Dickens and Professor Owen ! Portrait of a Frienship
1The portrait I want to sketch for you is a double portrait.
2It is a well-known fact that Dickens had a personal acquaintance with the most famous scientist of the earlier and mid-Victorian periods, Professor Richard Owen ! but the details of this fascinating and important relationship between two eminent Victorians who, between them, represent a broad spectrum of connections between science and arts in the mid-nineteenth century, bear, I think, some inspection. In what follows, I propose to comment on the tenor of this friendship ! and on the mesh of interests between the two men, especially on the implications for Dickens's grasp of issues in the Darwinist controversy, the 'Development hypothesis' as it was known.
- 1 Many of the details given below come from Caroline Owen's journal. Unfortunately, the journal itse (...)
- 2 Ibid., Vol 1, 152
- 3 Ibid., 164.
3Richard Owen was from the outset almost the embodiment of Dickens's ideal reader. He and his wife, Caroline, read Sketches By Boz on Christmas Day 1836, along with thousands of other people, and were hooked.1 ! in January, 1839, Mrs Owen records that “as soon as R. came home he made for 'Barnaby Rudge' and sat with him until past two o'clock...”2 ! and on September 8th of that year, while staying at Florence Court in Ireland, the home of the Earl of Enniskillen, a keen amateur naturalist, Owen felt moved to share the important news with Caroline that he had read the last number of Nicholas Nickelby.3
4Early on, Owen was thinking in terms of analogies between what Dickens and his circle (in this case, the actor-manager, Macready) were doing in the arts and his own efforts in science. On 26th June, 1839, Mrs Owen writes :
- 4 Ibid., 158.
R. at the last minute made up his mind to see “Henry V” under Macready's management. He returned highly pleased, and said Macready seems to have done for Shakespeare much as he has been trying to do lor John Hunter.4
5Owen was Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons when he made this remark and he and his father-in-law, William Clift, were engaged in the herculean task of editing the papers of John Hunter, an edition of which Owen eventually published in 1861. The function of the actor/manager, Macready, in rendering the most patriotic play of Shakespeare to the public immediately seemed very like his own as editor of an archaic but vastly important collection of observations in Comparative Anatomy. This is already a hint of that characteristic popularising streak in Owen which remained with him through the 1850's and 1860's and which formed an important strand of 'recognition' between himself and Dickens.
- 5 Ibid., 158.
6On June 12th, 1843, the artist and the scientist finally came face to face and took to each other immediately. Mrs Owen records that the two men met in the green room at the Drury Lane theatre, after a performance of As You Like It, at which the Queen was present ! ‘...and’, comments Caroline, ‘a friendship commenced between them which was always maintained.’5
7The next year Caroline gives a rather Pooterish sketch of Owen's total readerly absorption in Martin Chuzzlewit :
- 6 Ibid., 233-4.
May 3rd 1844. – After a hard day's work, R. deep in “Martin Chuzzlwit”. My father came in before going to the Royal Society, and talked to R. without mercy ! but R., whose thoughts and attention were so entirely given up to Mrs Gamp and Jonas, could only answer at random. As soon as my father was gone, we laughed over Mrs Gamp till bedtime.6
8On August 9th that same year, we find him at the dramatisation of the novel, correcting a proof in the pit while waiting for the curtain to go up. On the whole the Owens thought it a poor show, but Keeley's Mrs Gamp he judged ‘excellent.’
9By the second half of the 1840's, Owen's own star had risen. Eccentric, aimiable, with his huge, domed head, he seemed to the public the very image of the Victorian Magus. Owen became known as ‘the British Cuvier’ – because of his interest in the morphology of species and his opposition to Lamarck's evolutionary theory, a position which was consciously modelled on that of Baron Cuvier. Interested in several different branches of the natural sciences, Professor Owen had become a kind of folk-hero of science, universally consulted for his opinions on what seems to the modern reader an impossibly diverse set of topics. As well as his chair at the Royal College of Surgeons, amongst the duties of which was the task of producing a new lecture series each year, he also frequently lectured on his finds at the Royal Institution. He was chief dissector at the newly formed Zoological Gardens, and, partly out of the authority gained from this work on the skeletons of living animals, he produced a string of important scientific papers during the 1840's and 1850's on the osteology of the higher primates in the Transactions of the Zoological Society, becoming in the process arguably the foremost authority at that time in England on the Ape.
- 7 Dickens had read this work and thought it 'remarkable'. See his review of R. Hunt, Poetry of Scien (...)
- 8 The pamphlet describing these in detail has unfortunately gone missing from the British Library. B (...)
