English, Department of



Gillian Beer

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019


In Darwin s Plots, Gillian Beer writes that 'On the Origin of Species is one of the most extraordinary examples of a work which included more than the maker of it at the time knew, despite all that he did know'. Published in November 1859 with a print run of 1,250, Origin shook Victorian Britain. Its conclusions seemed inescapable. Life on earth was not the six-day product of a divine creator, but the outcome of random evolutionary process. Its impact was immediate and immense. Man 'was born yesterday - he will perish tomorrow' declared the Athenaeum. In later life Thomas Hardy declared himself one of its earliest acclaimers, and George Eliot and G. H. Lewes began reading it immediately, concluding within two days that it made 'an epoch'. The next year, in The Mill on the Floss, as Tom Tulliver shoots peas at a blue-bottle, the narrator observed that nature 'had provided Tom and the peas for the speedy destruction of this weak individual'. Through Origin, mid-Victorian concern with kinship, descent and inheritance, God, creation, origins and the place of humanity in nature found new expression, formulated new questions, and wrestled with disturbing and turbulent possibilities.

The year 2000 has seen a timely second edition of Darwin s Plots, with a foreword by George Levine and a new preface by Beer. Since its first publication, the 'Darwin industry' has burgeoned industriously. Darwin has become, once more, central to cultural and scientific debate: fine biographies such as Janet Browne's Voyaging and Adrian Desmond and James Moore's Darwin have appeared; his Notebooks were published in 1987; and in 1985 the first volume of his letters and a register and summary of the fourteen thousand known letters to and from Darwin (now online).'

Darwin's Plots explores the genesis and language of Darwin's evolutionary ideas, and their relationship to stories and myths within our culture, revealing that Darwin's story was new and transforming, going against the grain and upturning dominant cultural assumptions, but also that it was a multilayered narrative that was deeply embedded in the social and intellectual developments of its time. The final section draws out the implications of evolutionary theory for narrative and for the composition of fiction, providing analyses of George Eliot's and Hardy's imaginative responses to Darwin which are not only compelling but indispensable to our understanding of these writers, and of the development of the novel more generally in the late nineteenth century. Throughout, it raises issues which are no less vital to current debate and interpretation of Darwin than they were when he first challenged his contemporaries.

The nineteenth century is no longer the last century; the twentieth century now separates us from it, a significant rival for the attentions of students that is likely to win in the 'relevance' stakes, as the moving image competes with the written word on undergraduate syllabuses. But nineteenth-century culture - and the science which stands at its centre - is essential to our understandipg of the present. Beer begins her new preface 'Darwin has grown younger in recent years'. And so he has; he is again at the centre of debates on what it is to be human, and on the role of science in understanding what we have come from, where we are going, as the Human Genome Project ripens, and biology is called upon to explain almost every aspect of social existence from social inequalities to health, sexuality and crime. This fascination with biology began with the Victorians.