- The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender by Michael Tondre
What would it mean, Michael Tondre asks, to read nineteenth-century literary realism not for its poised assertions of teleological plot but, rather, for the narrative structures that are “couched in the conditional or subjunctive mood” (4)? Tondre’s book The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender focuses our attention on a mid-Victorian [End Page 678] generation of intellectuals, both novelists and scientists, who peered through the looking glass, defied the insistence on causality, and introduced alternative trajectories, potential outcomes, and enticing indeterminacies. Moving adroitly across the fields and discourses of thermodynamics, physio-psychology, evolutionary science, statistics, and literary form, Tondre argues persuasively for fluid “network relations” between disciplines rather than directional structures of influence (12). As he suggests, what emerges from a capacious reading of these seemingly divergent spheres is a developing articulation of what was variably termed chance, probability, or frequency.
In taking up the discursive work of these terms, The Physics of Possibility joins a cadre of scholarly studies that explores the nineteenth-century fascination with what cannot readily be seen: currents of light and energy, minute or distant material bodies, theories of relativity, and mathematical relationships. Scholars such as Sarah Alexander, Barri J. Gold, Anna Henchman, Andrea Henderson, Christopher Herbert, and Alice Jenkins have argued powerfully for a renewed interest in Victorian studies in speculative mathematics and energy physics. While Tondre is right to point to an “enabling absence in scholarship” that sidesteps Victorian specificities in favor of an epistemic leap from the Enlightenment to Albert Einstein, and to urge further scholarship in the field, he does not always acknowledge overtly enough the already lively dialogues within the interdisciplinary field of Victorian studies (172). The “enabling absence” that he identifies exists less in the work of his immediate scholarly colleagues and more in that of so-called new materialist philosophers whose claims have developed outside of period boundaries.
What makes Tondre’s work unique in this burgeoning field, and so pleasurably exciting to read, however, is his deft capacity to traverse an enormous body of scientific, social scientific, and cultural material. The four chapters each focus on a different type of “probabilistic calculus” or an alternative model of chance and variability—but also, in doing so, move across webs of texts and thinkers that have rarely been brought together (13). The first chapter links the mathematics of chance to the astronomer’s error curve, Augustus De Morgan’s work on probability, and Henry Thomas Buckle’s History of Civilization in England (1857–61), among other texts, before contemplating elliptical structure and occluded possibilities in George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859). In its analysis of sensation, writ large, chapter 2 interweaves equations based in the delayed reaction times of astronomers with a series of physio-psychological writings on sense stimuli and duration by Alexander Bain and Henry Maudsley, among others. The move to Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1864–66) then asks readers to perceive fiction as weighing in on competing definitions of postponement, those drawn from probability and physio-psychology but also from Walter Pater, nineteenth-century “temporal regimentation,” and theorizations of literary sensation (82). While some readers may find the networking of widely disparate sources confusing, perhaps especially in the second chapter’s discussion of multitemporal logics, Tondre’s capacity to synthesize a wealth of material is impressive and inspiring—an exemplar for interdisciplinary thinking and for what he identifies as the patterns of “formal and conceptual connection” among fields (169).
The second half of the book underscores Tondre’s expansive knowledge of his subject as it shifts from mathematical models of probability, broadly defined, to what he calls the “dominant Victorian sciences of evolutionism and thermodynamics” (14). Chapter 3 gives a lengthy account of the challenge that nonreproduction posed to [End Page 679] evolutionary theory, alongside an apt reminder of Charles Darwin’s work on chance variation, before turning to an analysis of the two altruistic, but non-reproductive...