10These were the heady days of the discovery of the chimpanzee, the orangutan, and the gorilla, and Owen was helping to purchase specimens for ‘The Gardens.’ In addition to this work, Owen was also pioneering the reconstruction of the skeletons of extinct animals (he wrote the first Encyclopaedia Britannica article on ‘Palaeontology’, later issued as a separate pamphlet) and he was fully, indeed at times rather hostilely, engaged in the issues of evolution raised by the anonymous appearance of Robert Chambers's Vestiges of Creation (1844).7 It was Owen who first coined the term ‘Dinosaur’ in 1841 for the group of Ichthyosauraus, Hlaeosaurus, and the great land animal, the Megalosaurus. Owen effectively designed the Victorian Dinosaur ! and we know exactly how he envisaged these creatures, because, later in 1854, thirty-ton concrete and steel models were built to his specifications in the grounds of the Great exhibition Park at Sydenham.8
11At this time, Owen also worked on the remains of the skeleton of the extinct giant sloth, the Megatherium ! and, a piece of magic that made him famous, he reconstructed the whole of Dinornis, the extinct giant ostrich, from an unidentified bone sent to him by a missionary correspondent from New Zealand.
12Throughout this period, Owen took large doses of Dickens in order to relax from his punishing schedule.
13In the early 1850's, the paths of the two men began to cross more regularly as their several points of interest converged on a number of occasions. Both men had immense social drive : they are listed in Samuel Smiles's Self-Help as examples of people coming from lowly birth to the top of their professions. They had the same kind of Broad Church, low-key but deeply felt Protestantism, which had fuelled their interest, according to a well-established tradition which stretched back to the 1830's, in the popular diffusion of specialist and scientific knowledge.
14Owen eventually moved to the British Museum where he became the head of the newly created Natural History Department. But as time went on, during the fifties, he realised he lacked the autonomy to control the immensely rapid process of expansion in the natural history field, and he became concerned that the public had no means of examining the specimens. In the later 1850's he began a campaign for a separate museum on a site in Kensington, drawing up the plans himself and lobbying influential figures, including Dickens, whose magazines gave him generous and effective support.
- 9 See “A Foe Under Foot”, HW, Vol VI, Dec. 11th 1852 ! and "Commission and Omission", Sat Nov. 18th (...)
15There were other interests the two men had in common. They were both part of a group of metropolitan middle-class radicals centred on the Athenaium, a group with Carlylean sympathies which was generally opposed to the donnish society of Oxbridge. Owen was a member of the Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, because of the work he had carried out as a young man on the drainage system of Lancaster, his home town. Public health, of course, was of great interest to Dickens ! and he kept a close watch on the doings of the Commission, through his brother-in-law, Henry Austin, who was Secretary to the Board until his death in 1861. Household Words carried a couple of articles on this topic, one of which (quite gratuitously) represents some of Owen's ‘enquiries’ about sanitary matters, while the other reports his membership of the Board.9
16Owen was also involved in various literary matters. He was party to the setting up of the Guild of Literature and Art, Dickens's version of a kind of life insurance scheme for writers and artists ! and he was involved with Dickens in 1852 in the copyright dispute with the Booksellers Association. Owen was present at the famous meeting chaired by Dickens at John Chapman's house in the Strand, which also included G.H.Lewes, Herbert Spencer, and George Eliot. Both Dickens and Owen were favourites of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert : Dickens, of course performed theatricals for the Queen, and Owen, who was presented with Sheen lodge in Richmond Park as a gift from the Queen, lectured on natural history topics at the Palace to Prince Albert and the royal children.
- 10 The network of writers employed on natural history subjects in Household Words included Charles Kn (...)
- 11 For comment on Dickens's attitudes as editor, See Monroe Engel, The Maturity of Dickens, Harvard, (...)
- 12 See R.C. Lehmann, Charles Dickens As Editor, London, 1912, passim. Dickens wrote to Faraday after (...)
17Dickens founded Household Words in 1850 ! and by the time he asked Owen to contribute, the magazine already carried quite a number of articles on natural history topics. Dickens had gathered round him a number of writers from the days of Bentleys Miscellany and the Daily News, including the redoubtable Wills, his sub-editor.10 Dickens himself is well known to have been an extraordinarily careful and attentive editor, not an editor in fact, but a 'conductor' as he put it later, explicitly creating the impression that everything that was printed in the magazine was his own opinion, ruthlessly expunging and actively re-writing material which was apparently inconsistent with his known public image.11 He was particularly hard on any mistakes he spotted, the practice of the magazine, like many others at the time, was known as 'boiling'. Dickens himself was constantly on the look-out for books to boil on all subjects, as his correspondence with Wills indicates.12
- 13 Caroline Owen is reponsible for the tradition that it was Forster who first suggested that Owen wr (...)
18But Dickens also had a shrewd idea of where writers could find the meat to be boiled. Household Words had something of the air of the old-fashioned 'miscellany' : writers took books of information from all sources and freely extracted salient facts and entertaining anecdotes from them. In the field of natural history, many of these anonymous writers were already taking their cue from Owen, who was regarded as a leading authority ! but it seems highly likely that the policy of using Owen as a specific and continual reference point was consciously supported and approved of from the outset by Dickens himself. For example, F.K.Hunt wrote a strategic piece on Owen's old museum, “The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons” in one of the early numbers of HW. Later, the piece by Morley and Wills entitled “A Flight With the Birds”, HW, Vol V, helped popularise Owen's famous articulation of the Moa (Dinornis) skeleton at the British Museum. Even by the time Dickens invited him to write for the magazine in 1851, 'Professor Owen' could already assume that his audience had a certain familiarity with his work and character, a fact of which he took full rhetorical advantage.13
19The fact that the underlying drift of support for Owen in Dickens's magazine is not just a personal matter emerges in some of the articles published in the second half of the 1850's when the question of evolution really began to heat up. Dickens's magazine is effectively a mouthpiece for the Owenite line on questions of the production of species. For example, there is a much greater urgency of tone in Ernest Abraham Hart's “Nature's Greatness in Small Things” of November 23, 1857, the peroration of which spells out the general position for Dickens's audience :
- 14 HW, Vol XVI, 511.
