Autobiologies: Charles Darwin and the Natural History of the Self

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Author: Jessica Straley
Date: Autumn 2016
From: Victorian Studies(Vol. 59, Issue 1)
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,054 words
Lexile Measure: 1520L

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Autobiologies: Charles Darwin and the Natural History of the Self, by Alexis Harley; pp. xvii + 213. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2015, $90.00, $39.99 paper.

"I was born a naturalist," Charles Darwin wrote in 1838 (qtd. 34). This statement, with which Darwin defended his choice of a scientific career against his father's skepticism, might be an offhand expression of either academic aspiration or puerile rebellion. But from the pen of the nineteenth century's best-known evolutionist, this assertion of an inborn trait deviating from the parent type demands a second look. Could we read Darwin's autobiography as an elaboration of modification and descent via natural selection applied to the man himself? What new insights into the particularly Victorian intersection of evolutionary theory and life writing would be gained if we did? Alexis Harley's engaging and provocative Autobiologies: Charles Darwin and the Natural History of the .SW/investigates these questions, refreshingly extending its focus beyond Darwin to the autobiographical turn of other Victorian evolutionists like Herbert Spencer and authors like Oscar Wilde and Alfred Tennyson who deployed elements of evolutionary theory in forging their own philosophies of life, art, and death.

Reading Harley's study illuminates how overdue her exploration into nineteenth-century evolutionists' penchant for autobiography is. Her preface reminds us that not only Darwin and Spencer, but also Alfred Russel Wallace and Francis Galton, among others, dabbled in the genre. Though Gillian Beer's landmark Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983) drew scholars' attention to the metaphoric textures and ambivalences of Darwin's scientific work more than thirty years ago, the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A513010219