Saturday, April 26, 2008

Darwin and Wives and Daughters: What does Elizabeth Gaskell tell us about Darwinism in Victorian Britain?

I've been enjoying Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. If read purely for plot and writing style, it is a charming story. Yet, because we today are not familiar with the cultural changes that were going on in the 1860's and 1870's, we easily miss some of the deeper currents in the book. An article I read inspired me to research these underlying themes. In the process, I learned some fascinating things:

1. Elizabeth Gaskell was the distant cousin of and contemporary of Charles Darwin. Darwin was sometimes a guest in her home. Darwin published his famous "Origin of the Species" in 1859, and Gaskell wrote "Wives and Daughters" in 1866. She died before finishing the last chapter.
2. By the time Mrs. Gaskell wrote this novel, Darwin's theories were already reshaping how Victorians viewed the world. Gaskell set her book a few decades earlier than this changing tide, but she subtly flavors the novel with Darwinian themes.
3. It's difficult for me to determine exactly what Mrs. Gaskell's personal views about Darwin's works were. Likely, she embraced both her cousin and his ideas. Certainly, her husband thought that Darwin's theory pointed out the glory of God more fully. However, since Mrs. Gaskell was a tireless advocate of the disadvantaged, I do wonder what she made of some of the era's racist and class-conscious applications of Darwinist theory. She also seems to have taken a gentle poke at how Darwinian thought restricted women. Likewise, whether Mrs. Gaskell intended it to or not, her novel also chronicles how Darwinist ideas were restrictive to men.
At least at one stage in his life, Darwin enjoyed Mrs. Gaskell's books.