What Schleiden had done for structural anatomy, Owen did for the anatomy of form, the man, the bird, the reptile, and the fish, the uncouth saurian, and the strange griffin of pre-Adamite days, seemed to be separated by as wide an interval as any that distinguished the structure of the lichen from that of the palm-tree. But the secret once fathomed, and the type established, their visible connection is read off from them as from nature's own primer. Owen has demonstrated to the satisfaction of the world, that, by changes of the one form alone, the archetypal vertebra, all world-wide varieties have been affected. This is the key of the mammoth frame –it is the secret of the shape of the fishy tribe...Thus it is that truth harmonises with truth and law with law.14
- 15 Huxley, 'Memoir', in Owen, Life, Vol II, 317-318. See also the comprehensive discussion of Owen's (...)
- 16 Spencer sought to use some of Owen's 'progressionist' anatomical arguments in the service of Socia (...)
20Owen's terms ‘Archetype’ and its companion ‘Homology’ represent the catchwords of the decade ! they are on everone's lips. The tradition of thought is a continental one, essentially German, coming through from Oken and Viktor Carus, and Kantian in nature. Owen knew German, and had a knowledge of work from a whole range of German sources, but he was an anatomist who had done no work in embryology, as Huxley later pointed out, which is where the new thinking on the ‘development hypothesis’ was coming from ! instead, his doctrine of the archetype was ultimately a Platonist version of the Argument from Design ! it admitted of evolutionary processes, but only as a ‘secondary law’, and was based on the idea of the development of vertebrae, ie of local items, from a kind of fixed template.15 By 1861, this doctrine was discredited in the famous 'hippocampus minor' dispute between Owen and Huxley at the Royal Society, but in 1857 it was still plausible to many, including Chambers and even Herbert Spencer.16
21Hart, however, is anxious to go on and spell out to Dickens's audience the consequences of Owen's work quite clearly :
This grand demonstration of unity in creation is a new bulwark to religion, the proofs of design have long been a potent weapon of defence, and an earnest source of delight in the hands of rational and religious men. But there are many things in nature which it failed to explain. What of intelligent and economic design could be traced in the half-dozen bones hidden beneath the skin of the seal's flapper ? We begin now to see that the apparent anomalies bear reference to economy of type, and not of instrument...
22The distinction between ‘economy of type’ and ‘economy of instrument’ in this passage is an important one for the reader of Dickens ! it is a distinction between a structural and a functional view of comparative anatomy. The final paragraph is the perfect fusion of Protestantism and science :
- 17 HW, Vol XVI, Nov 23, 1857, 511. Hart cross-refers in this piece, incidentally, to two previous arti (...)
Thus, beyond and above the law of design in creation stands the law of unity of type and unity of structure. No function so various, no labours so rude, so elaborate and so dissimilar, but this cell can build up the instrument and the model prescribes the limit of its shape. Through all creation, the microscope detects the handwriting of oneness of power and ordnance. It has become the instrument of a new revelation in science and speaks clearly to the soul as to the mind of man.17
23Another obvious piece of anti-Lamarckian propaganda in the evolutionary debate is the anti-transmutation piece 'Everything after Its Kind' of April 24th, 1858, by Christoper Warton Mann :
- 18 HW, Vol XVII, 451.
There have been learned men who, in tracing the ascent from the lower forms of animated nature to the higher, have endeavoured to prove that each grade might be made, by cultivation, and under favourable circumstances, to attain to the excellence of the grade above it. They have almost implied the possibility of getting a monkey's great toes to expand into thumbs and gradually to develop him into a man. But this doctrine is utterly unsupported by the facts. There is always manifested by the germ-power a striving after perfection, an untiring effort to cast out any disturbing or contaminating influence, but always strictly “after its kind” ! not to attain to the excellence of another race.18
24This article, which purports to confront centrally the question of species-development, doesn't mention Owen by name, but it pursues very much the same reassuring line as Hart's, alluding, under the euphemism 'learned men' to Lamarck, and recalling th anti-Lamarckian battles which Owen and others had been engaged in in the 1830's.
25Finally, All The Year Round began by carrying in Volume 1 (April 30th-October 22, 1859) an article called 'Our Nearest Relation' which is a review, effectively a paraphrase, of Owen's Memoir On The Gorilla, which had been read to the Royal Institution in February 1859, and which contained an appendix on the transmutation of species. This was Owen's last attempt to provide conclusive proof of his position from osteology of this great ape, before the publication of Darwin's The Origin Of the Species. The article liberally paraphrases Owen's treatise, its cruder echoes revealing how Owen in the original treatise had even sought to stress the nearness of this newly-discovered ape to man, in order to show finally the unbridgeable gulf between us and our nearest relation :
- 19 AYR, Vol I, 112ff.
