Victorian Popular Fictions 5.2 9 Jena

Anna Neill, Human Evolution and Fantastic Victorian Fiction, New York: Routledge, 2021, 170 pp. Hb £130.00. ISBN: 978-0-367-72281-4

Reviewed by Chetna Jena

Recommended citation: Jena, Chetna. 2023. Review of Human Evolution and Fantastic Victorian Fiction, Victorian Popular Fictions, 5.2 (Autumn): 119-121. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI: https://doi.org/10.46911/PBHI6767

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Anna Neill’s Human Evolution and Fantastic Victorian Fiction is rich in its exploration of imaginative tales from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century that reveal a strong fascination with deep time. Considering a broad variety of literary forms, including children’s fables, nonsense literature, gothic horror, utopias and dystopias, it sheds light on instances of “temporal havoc” (10) that pose a significant challenge to human exceptionalism. Neill lays out her main aim of exposing how these stories destabilise contemporary ideas about the linear progress of humans in the introductory chapter. Focusing on narratives where the human developmental timeline is reconfigured, her readings draw attention to contradictions in Victorian evolutionary anthropology which simultaneously distanced civilised from savage and acknowledged their connection through descent.

Neill begins by considering how gradualist thinking is undermined in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) through the moral development of the protagonist, who is reborn as a “tiny”, “primitive”, and “fetal” (13) aquatic creature. In doing so, her chapter highlights the discrepancies that emerge in Kingsley’s belief in the hereditary racial superiority of  Anglo-Saxons  and  his  paternalist  desire  to  reform  the  savage  Other.  By  charting  the growth of the character that is only possible through exposure to the natural world and an educational journey into “the evolutionary past” (14), she astutely points out the underlying tension that exists between a “spiritually-focussed environmentalism and an evolutionist racial science” (23). The following chapter similarly focuses on ideas about gradual and progressive human development that are tested in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) when the young protagonist engages in meaningless wordplay after entering into a “marvellous evolutionary landscape” (7). The nonsensical use of language, typically associated with arrested development in Victorian anthropology, might suggest that Alice has been thrust backwards in developmental time. Neill, however, shows how this is projected as a source of delightful stories that can be disseminated from adult to child once the adventure ends, rather than threatening the cognitive development of the character. The fourth chapter goes on to explore the distortion of evolutionary gradualism in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Tales (1902). By directly inviting readers to share their opinions about the tales and accompanying images, Kipling’s collection, Neill reminds us, preserves the tradition of oral stories that was widely considered a “primitive cultural form” (14) by evolutionary anthropologists of the period. Here, she emphasises how his style of narration results in the blurring of printed text and oral tale by encouraging young listeners to engage in the process of collaborative storytelling. The chapter delineates how this act of transmitting tales orally from one generation to the next, kept intact through Kipling’s work, again dismantles the distinctions between civilised and savage.

Moving from children’s fantasy to the speculative fiction of H. G. Wells, Neill examines how the developmental timeline is deliberately collapsed in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) to refute notions about the steady upwards climb of civilisation in Chapter Five. Taking into account evolutionary trends and ideas about humans evolving from “a lower animal form” (79) in the nineteenth century, she suggests that the protagonists’ uncanny recognition of the self in the beastly creations of Moreau erases the perceived temporal gulf between the two. The chapter compellingly argues that the human-animal binary is no longer tenable in Wells’ text through feelings of kinship triggered by “sympathetic encounter(s)” (80) with monstrous hybrids on the island. Neill also notes how the narrative effectively rejects ideas about gradual ascent from a wild to civilised state through the vivisectionist’s failed efforts to create beings freed from all traces of animality, a transformation that is found to be only temporary. Human exceptionalism is yet again questioned in the strange evolutionary tales of Samuel Butler as elucidated in Chapter Six. Unlike her understanding of Wells’s text, where the desire to separate animal from humans becomes a futile endeavour, Neill’s reading of Butler’s Erewhon (1872) and The Way of All Flesh (1903) shows how the texts refrain from making these distinctions entirely by drawing on a theory of organic memory. In this chapter, she suggests that humans are presented in Butler’s works as an amalgamation of foreign ideas and entities that threaten the “organic integrity of the individual” (14). By exploring how unfamiliar ideas, accumulated across generations through imaginative writings, ultimately become a “collection of unconscious, habituated memories that constitute human identity” (14), she emphasises the constant influence of external bodies on individuals who can no longer be regarded as “discrete being” (96) in Butler’s writings.

In the final chapters, Neill turns to depictions of imagined human futures in Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), and H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) that all reveal a conflicted relationship to Victorian evolutionary anthropology. Her reading of Abbott’s text demonstrates how dominant eugenic ideas of the nineteenth century are repudiated through a “form of liberal education that cultivates both imagination and spiritual humility” (8). Examining the clash of temporalities that take place in the socialist utopias, she then investigates how “anachronistic ethnographies” serve to “defamiliarize the social landscape of the late-nineteenth century London” (15), allowing readers to perceive it in a new light. Through her analyses of these narratives, she effectively shows how they escape the progressivist version of Darwinism by attributing human misery to social relations instead of “deep degenerative traits” (15).

At first glance, the stories selected in this book may appear to be disparate. Neill, however, justifies their inclusion through their common focus on temporal collapse that highlights  underlying  conflicts  in  gradualist  thought.  Foregrounding  how  these  tales respond to Darwinian anthropology after the 1860s, her readings successfully reveal the damaging ends to which theories about human development have been used, especially as tools to condone colonial violence. Neill is rigorous in her exploration of contemporary ideas that the stories engage with, including the evolutionary perspectives of Herbert Spencer, Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, John Lubbock, and Julian A. Pitt-Rivers. Although her consideration of writers who extrapolate on evolutionary discourse and influential anthropologists in the book is extensive, it is impossible to miss the fact that they are all men. The inclusion of female writers and thinkers, like Anne Walbank Buckland, Margaret Murray, and Barbara Freire-Marreco, who made significant contributions to the male-dominated discipline of anthropology in the period, would have undoubtedly enriched this study further. Neill’s thought-provoking book, however, is certainly a valuable resource for scholars and students interested in the intersection of evolutionary discourse and literature, where definitions of what it means to be human are repeatedly tested.

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