- Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature by Jessica Straley
Jessica Straley's Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature convincingly asserts that children's literature of the Golden Age was cognizant of, engaged with, and even revised Victorian evolutionary theories. Although "evolution" appears in the book's title, Straley focuses on recapitulation, which posits that an individual human's development repeats the evolutionary process of the human species. Victorians wondered how best to educate children if childhood was, according to recapitulation, "a way station on the road to fully realized humanity, a living relic of a still prehuman, even bestial past" (6). Evolutionary thinkers reasoned that since children were like "primitive man" (16), they should be educated like primitive man; hence, evolutionist-influenced pedagogy delayed the introduction of literature and prioritized scientific knowledge gained through hands-on methods. Straley argues that children's literature by authors such as Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling countered such pedagogical recommendations by championing literature—particularly nonrealistic, playful, even nonsense literature—for its ability to successfully develop the child. Far from being an "escapist genre" (39), children's literature creatively defended its effectiveness in humanizing children; these "tales," Straley puns, were "capable of teaching the child how to retract his bestial 'tail'" (26). Other books have explored Darwin's impact on Victorian literature, including Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983) and George Levine's Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction (1988). These monographs, however, concentrate on fiction aimed primarily at adult audiences. By drawing attention to the position of the child within evolutionary thought and by analyzing the impact of such theories specifically on children's literature, Straley makes an original and much-needed contribution to the scholarly examination of the intersection between nineteenth-century evolution and literature.
Straley dedicates a chapter each to Margaret Gatty, Charles Kingsley, Carroll, Kipling, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Even though these authors held diverse perspectives on Darwin and on evolution, they all lived in and wrote to a post-Darwinian society, and Straley is attuned to the nuanced ways scientific conversations influenced and challenged these writers whether or not they personally believed in evolution. For example, Gatty was an "avid [End Page 123] anti-evolutionist" (40), and her Parables from Nature "rejects evolution" through the book's foundation in natural theology—the principle that orderly nature evidences God's design (33). But Darwinian precepts, Straley claims, motivated Gatty to modify her conception of natural theology to acknowledge the limitations of human observation of the natural world. Although Carroll was "a noted skeptic of evolution" (88), Straley inventively connects his use of parody in the Alice books (most famously, Alice's inability to correctly recite Isaac Watts's "Against Idleness and Mischief") to evolution. In Straley's analysis, parody is a type of evolution—an adaptation of an older text. In the face of a chaotic, mutable world, parody offers humans like Alice agency to initiate and manipulate change. Kingsley, conversely, did accept evolution, and The Water-Babies features a clearly recapitulative plot. Chimney sweeper Tom is changed into a newt to begin his journey of maturation and salvation. Straley places The Water-Babies in conversation with the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer, who advocated that children learn as early humans presumably did, through self-directed observation, experiments, and discovery—in short, through the scientific method. Tom's aquatic education follows Spencer's program, but only to a point. While Spencer considered literary instruction superfluous, Kingsley incorporates fairies and nonsense, and therefore, "literary fancy," into Tom's and the reader's education (77).
I found Straley's chapter on Kipling's The Jungle Books particularly rewarding for its deft handling of historical context and theories of adolescence, in addition to its careful attention to the thematic and formal aspects of the stories. Straley persuasively complicates the now common interpretation of Mowgli as a hybrid character by highlighting his heterogeneity, "his eclectic collection of bestial identities" (124). After pointing out that "In the...