Men cannot help feeling a little ashamed of their cousin-german the Ape. His close yet grotesque and clumsy semblance of the human form is accompanied by no gleams of higher instinct. Our humble friend the dog, our patient fellow-labourer the horse, are nearer to us in this respect. The magnanimous and sagacious elephant, doomed though he be to all fours, is godlike compared with this spitefully ferocious creature. Strangely enough, too, the most repulsive and ferocious of all apekind, the recently discovered Gorilla -is, the comparative anatomist assures us, nearest to us all : the most closely allied in structure to the human form.19
- 20 Desmond, op.cit. 71.
26Owen makes his appearance here in the phrase 'the comparative anatomist assures us'. Darwin annotated Owen's treatise when it came out, and appropriated all its anatomical evidence as supportive of his own arguments for natural selection. By using this argument, Owen, as one critic puts it, had 'played unwitting John the baptist to Darwin's Christ'.20
- 21 Alvar Ellgard, Darwin and the General Reader : The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution in th (...)
27Despite the famous events in the Oxford meeting of the British Association, the 1860's saw no abatement in general of the loyalty shown by Dickens's magazine to Owen. With one vital exception : as Alvar Ellgard has shown, All the Year Roun was one of the two magazines in England to carry a review of Darwin's Origin of Species during the first year of publication. The other magazine was Chambers's Journal.21
28In fact, there are two pieces about Darwin, and they are almost opposite in tone and implication. The first, on June 2nd 1860, entitled 'Species' is conventional and deistic in tone, seeking to bridge the gap between Darwin and Christianity. But the piece carried in Dickens's magazine in July 7th is quite different in manner : we do not know who wrote this review, but as its title, 'Natural Selection' indicates, it is crisp and straight to the point, other mid-century reviewers did not receive the book with anything like this degree of openness and clarity. After a paraphrase of the book's argument, in which the writer notes that 'It is Malthus's doctrine applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms, with increased force...', the review goes on to isolate the consequences of Darwin's hypothesis without the usual clutter of disguised theological premises and with a surprisingly 'modern' clarity of overview :
- 22 AYR, Vol III, (June 2nd) 1860, 176 ! and 299.
The theory, of which a brief sample has been given, entails the vastest consequences. We are no longer to look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship - as at something wholly beyond his comprehension ! we are to regard every production of nature as one which has had a history ! we arc to contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summary of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at a great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason ansd even the blunders of numerous workmen. The natural system of classification becomes a genealogical arrangement...22
29The modernity of vision in this piece is quite unlike Dickens's magazine's habitual tone. Here we see a graphic anticipation of Foucault's point in The Order of Things about the epistemic shift from the static Linnean system of classification to the dynamic new space of 'genealogy', the biography and pre-history of the organism as factors in its definition. Owen is indeed mentioned in this piece (p.298) as a reference point, and some of his comments are quoted : 'Professor Owen has remarked, there is no greater anomaly in nature than a bird that cannot fly ! yet there are several in this state...' By implication, it is Darwin's hypothesis which explains Owen's 'anomaly', but the point is not laboured at all ! instead, the writer passes on, faced with the problem of how to conclude the review's argument, to perform a rhetorical manoeuvre of teasing self-consciousness, as if sensing the recalcitrance of the Dickensian audience :
- 23 Ibid., 299.
Timid persons, who purposely cultivate a certain inertia of mind, and who love to cling to their preconceived ideas, fearing the look at such a mighty subject from an unauthorised and unwonted point of view, may be reassured by the reflection that, for theories, as for organised beings, there is also a Natural Selection and a struggle for life...23
- 24 He certainly knew about it later. He wrote jokingly to Wills on Sunday 21st Oct. 1866 : 'The secre (...)
30This last phrase is very close to Herbert Spencer's 'struggle for existence', but the style is too elegant for Spencer. A possible candidate is Chambers himself, whose sister was married to Wills and whose work and secret authorship of the Vestiges Dickens probably already knew about.24
31Owen himself, of course, can hardly be a candidate : he reviewed Darwin elsewhere with hostility. Up to this time, however, there had not been many differences between Owen and the more positivistic circle associated with Darwin and Huxley which John Chapman had gathered around the Westminster Review, - Spencer, Lewes, and George Eliot. After 1861, however, and the 'hippocampus minor' dispute, the lines were drawn up, though Lewes, who was a brilliant amateur naturalist, kept up a friendship with Owen in the 1860's ! Owen's career, in terms of original and lasting scientific contributions, suffered an eclipse, despite the fact that he poured out papers at the same rate, and the honours continued to roll in.
