations, are yet competent to hear and decide on theological arguments. These men will not be satisfied by en ex cathedra shelving of the question, nor terrified by a deduction of awful consequences from the new speculations. For philosophy and history alike have taught them to seek not what is ‘safe’, but what is true.

That refutation came through the writings of Westcott, Hort, and, especially, Joseph Lightfoot (1828-1889). When the Essays and Reviews appeared, Westcott wrote to Hort that “it is needful to show that there is a mean between Essays and Reviews and Traditionalism.” Westcott agreed that the Bible should be studied and interpreted like other books, but he also wanted to pay the greatest attention to “every detail, every syllable of the text,” and “all the resources of scholarship must be employed and focused upon each sentence, each clause, each word.” Lightfoot’s commentaries on various New Testament books, furthermore, undermined the Tübingen school of biblical scholarship. A severely critical and historical study did not lead to the same conclusions of German critics.

This leads us back to Murphy’s argument, that the decline of faith was not due to any skepticism raised by evolutionary theory or biblical criticism, but rather Christianity’s failure to reach the poor in the inhumanity of the industrialized age.

The Cambridge Companion to the Victorians

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon Mee, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne Shattock, and The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O’Gorman is yet another useful collection of smart, lucid, and engaging essays by British Victorianists.

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1740-1830, edited by Thomas Keymer and Jon MeeKeymer and Mee’s volume covers, in two parts, the context and modes, the writers and their circles of correspondence, and other traditions of English literature from 1740-1830. In part one we are introduced to readers, writers, reviewers and the professionalization of literature (Barbara M. Benedict); to criticism, taste, and aesthetics (Simon Jarvis); to literature and politics (Michael Scrivener); to national identities and empire (Saree Makdisi); to sensibility (Susan Manning); to English theatrical culture (Gillian Russell); and to the Gothic (James Watt). Part two focuses on different writers and their works, such as Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Sarah Fielding (Pater Sabor); Johnson, Boswell, and their circle (Murray Pittcock); Sterne and Romantic autobiography (Thomas Keymer); Blake and the poetics of enthusiasm (Jon Mee); Barbauld, Robinson, and Smith (Judith Pascoe); Wordsworth and Coleridge (Paul Magnuson); the invention of the modern novel (Kathryn Sutherland); Keats, Shelley, Byron, and the Hunt circle (Greg Kucich) and John Clare and the traditions of labouring-class verse (John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan).

Shattock’s volume offers “fresh perspectives on a literary period bounded at one end by the Romantic movement and by Modernism at the other.” The volume begins with a consideration of the status of authorship and the gradual professionalization of writing from the 1830s (Josephine Guy), then turns to the reader and the consumption of literature (Mary Hammond). The following essay emphasizes the variety of “life writing” in the period 1830-1914 (Alison Booth). As Shattocks notes in her introduction, “biography as we know it was largely the creation of Victorian biographers.” The growth of nineteenth-century periodicals are linked with the “increased opportunities offered to women writers” (Susan Hamilton). Another essay reminds us that “‘the past as we know it was largely created by the Victorians,’ that historical terms and concepts and the idea of periodicity were invented in the nineteenth century” (Hilary Fraser). There follows an essay on “radical writing,” covering the literature against the Poor Laws of the 1830s, the impact of Chartism, and the emergence of the Socialist movement in the 1880s (Sally Ledger). An essay on “popular culture” looks at the ways artists, critics, and audiences responded to a “fractured and contentious” Victorian national culture (Katherine Newey).

The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne ShattockIn another section, one author writes about the “new cultural and political importance which science acquired during the nineteenth century” (Gowan Dawon). Another focuses on the ways in which medical discourse “influenced the work of novelists and also poets, in their attempts to render legible the inner, emotional life” (Jenny Bourne Taylor). The growing acceptance of gradual evolutionary processes, moreover, led to an increasing fascination with the “other,” particularly in terms of religion, and is widely displayed in the religious diversity of nineteenth-century novels (Andrew Sanders). A final essay in this section focuses on Victorian “visual culture,” the “creative cross-over” between literature and painting, and the “desire to be able to picture, and consequently observe, every detail of the physical environment” (John Plunkett).

