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  • Darwinism, Feminism, and the Sonnet Sequence:Meredith's Modern Love
  • John Holmes (bio)

The place of Darwinism in arguments over the "woman question" in the late nineteenth century was distinctly equivocal. On the one hand, many leading evolutionists including Darwin himself took what they perceived to be the lesser cultural and intellectual achievement of women in Victorian society and across history as a biological datum, thereby naturalizing female inferiority. On the other hand, from the late 1880s leading feminists argued that the education and emancipation of women was either an evolutionary inevitability or a necessary intervention to avoid the degeneration of the race. As Evelleen Richards and others have observed, however, even feminists such as Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mathilde Blind tended to predicate their arguments on a notion of sexual difference, emphasizing women's maternal and co-operative virtues and arguing for the benefits to society of allowing these to exercise wider influence through politics and the professions. For some, the biological mechanism of social progress expected to kick in once these reforms had taken place was the neo-Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. For others, like Alfred Russel Wallace, the mechanism was the eugenic process of sexual selection, as women gained the right to choose their own mates and the education necessary to make that choice an informed one. Either way, the trajectory of evolution was central to the feminist appropriation of Social Darwinism.1

In this article I will be examining a largely unnoticed contribution to the Victorian feminist interpretation of Darwinism which is distinct from those of the feminist Social Darwinists in several ways. Like Blind's The Ascent of Man, George Meredith's Modern Love is a poetic exploration of the social implications of Darwinism. Darwinism informs the response of many Victorian sonneteers to the crisis of religious belief, including John Addington Symonds in Animi Figura and Thomas Gordon Hake in The New Day.2 At the same time, feminism underlies the project of appropriating the Petrarchan genre of the sonnet sequence for the articulation of female identity in the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Augusta Webster, [End Page 523] and Rosa Newmarch.3 Yet Modern Love is the only Victorian sonnet sequence to bring Darwinism and feminism together. As I will show, Meredith makes good use of both the form and the generic history of the sonnet sequence in framing and advancing his arguments. First published in 1862, Modern Love is also remarkably early in its insistence on the feminist implications of Darwinism, while it derives those implications not from a notion of sexual difference, nor from evolutionary arguments for social progress, but rather from an admission of a fundamental and timeless biological equivalence. Finally, in this particular case, Meredith's feminism is focused primarily on undoing the double standard of Victorian sexual morality, rather than on the political or professional emancipation of women.

For the most part I will be concentrating on Modern Love itself, primarily as it was originally published in 1862, and also as Meredith revised it for republication in 1892.4 Before I turn to the text itself, however, I want to establish Meredith's credentials as a Darwinian and a feminist, to make the case for approaching Modern Love in this way. It has always been recognized that much of Meredith's poetry embodies a direct response to Darwinism and other evolutionary theories of the late nineteenth century.5 There is a broad consensus too, based primarily on internal evidence within the poetry, that Meredith's engagement with Darwin began soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species.6 This dating is borne out by his brief account in a letter to his friend William Hardman of T. H. Huxley's "tussle" with Richard Owen over Owen's anti-Darwinian account of human anatomy, which Meredith witnessed at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cambridge in 1862, soon after the publication of Modern Love. Huxley demolished Owen's argument that the seat of human rationality was a unique organ called the hippocampus minor by having an ape's brain publicly dissected to expose the same organ. In remarking to Hardman...