32At this point it might be worth reminding ourselves of the complex series of connections here between science, politics, and aesthetics in the minds of this group of Victorians. Dickens was also at odds with the Westminster Review group over the question of 'development', particularly as it relates to the idea of social progress. One recalls the example of the famous Fortnightly Review essay by G.H. Lewes, written in 1872 after Dickens's death, which is the eloquent source for a common charge against Dickens's art as a novelist - the familiar contention that his characters do not 'develop' and are therefore not true to life. They are, said Lewes trenchantly, like dead, but galvanised, frogs always performing a single repeated action, not living organisms :
- 25 'Dickens in relation to Criticism', Fortnightly Review, February, 1872.
It is this compexity of the organism which Dickens wholly fails to conceive : his characters have nothing fluctuating and incalculable in them, even when they embody true observations ! and very often they arc creations so fantastic that one is at a loss to understand how he could, without hallucination, believe them to be like reality.25
- 26 It's all the more curious when we remember that it is Lewes himself who is credited by the Oxford (...)
33It is worth remarking in this context how the Lewes passage elides the biological notion of an organism with the aesthetic demand for pyschological realism in character, a curiously anthropomorphic reliance on an organic metaphor of growth and development, an argument from Nature to Culture, which marks Lewes's discourse as closely related to the complex of ideas which we have come to know as 'Social Darwinism'.26
34As early as 1857, two years before the battle lines were finally drawn up over the question of evolution by the publication of Darwin's Origin, Herbert Spencer published in the Westminster Review an ambitious and influential article, 'Progress :
35Its Law and Cause', which argues for the axiomatic law of organic growth in all fields of human culture :
The investigations of Wolff, Goethe, and Von Baer, have established the truth that a series of changes gone through during the development of a seed into a tree, or an ovum into an animal, constitute an advance from homogeneity of structure to heterogeneity of structure. In its primary stage, every germ consists of a substance that is uniform throughout, both in texture and in chemical composition. The first step in its development is the appearance of a difference between two parts of this substance ! or, as the phenomenon is described in physiological language - a differentiation. Each of these differentiated divisions presently begins itself to exhibit some contrast of parts and by these secondary differentiations become as definite as the individual one. This process is continuously represented - ie simultaneously going on in all parts of the growing embryo ! and by endless multiplication of these differentiations there is ultimately produced that complex combination of tissues and organs constituting the adult animal or plant. This is the course of evolution followed by all organisms whatever. It is settled beyond dispute that organic progress consists in a change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous.
- 27 'Progress ! Its Law and Cause,' Westminster Review, 1857, New Series, Vol I, 446.
Now, we propose to show, that this law of organic progress is the law of all progress. Whether it be in the the development of the earth, in the development of Life upon its surface, in the development of society, of Government, of manufactures ! of Commerce, of Language, Literature, Science, Art, this same evolution of the simple into the complex, through a process of continuous differentiation, holds throughout.27
36Spencer's metonymic claim that all progress works by the same organic law triumphantly carries over assumptions about biological and physiological processes into a host of other fields, including those of Language and Art. It reminds us of the fact that fully-fledged Social Darwinism begins before Darwin.
- 28 Compare Levine here, however, op.cit., 154, who regards Bleak House as 'organicist'. But he is cle (...)
- 29 For detailed discussions of relations between Dickens and Science (including Darwinism ), see J. P (...)
37When Spencer moves into the political and linguistic spheres, his argument begins to look not only unconvincing, but rather pompous and conservative in tone. Politically, Spencer's discussion declines into a celebratory hymn to the virtues of the Division of Labour. From a Dickensian point of view, the notion of society as a ramifying organism is a nightmare !28 from Dombey and Son onwards, he carries out a massive sustained attack on the premise that adaptive specialism equals social progress : this kind of specialisation, the elaboration of bureaucratic divisions, the substitution of special illiterate jargons for language, the growth of legal offices, administrative departments, courts of justice etc.29
- 30 See J. Politi, op.cit., for a discussion of 'regression' in Bleak House.
38Dickens anticipates and resists Spenser's biological law of progress from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous by a process of comic inversion. 'Nature' in the later Dickens tends to exist for the purposes of satire and parody of the new capitalism. To quote a famous example, the opening paragraph of Bleak House is an explicitly evolutionary joke about the regressive nature of the mid-Victorian society which Spencer goes on to praise as the most highly-developed in the world.30 Here the heterogeneous (modern) is systematically reduced to the homogeneous (prehistoric), its material or financial base ! mud or money and, later, 'fog' and 'slime' ! and, on the level of language, Dickens shows, according to Spencer's own criteria, how the language of lawyers, through specialisation, has entered into a primitive homogeneous state, which Jarndyce refers to as ‘wiglomeration’. Dickens's lawyer, Mr Tangle, speaks a kind of telegraphese, a helpless series of exclamations, having apparently lost all syntax and connective tissue - the signs, according to Spencer of linguistic evolution. Kenge and Carboy's letter to Esther ironically displays the same symptoms of homogeneity. The argument about language and representation is worked out more systematically still in Hard Times, where Dickens deliberately pillories the primitive confusion of thought that conceives of language as a specialist set of labels. Little Dorrit's handling of negation and plurality in language carries the critique further.
