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  • Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature by Jessica L. Straley
  • Kate Holterhoff (bio)
Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature by Jessica L. Straley; pp. 272. Cambridge UP, 2016. $104.06 cloth.

Although scholarship on the relationship between science and literature has tended to focus on realist fictions by George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, recent research has made room for popular and imaginative literature. Interest in Darwinism and romance fiction, in particular, has increased markedly since 2000, appearing in both multi-author monographs, such [End Page 311] as Anne Stiles's Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century (2011), and single-author studies, including Julia Reid's Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle (2006). Jessica Straley's Evolution and Imagination in Victorian Children's Literature uniquely examines the relationship between fiction written for juveniles and the discourse of recapitulation, the scientific theory suggesting that organisms pass through all stages of evolutionary development in their growth from single-celled organisms to adults. Therefore, unlike previous studies that focus almost exclusively on natural and sexual selection, Evolution and Imagination places much needed weight upon the yet understudied ideas of the evolutionists and advocates of recapitulation theory, including Ernst Haeckel and Herbert Spencer. Looking particularly at books written for children and containing lessons from evolutionary science, Straley identifies and interprets several links connecting ideas about childhood development with theories about the study of literature and education.

Straley's interdisciplinary book is sure to interest scholars of children's literature, the history of science, and nineteenth-century culture more broadly. Evolution and Imagination is lucidly written and often surprising, arguing that many of the best-known children's books published between 1860 and 1920 incorporated incompletely evolved or bestial children into their plots for pedagogical reasons. If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, as recapitulationists argued, then adolescents must be properly guided from a partial to a fully evolved state. While strategies for ensuring progress varied, the liminal place of youth renders the role of education for ensuring the proper development of the race of the utmost importance.

Evolution and Imagination's chapters are divided into two historical timeframes: before and after the 1870 Elementary Education Act. This division usefully underscores the importance of instruction to Straley's claims. While scholarship concerning the Golden Age of children's literature has tended to uphold the Rousseauian notion that scientific themes were included for the enjoyment of adult readers rather than the erudition of juveniles, Straley suggests that child audiences were often active and savvy readers. Authors differed on the question of how best to convey the lessons of evolution, but the place of recapitulation theory in these texts was always intentional and improving.

Chapter 1 examines pedagogical texts that internalized natural theology and situated adults as curators of a child's educational interactions with nature. Straley historicizes literature that encouraged children to observe the natural world for moral improvement. Focusing particularly on Margaret Gatty's Parables from Nature (1855), Straley shows that such fiction opposed evolutionary theory on the grounds that by rejecting design, natural selection removed nature from the sphere of moral improvement. Moreover, evolutionism seemed to frame the natural world as chaotic and disorderly rather than specially created. Gatty's rejection of transmutation depended upon her conviction that in order to infer God, one must appreciate nature empirically—a requirement that the theory of evolution could never fulfill. [End Page 312]

Chapter 2 studies the Anglican clergyman and evolutionist Charles Kingsley's celebrated fairy tale Water-Babies (1863). Identifying parallels with Spencer's advocacy of scientific pedagogy, Straley argues that Kingsley's complex tale was intended to teach lessons about scientific thinking to children. Unlike Gatty, Kingsley rejected the notion that the natural world could best be experienced through observation. To avoid an exclusively materialist pespective, Kingsley incorporates fantasy and nonsense into his plot. Breaking with the Enlightenment dependence on reason, Kingsley proposes that in order to learn how to become fully evolved humans, children must exercise their faculties of imagination through play. He suggests that the best scientific pedagogy benefits from a literary framework that permits speculation about non-observable phenomena in...


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pp. 311-314
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