Carnegie Mellon University

Speculating Victorians: Romance Fictions and Evolutionary Science, 1859 - 1914

Author: Katherine Holterhoff
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2016

Though evolutionary science has long been associated with literary realists like George Eliot, recent scholarship has begun to explore the unexpectedly rich relations between widely-read Victorian romances and Darwinism. This dissertation investigates the romance imagination in nineteenth-century British history and culture by locating four subgenres of Victorian romance fiction—metaphysical novels, gothic fictions, anthropological romances, and adventure tales—within the controversial and epistemologically complicated dimension of “speculation” as used in a wide range of evolutionist writing and its critics.

Speculating shares commonalities with rival but related intellectual acts such as hypothesizing, theorizing, imagining, and (on the literary side) fictionalizing; during the years between 1859 and 1914, many Britons found this dually inspiring and potentially discrediting way of thinking particularly evocative. While Victorian scientists worried that by speculating about the origin of species Darwin exceeded the limits of Baconian empiricism by too broad a margin, acts of speculating—especially as they related to evolutionism—attracted some of the most imaginative authors of romantic fictions. Building on the scholarship of Gillian Beer, Anne Stiles, and other “One Culture” critics who have studied the relations between science and literature in this period, my dissertation argues that speculative ways of thinking not only pervaded popular fictions of the day, they exhibited a deep engagement with and knowledgeability about evolutionary science in the period.
The main chapters of “Speculating Victorians” focus on key questions posed by evolution—progress, belief, deep time, inheritance, and ethnology—as romance writers and subgenres engaged them. In chapter one, I address metaphysical fictions by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Marie Corelli that allow us to see crossover between more mystical and even occult forms of religiosity and ideas concerning the reasonableness of science in an evolved rather than a created world. Gothic fictions by Robert Louis Stevenson, Vernon Lee, and Arthur Conan Doyle suggest that Victorian attitudes regarding human history were dependent on evolutionary narratives about human inheritance and descent in chapter two. Anthropological romances by Charles Kingsley and H. Rider Haggard engage the question of how the British Empire’s expansion shaped popular understandings about species extinction, cultural imperialism, and the fossil record in chapter three. In my fourth and final chapter I investigate adventure fictions by Haggard, Doyle, and Bram Stoker to consider how they imagined systems of knowledge to evolve, especially the kinds of scientific knowledge sought by archaeology, and what debts modern civilizations may have towards their intellectual predecessors. By attending to the role of evolutionary science in romance fictions, I hope to generate a more robust picture of the relations between scientific ideas and popular but ambitious literary forms that mattered deeply to Victorian readers.