39But it is in his darkest masterpiece, Our Mutual Friend (1865), that Dickens's friendship with Owen is related most explicitly to this divergence on the one hand from Social Darwinism and on the other from the aesthetic demand for character development and realism. Here the idea of the newly discovered antiquity of man, for example, and the notion of an evolutionary regression are used satirically, to expose the primitive nature of the new capitalism. In this book Dickens returns to the often hilariously destructive contrast between a society's ideas of its own newness and the prehistoric, primitive struggle into which it has actually sunk without knowing it. The famous picture of Gaffer Hexham, in the novel's opening, is an image of an evolutionary regression, a parody of Social Darwinism :
- 31 OMF, Signet ! New American Library, p. 16. All subsequent references to this edition.
Allied to the bottom of the river rather than the surface, by reason of the slime and ooze with which it was covered and its sodden state, this boat and the two figures in it were obviously doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought. Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow and the shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made of the mud that begrimed the boat, still there was business-like usage in his steady gaze...31
- 32 In 1861, on the 26th January, AYR, Vol II, 237, carried an article about fossil remains called 'Ea (...)
40London is a dark primeval swamp. Narrator and reader, visitors from the future, creep up on two inhabitants of the present. The movement is characteristically backwards and downwards into the geological depths : by the 1860's, the fossil record had spread considerably.32 The boat is already sunk, and resurrected like an archeological version of a dugout. But paradoxically, in the metaphorical system of the book, this movement backwards and downwards into the depths only reveals the surfaces of things. Dickens's narrative is full of little metaphorical touches, small moments in which a huge retrogressive tract of time is suddenly revealed. For example, as Lizzie Hexham looks dreamingly at her pictures in the fire, Charley Hexham her brother interjects with a quite different perspective :
“Yes. Then as I sit a-looking at the fire, I seem to see in the burning coal - like where that glow is now -
“That's gas, that is,” said the boy, “coming out of a bit of the forest that's been under the mud that was under the water in the days of Noah's ark. Look here ! When I take the poker - so - and give it a dig – ” (44)
41Lizzie's dreamy old 'pictures in the fire' motif is violated and suddenly 'modernised' - ironically it is Bradley Headstone's 'new' education which has revealed to Charley the fact that the world of the present is built on depths and layers much older than we conventionally think. But instead of constituting it, the knowledge only parodies real development in Charley.
42The same pattern of regression is discernible in the description of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, which is a parody of growth and development :
The wood forming the chimney-pieces, beams, partitions, floors, and doors of the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters seemed in its old age fraught with confused memories of its youth. In many places it had become gnarled and riven, according to the manner of old trees ! knots started out of it ! and here and there it seemed to twist itself into the likeness of boughs. In this state of second childhood, it had an air of being in its own way garrulous about its early life. Not without reason was it often asserted by the regular frequenters of the Porters that when the light shone full upon the grain of certain panels and particularly upon an old corner cupboard of walnut wood in the bar, you might trace little forests there, like the parent tree, in full umbrageous leaf. (79-80)
43This is a world going backwards, receding into its elements. The hilarious Silas Wegg is an evolutionary nightmare of the same type, his curious anatomy an explicit parody of organic growth and development :
Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material that had just as much play of expression in it as a watchman's rattle. When he laughed, certain jerks occurred in it, and the rattle sprung. Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seeemd to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer that he might be expected - if his development received no untimely check - to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months. (63)
44The homogeneities of this novel are 'wood' and 'slime' which underlie everything built. The Dust Heaps in which Wegg hops and pokes like 'some extinct bird' are known as the Dismal Swamp. Even the bran-new Veneering's dinner-party, the epitome of surfaces and reflections, not depths, modulates from a zoological view of Podsnap at the trough, into an evolutionary joke about Mrs Podsnap :
Reflects Podsnap : prosperous feeding, two little light-coloured wiry wings, one on either side of his bald head, looking as like his hair brushes as his hair, dissolving view of red beads on his forehead, large allowance of crumpled shirt-collar up behind. Reflects Mrs Podsnap : fine woman for Professor Owen, quantity of bone, neck, and nostrils like a rocking horse, hard-features, majestic head-dress in which Podsnap has hung golden offerings.(25)
45Such was Owen's popular reputation by the 1860's that, whether we assume a reader who knew Household Words or not, the allusion immediately turns Mrs Podsnap into Dinomis, the Moa, the giant extinct ostrich of New Zealand, whose skeleton Owen was famous for articulating.
46Articulation, of course, is a a great theme in this book ! it is used to parody both the organic version of the body-politic and the biological metaphor of social growth and development which had been appropriated from Darwin and Huxley by Herbert Spencer, and which was used by Lewes and George Eliot, increasingly in the 1860's as the fulcrum of a new aesthetic realism. There is a touch of affectionate parody of Owen in the figure of the taxidermist, Mr Venus, whose card reads 'Preserver of Animals and Birds' and 'Articulator of Human Bones' ! and whose workshop in Clerkenwell is the very emblem of Dickens's resistance to the power of the organic analogy. Venus, the Anatomist, recycles bits : his 'museum', as the narrator calls it, is at once a pre-Joycean microcosm of the contingent nature of reality, and an evolutionary burial ground of extinct organs and spare parts of the Empire's once-proud body-politic :
“Oh dear me, dear me !” sighs Mr Venus, heavily, snuffing the candle, “the world that appeared so flowery has ceased to blow ! You're casting your rye round the shop, Mr Wegg. Let me show you a light. My working bench. A wise. Tools. Bones, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a'top. What's in those hampers over there again, I don't quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Oh dear me ! that's the general panoramic view.” (25)
- 33 A Report of a Sad Case, recently tried before the Lord Mayor, Owen versus Huxley, in which will be (...)
