- Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel by Anne Dewitt
The study of the circulation and interaction of scientific and literary cultural discourses is not new, but it has grown in both depth and breadth in recent years within the larger field of Victorian studies. Anne Dewitt’s monograph makes a sound case for more nuanced readings of texts that participate in these discourses, particularly at the rich and multifarious points of contact and interaction between science and literature.
Dewitt’s comprehensive introduction challenges what she sees as a pervasive tacit endorsement within Victorian literary studies of a monolithic conceptualization of Victorian intellectual life in which science and literature formed part of a single project of moral improvement. This book argues, by contrast, that in the nineteenth century, “science and the novel [were] not invariably engaged in a productive exchange of ideas; instead, novels [were] attempting to delimit science, defining its concerns as distinct from fiction’s” (6). The Victorian novel, its reputation having been rehabilitated, was by the mid-century generally seen as a tool of improvement for the moral character of its readers. When scientific practitioners claimed that equal moral improvement could be effected by the study and practice of science, some novelists perceived this as an attack on the novel’s rightful territory. Some responded, as Dewitt argues, but placed “scientific knowledge outside the novel while insisting on science’s ignorance of the novel’s moral concerns” (9).
The book proceeds chronologically, in thematic chapters organized around groups of texts. The first is a survey of the major works of the early scientific naturalists, those men of science who attempted to assert an “authority capable of transcending spheres, an authority relevant to the private life of the individual” (15). Dewitt’s summary of this loosely allied movement is thorough. She links this desire for moral authority to the concomitant professionalization of the discipline, demonstrating exactly what these men had at stake. The second chapter places the novels of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell within the pre-professional scientific milieu and argues that this context of professionalization led their authors to believe in the scientific enterprise as a moral imperative. Their novels, Dewitt argues, integrate literary and scientific discourses, resisting the pervasive impulse to separate them. The third chapter looks at an early example to the contrary: the novels of Hardy, particularly Two on a Tower and Far from the Madding Crowd. For Hardy, Dewitt argues, the scientific study of the vastness of the universe proves only the insignificance of humanity within it, with potentially morally injurious implications. Professional science, he implies, is dangerous, and morally unsound. Chapter 4 looks at the vivisection debates of the final decades of the nineteenth century—well-travelled ground, to be sure, but [End Page 203] Dewitt’s analysis offers new readings of anti-vivisection texts as driven not just by a concern for animal welfare but on a more fundamental level by a resistance to professional science itself. Surveying the period, Dewitt samples a dozen or so anti-vivisection novels, noting the frequency with which a scientific plot point is presented as at odds with a courtship plot, emphasizing the separation of science and literature in order to critique it. The final chapter examines the novels of H.G. Wells, with particular attention paid to the scientific fault lines that run through his work. Dewitt observes that many of Wells’s novels suggest that professional science produces a narrow-mindedness that leaves men blind to moral constraints while simultaneously asserting that science can provide both moral and social benefits. Wells’s work is a fitting coda for Dewitt’s study; its apparent contradictions are resolved in the belief that, regardless of questions of professionalization and morality, both literature and science seek to improve society and both are thus worthwhile endeavours. A brief epilogue aptly traces these themes into early twentieth-century literature.
Strangely, given the breadth of literature and time periods covered in her chapters, Dewitt does not include a discussion of...