The remaining essays in Shattock’s volume traces the concepts of empire and nation in Romantic and Victorian writing (Patrick Brantlinger), the interchange of literary texts and cultural models on both sides of the Atlantic (Bridget Bennett), and the ‘European exchanges,” particularly France and Italy, that challenged the “Anglocentric disciplinary formations” of Victorian literature (Alison Chapman). “Readers of the Companion,” Shattock concludes in her introduction, “will find fresh interpretations and perspectives on well-known authors and texts, together with an introduction to less familiar authors and writing in a range of genres, reflecting the constant revision and reconfiguration of the canon which has been, and continues to be, an ongoing process in nineteenth-century literary studies, and one which signals its intellectual health and vigour.”

As another reviewer has noted, many of the essays in Shattock’s volume complement the collection of essays in Gorman’s. In his introduction, Gorman considers various arguments in favor of and against the label “Victorian,” as well as the limits of “culture.” “The facts of the past,” he says, “have a habit of confounding intellectual speculation.” “It is as well to test the grandest theory against the humblest of facts,” he goes on, “to make some space for the sudden and strange and unpredicted; to remember that grave argument and deep thought are hardly the only motivations of human behavior; and that intellectually coherent analyses of the past are not guaranteed merely because they are intellectually coherent.” Gorman offers good advice for any historian:

We must not claim to know too much; we must retain some scepticism and readiness to change; be doubtful of what look like accepted terms that have not been thought about for a long time; in particular be doubtful about metonymy, about making single events or instances stand without qualification for larger wholes; be doubtful of coherence that persuades only because it is coherent; be wary of plausibility that resides only in rhetoric and not in the concepts and the rhetoric is struggling to describe.

The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), edited by Francis O'GormanTo this end, Gorman argues that his collection of essays assume that “‘Victorian’ is defined as a post hoc category, an idea that exists in the critical analysis of critics subsequent to its end.” It is a continually redefined label, by “critics examining different aspects of an exceptionally diverse set of possible knowledges.” The first essay aptly begins with the “age of scientific naturalists; the shift of authority in University education form the Anglican establishment to the men of science; the assertion of the experimental method; [and] the professionalization of science and its division into the disciplines and sub-disciplines that are still familiar today” (Bernard Lightman). There follows appropriately an essay technological innovations, particularly in the realm of communications technology (Nicholas Daly). Another essay discusses Victorian business and economics (Timothy Alborn). It is also worth remembering that “warfare…was an almost constant feature of Victorian life” (Edward S. Spiers). Just as prevalent was music, both public and private (Ruth A. Solie), and the theater (Katherine Newey). A related essay discusses how the notion of “popular culture” arose as a “realm of strategic contest through which the masses themselves were shaped in accord with middle-class interests and values.” But by the end of the century, “Victorians saw this edifying conception eroded not only by the acknowledged influences of the lower classes on English culture but also by the boom of consumerism” (Denis Denisoff).

Two essays on print culture focus on satire (John Strachan) and journalism (Mathew Rubery). Another considers the nature of Victorian painting (Elizabeth Prettejohn), and a subsequent essay examines the development of domestic crafts and arts, or, the “art of living” (Nicola Humble). An essay on “Victorian Literary Theory” concentrates on reviews and reviewers, and here we find such familiar names as Francis Jeffrey, George Henry Lewes, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater appear in both, but also the less familiar John Woolford, John Morley, Walter Bagehot, and Anthony Trollope. Gorman’s own essay “considers the retreating authority of Christian ideas of eternal life and resurrection, and examines how they were re-imagined and re-created in literary and visual texts and in ideas about how literary texts were, literally, readable” (Francis O’Gorman). A final chapter describes “our multiple appropriations of Victorian themes, images, texts, characters and material remains” (Samantha Matthews). “In the Victorians we find what we seek, and fabricate or ‘discover’ what we need.”

All three Companion volumes further illuminates the “varieties of the Victorian.” How one understands the Victorian derives from sustained research, and, as Gorman points out, research means “not only the tracking down of facts or sources in archives or online: it means reading and thinking.” “It may be that the best thing for a reader to do,” he concludes, “is to set this volume [and others] aside at once and turn to a novel, a poem, a play, a diary, a volume of correspondence, a biography from the nineteenth century.”