- 34 Since the 1830's in fact. Desmond, op.cit., refers to the discussions in Owen's notebook (Oct-Dec (...)
47The picture of Owen as a cockney taxidermist was a well-known joke. After 'hippocampus minor', an elaborate pamphlet appeared in 1863, just before Dickens began work on Our Mutual Friend, in which Tom Huxley, 'well known about the town in connection with monkeys', and Dick Owen, 'in the old bone and bird-stuffing line', are arrested for causing a disturbance. Each puts the case in Cockney33. Owen was essentially the type who got his hands dirty. His morning postbag, with its usual quota of odd bones, chimpanzees' heads, and even pieces of buried wood, sent in by missionaries, explorers, and marine engineers all over world from New Zealand to Jarrow, must have frequently resembled Mr Venus's shop. It is also possible that Dickens or Forster (a key link between them) knew that he had been experimenting for years with spirit preservation.34
48The friendship between Dickens and Owen is significant, I think, in several ways. The intellectual and social make-up of the two men was very close, and conditioned the tenor of their relationship. They both thrived on popularising ideas. One should not underestimate what Dickens's magazines, particularly in later years, did for Owen ! according to Ellgard, the circulation of All The Year Round, at certain periods, exceeded that of The Times.
49On the other hand, I think Owen's view of the production of species is important for Dickens. Dickens, of course, was no scientist or even naturalist, but he was trained as a professional journalist and editor, and he had both a personal and a professional interest in promoting Owen's work and reputation. This meant that he was well-informed about disputes in the natural sciences ! but that, in so far as he took sides, he was quite Firmly on ' the wrong side' in the Darwinist dispute. This is a crude reduction, however ! we have come a long way in reassessing Owen's position since William Irvine's cold war absolutism about these mid-Victorian scientific disputes. Certainly, Owen was a complicated eclectic ! a recent writer has summed up his notorously elusive intellectual framework as follows :
- 35 Roy Mcleod, op cit., 259-80.
‘...Owen combined the attributes of an Aristotelian systematist, a Cuverian telcologist, an Okenian idealist, and a broad Church theist.’35
- 36 Ellgard, op.cit., 30.
50His position was theistic, and transcendentalist ! but it should be stressed that it was not entirely undynamic. Ellgard, who places him in the centre of a spectrum between catastrophism and Natural Selection, calls his position ‘derivation’.36
51Perhaps what is more important is that Owen was a Comparative Anatomist, not a biologist ! because this meant that Dickens was mainly acquainted with controversies about the production, growth and development of species, through the promotion of a structural and not a functional view of the problem – ‘economy of the type, not the instrument'. His Household Words writers explicitly develop this point in their reviews. Owen's view of things, as Huxley complained, really excluded an account of the development of the organism. On the other hand, Owen did not follow Oken's view that animals were, as he expressed it so sublimely, 'irregular men'. As Roy Mcleod puts it :
- 37 op.cit., 278.
Owen did not subscribe to this view, in which man was morphologically the measure of all things ! indeed he was quite ready to combine a “progressionist” outlook with his idealism, and have Nature proceed not from a human referent, but from one very like a fish.37
52In this case, the exclusive pursuit of Anatomy brings with it a curious freedom from the conventionally anthropomorphic.
53I think this complex of attitudes may be significant for Dickens's representation of the body, and his use of anatomical metaphors to defamiliarise. Dickens is quite obsessed by the sheerly anatomical existence of the body, whether human or animal ! and at the same time increasingly resistant to the seductive anthropmorphism of those organic metaphors of growth and development which Foucault thinks of in The Order of Things as the nineteenth-century episteme itself. 'Nature' in the later Dickens is used almost exclusively to parody social and political processes. It was his journalistic campaign on behalf of Owen in the sphere of natural history which helped him, in part, to escape the anthropomorphic projection involved in the cult of the organism, and to remain outside those seductively optimistic mid-century paradigms of growth and development.
1 Many of the details given below come from Caroline Owen's journal. Unfortunately, the journal itself appears to have been lost (probably suppressed for family reasons). Selected quotations arc to be found in The Life of Richard Owen, by his grandson, the rev. Richard Owen, MA., 2 Vols, London 1894. See Vol 1, 104. Other recent biographical sources are : Nicolaas A. Rupke, Richard Owen, Victorian Naturalist, Yale UP, Newhaven and London, 1994 ! and Richard Owen, The Hunterian Lectures in Comparative Anatomy, May and June 1837, ed. and with an introductory essay and commentary, by Phillip Reid Sloan, London, 1992.