3. I am no fan of Darwin's works. However, in all fairness to him, we should explore the possibility that society took his theories in directions he never intended. Plus, there were other philosophers of the age whose ideas were lumped together with Darwin's, whether he personally accepted every point these philosophers made or not. Thus, when I use the term "Darwinian" in this article, I mean the way in which Darwin was interpreted in certain circles.
4. Did you ever wonder where the image of Englishmen as having a "stiff upper lip" came from? To understand that, we have to go back to an earlier, jollier image of the British man. In the first part of the Victorian Age-- prior to Darwin's popularity -- the British ideal of a man was a man of faith, who was active in his home and family. He found satisfaction in his work, but his greatest fulfillment was in the domestic realm.
At the time that Mrs. Gaskell wrote Wives and Daughters this happy ideal was fading away, partly due to the public's interpretations of Darwin and Nietzsche. In her day, Englishmen imbibed the idea of "survival of the fittest". Darwin did not coin this term, but he popularized it. Darwin said, "In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment." Darwin stated that this did not mean that the fittest were necessarily stronger or more intelligent, but simply more adaptable to environmental changes. Based on the popular concept of "survival of the fittest", a new idea of English supremacy came into being. Spiritual and family concerns were pushed to the back burner, and hardiness of mind and body came to the forefront. The new Englishman was to be a superior and adaptable specimen of humanity. In order to be so, he must be physically strong, emotionally controlled, practical, and gentlemanly. Mrs. Gaskell also represented this new man as being interested in science.
According to Pam Morris's introduction to "Wives and Daughters", Englishmen repressed emotion in order to live up to this new ideal of manhood. E. M. Forster said of the new way young boys were educated in Britain's boarding schools that it led to "well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts."
The new Darwinian/British ideal of superior masculinity was used to support the Imperialism in which England was already involved. Some argued that more "civilized" nations almost had a duty to rule over "less-civilized" countries. At the same time, England stepped up exploration and, perhaps we might say, exploitation of Africa.
Around this same time, a movement called "muscular Christianity" was born. This movement used sports to train boys to become strong and moral men, as well as to attract grown men to religion. There were other influences on this movement, but one of the forerunners, Charles Kingsley, was a supporter of Darwin and tried to build a bridge between Darwinist and religious thought.
5. The main hero of "Wives and Daughters, Roger Hamley reflects the new British/Darwinian ideal. Some of the characters in the book underestimate Roger, for they are put off by his social awkwardness and his dullness of personality. They do not appreciate his square build, his common sense, and his scientific achievements. Yet, we sense that he will triumph in the end. Roger is able to give the heroine -- Molly - a lot of kind advice. However, he cannot voice the true sympathy he holds for her in his heart. In fact, he states often that he never knows how to say to people what he feels. This inability to express himself meant that his admirable qualities remained hidden to those who did not understand him.
Where does Roger go to develop into full manhood? He was awarded a scholarship to explore Africa, which, as we discussed, was of great interest to late Victorian scientific and political communities.
6. Roger's father, Squire Hamley, has Roger's same physical strength and sturdy frame. Yet, unlike Roger, he does express emotions -- though, alas, that sometimes includes a testy temper. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, English men were freer in self-expression than the Darwinian based ideal allowed. Until troubles hit the Hamley family, the Squire is also shown as being happy in his domestic affairs. In fact, he was almost too much of a homebody. Unlike his wife, who enjoyed trips to London in her early married days, he preferred to stay on his own estate.
Squire Hamley is the "root stock" of the post-Darwinian ideal. He is unpolished, as well as stubbornly old-fashioned, but he is of "strong" Saxon blood. Mrs. Gaskell emphasizes that he can trace his roots all the way back to before the Norman Conquest, to the time when the Saxons were dominant in England. The idea of British superiority was based, in part, on the idea of hardy Saxon genes.
7. Often, references are made to the fact that Roger looks physically like his father, while his brother, Oswald, looks like their more refined mother. Characters in the book expect great things of Oswald, who is the heir of the Hamley estate and who appears to be gifted. They expect less of Roger, except that he will be steady and true. However, these expectations are turned on end. The mother and Oswald grow weak and die, while the father and Roger survive.
Roger has inherited his father's sturdy Saxon gene stock, but grafted on to that root is an interest in science and repression of emotion. Thus, Roger is the "evolved" Saxon Englishman that came into vogue via Darwin's theories.
8. The ideal of the British man of science and the stiff upper lip contrasted with the Romantic movement's idea of the artistic, sensitive, individualistic hero who is carried away by his sensibility. (Perhaps, a better ideal than either of these is the man who manages his emotions rather than either repressing them or being led by them.) Thus, romantic Oswald is sensitive, poetic, and refined, almost to the point of being a dandy. Poor Oswald is doomed, because he is by nature and nurture unfit for any useful work. "Weak" Oswald declines and dies, while "strong" Roger survives and prospers. Oswald's classic education comes to naught; Roger's education in science brings him unexpected success.
9. Oswald secretly marries a French servant and fathers a son with her, thus adding French genes and a servant's genes to the Hamleys' Saxon blood. In the time when Wives and Daughters was written, many English people regarded some Europeans -- particularly the Irish and the French -- as being inferior to those of Saxon ancestry. The French were looked to as leaders in culture and perhaps some aspects of science, but were otherwise felt to be too emotional to survive as a race. It takes Squire Hamley some time to warm up to his widowed daughter-in-law.
10. In the discussion of Darwinian ideas that dominated the last part of the nineteenth century, values traditionally held by women began to be seen as weaknesses, rather than strengths. Charles Darwin said in the Descent of Man, "Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition
, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness; and this holds good even with savages...Woman, owing to her maternal instincts, displays these qualities towards her infants in an eminent degree; therefore it is likely that she would often extend them towards her fellow-creatures. Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright. It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation. The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman--whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands."
In "Wives and Daughters", two heroines -- Molly and Mrs. Hamley-- are held up as worthy examples of a daughter and of a wife. Mrs. Gaskell makes a point of showing how the men in their lives love them, but, at the same time, patronize them and underestimate them. When Mrs. Hamley dies, it becomes clear that her role as wife and mother had been far more crucial to the family than either her husband or sons had realized. Also, throughout the novel, Molly demonstrates far more wisdom than her father gives her credit for.
By contrast to the Darwinian debate about women, the Biblical portrait of the Proverbs 31 wife portrays a godly wife as being noble, of great worth, possessing strength and dignity, physically vigorous, trustworthy, wise, and financially savvy. The Proverbs 31 woman is not only successful in her undertakings, but her success earns her praise in the city gates. In Genesis, we learn that both men and women of all races are created in the image of God. As fallen men and women, we all battle selfishness, but men are not doomed to live a life of selfish ambition if they embrace the freedom Christ offers. Neither do tenderness and perceptiveness in women -- or in men -- indicate that we are somehow "less evolved".
11. Lest we be single out the British interpretations of Darwin, we have to remember that this same type of thinking oozed its way into American intellectual and upper class circles, as well. Likewise, many western countries were influenced by Darwinist thought and companion theories, such as eugenics. (The term eugenics was coined by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton.)
12. Mrs. Gaskell was a Unitarian. Unitarians were among the first in England to embrace Darwin's ideas, so Mrs. Gaskell would have considerable knowledge of her cousin's scientific theories. Darwin also started out as Unitarian, but he quietly and very, very gradually adopted an agnostic stance. There is some debate about whether or not he returned to a belief in God during his final illness.
The Unitarian movement of that day rejected the Trinity. Unitarians also did not believe that Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human. Since they thought Jesus was a man only, they did not believe he could or did atone for our sins, nor did they believe such atonement was needed. As Mrs. Gaskell's husband put it, Jesus was a man approved by God, who was sent to show us a pattern for living. Humans, in his opinion, were capable of rising above their faults on their own, being motivated by the consequences of vice and the rewards of virtue. At the risk of stepping on some toes here, we do need to exercise caution. It's true that Jesus calls us to follow his example. However, the fact that Jesus is Christ and Savior is the very heart and power of the gospel! "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." I John 4:10 See also John 1:1-18, John 6:51, Matthew 26:28, Acts 4:12, I John 2.22, Matthew 20:28, Romans 1:16-17, I Corinthians 1:18, I Corinthians 15:1-7; Phil. 2:5-8, among other verses. Mrs. Gaskell does not overtly promote Unitarian thinking in "Wives and Daughters".

For further study, please see

Pam Morris's introduction to Wives and Daughters
article: Elizabeth Gaskell, British Unitarianism, and Darwinism
Victorian masculine ideals



Anonymous said...

Wow! I had wondered where you were...obviously working hard at your desk. This is such an interesting essay. Thank you for the insights. Gill.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Gill,

I've been tackling other projects, but did find this information about Wives and Daughters to be interesting.

Thanks for commenting!