Longtime readers of this journal may recollect that the subject of Dickens and analogy received book-length attention almost half a century ago when H. M. Daleski published his Dickens and the Art of Analogy as far back as 1970 – the year, indeed, in which DQ's predecessor first appeared. Devin Griffith's expansive and enthralling new book, however, takes an entirely different approach to that earlier study, focusing upon the relationships between evolutionary thought and literary forms and building, in particular, from the work of Gillian Beer, George Levine and Sally Shuttleworth. Focused upon "comparative historicism," a concept Griffiths defines as "a new mode of historical description furnished by contemporary historical fiction" (2), and its rise to ascendancy during the first half of the nineteenth century, this book is a rich and wide ranging exploration that has much to offer Dickens scholars and all those interested in Victorian intellectual history and literary form.
Griffiths' "central thesis" is to explore the ways in which "specific modes of literary description – in particular, the comparative strategies that constituted nineteenth-century historical fiction – changed how both historians and scientists access the past" (39), and he lays out the aim of his book as an attempt to narrate "the decline of totalizing approaches to history and rise of more dynamic and comparative nineteenth-century modes" (56). The totalizing approaches most vulnerable to this rise, he suggests, were efforts to assess the past in terms established by the present found, first, in those Enlightenment stadial theories of historical progress most closely associated with Adam Smith and, second, in the Whig-progressive reading of British [End Page 161] history that imagined the restoration as "part of a continuous narrative of constitutional development" (12) and that, in the work of Macaulay, would come to see nineteenth-century Britain as the culmination of such a narrative arc. Replacing these kinds of unitary theory, he shows, "comparative historicism exchanges strong narratives for an interplay between stories, incidents, and actors that allows new patterns to emerge," with the novel emerging as the essential literary form because, "as the capacious genre of genres," it was uniquely able to "place the conventions of different literary and historical modes in dialogue, evaluating their capacity to disclose an authentic past" (16).
In this case for a transformation in the nature of historical narrative, a crucial role is played by a corollary shift in the nature of analogy. For, as Griffiths lays out in his opening Introduction and Prelude, analogy becomes differentiated into two fundamental types. On the one hand, and less important, stands more traditional formal analogy that, working top down, takes a pattern of previously understood relationships and applies it to a new context. On the other, and at the heart of the book's argument, is what Griffiths terms harmonic analogy, a type that works from the bottom up, explores patterns between different sets of relationships and facilitates new ways of understanding that may range from "engagements between individual perspectives to conflicting theories of natural order" (20). By enabling new ways of thinking about both terms, such harmonic analogies create a dynamic of exchange that is open-ended and generative, allowing for possibilities of meaning unavailable through the more static structures of traditional forms of the trope. Focusing upon this sense of the new form of analogy that emerged during the early nineteenth century, Griffiths then deploys Bruno Latour's model of social theory, whereby everything in the social and natural worlds exists in constantly shifting networks of relationship, to develop an understanding of "analogy's peculiar entanglement within natural and social patterns and, through that entanglement, explain analogy's ability to produce new understanding" (30).
Having laid out the framework of his approach in his opening two chapters, Griffiths then turns to five specific accounts that carry the argument from Erasmus Darwin to his grandson Charles by way of Scott, Tennyson and George Eliot. Chapter one argues for Erasmus Darwin as simultaneously a thinker whose "commitment to governing orders of analogy" (72) positioned him more...