2 Ibid., Vol 1, 152
3 Ibid., 164.
4 Ibid., 158.
5 Ibid., 158.
6 Ibid., 233-4.
7 Dickens had read this work and thought it 'remarkable'. See his review of R. Hunt, Poetry of Science, The Examiner, Sept 12, 1848.
8 The pamphlet describing these in detail has unfortunately gone missing from the British Library. But sec the interesting account in Adrian Desmond, Archetypes and Ancestors : Paleaontology in Victorian London, 1850-1875, London, 1982, 119ff.
9 See “A Foe Under Foot”, HW, Vol VI, Dec. 11th 1852 ! and "Commission and Omission", Sat Nov. 18th 1854, HW, Vol X, 323.
10 The network of writers employed on natural history subjects in Household Words included Charles Knight, an encyclopaedia editor who had been involved in the 'Society For the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge' in the 1830's, and who later presented Dickens with a copy of his Cyclopaedia, which the latter had in his library after his death. Knight brought in George Dodd and FK. Hunt who also contributed on natural history. Another Owen-orientated natural history writer was Frank Buckland, whose father, William Buckland, the Oxford catastrophist, had first unearthed Owen's Megalosaurus from the Oxford slate ! Buckland, pere, was a close personal friend of Owen and a fellow-collaborator, along with Agassiz and Broderip, on the 6th Bridgewater Treatise. Another writer on natural history whom Dickens favoured was John Robertson who was based for a time in Paris and who attended lectures at the Jardin des Plantes. For biographical and other useful information concerning these and other contributors to HW and AYR, see Anne Lorhli, Household Words, Toronto, 1973 ! and Ella Oppenlander, Dickens' AYR : Descriptive Index and Contributor List, Whitstone, NY, 1984.
11 For comment on Dickens's attitudes as editor, See Monroe Engel, The Maturity of Dickens, Harvard, 1958, 40 and N. See also the avowal of responsibility published by CD in AYR :
The statements and opinions of this Journal generally are, of course, to be received as the statements and opinions of its Conductor. 'Note', AYR, X, 26th December 1863, 419.
12 See R.C. Lehmann, Charles Dickens As Editor, London, 1912, passim. Dickens wrote to Faraday after a lecture he had given at the Royal Institution, to borrow his notes. Faraday obliged and Dickens passed them on to Wills who boiled them into several articles, using Percival Leigh. For some fascinating comment on the relation between these articles and Bleak House, see G. Levine, Darwin And The Novelists, London, 1988, 156 ! and especially Anne Y. Wilkinson, "Bleak House : From Faraday to Judgement Day," ELH, 34 (1967) : 225-247.
13 Caroline Owen is reponsible for the tradition that it was Forster who first suggested that Owen write for HW, but it is not quite clear whether Forster then spoke to CD. Owen himself seems to have written to Dickens in May of 1851 and made his first proposal to write for HW himself, and Dickens's rather distracted reply from Devonshire terrace of May 7th suggests that the news of the proposal is fresh to him, see The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed Madeleine House, Piligrim ed., Vol VI.
14 HW, Vol XVI, 511.
15 Huxley, 'Memoir', in Owen, Life, Vol II, 317-318. See also the comprehensive discussion of Owen's views in Roy Mcleod, "Evolutionism and Richard Owen," Isis, 56, 259-80. Owen's actual ideas are notoriously difficult to be precise about because he changed his line. Owen's biographer argues that his original line is more Aristotelian than Platonist, but that Owen 'platonized' his doctrine as a response to pressure, in order to get himself out of the quagmire of pantheism : see Nicholaas Rupke, Richard Owen : Victorian Naturalist, Yale Up ! Newhaven and London, 1994, 200.
16 Spencer sought to use some of Owen's 'progressionist' anatomical arguments in the service of Social Darwinism, so close did Owen's finding seem at the time in 1857, but the effect is palpably uneasy :
Or we might cite, as decisive, the judgement of Professor Owen, who holds that the earlier examples of each group of creatures severally departed less widely from archetypal generality than the later ones - were severally less unlike the fundamental form common to the group as a whole ! that is to say, - constituted a less heterogeneous group of creatures ! and who further upholds the doctrine of a biological progression. But in deference to the authority for who we have the highest respect, who considers that the evidence at present obtained does not justify a verdict cither way, we are content to leave the question open. 'Progress : Its Law and Cause', Westminster Review, New Series, Vol I, June/April, 1857.
17 HW, Vol XVI, Nov 23, 1857, 511. Hart cross-refers in this piece, incidentally, to two previous articles he had written in HW on animal and plant classification, from which it is likely that Dickens, who was just beginning Hard Times at the time, spotted the repeatedly-used term 'graminivorous' which was to become one of the most punished pieces of jargon in the English language.
18 HW, Vol XVII, 451.
19 AYR, Vol I, 112ff.
20 Desmond, op.cit. 71.
21 Alvar Ellgard, Darwin and the General Reader : The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1857-1872, Goteborg, 1958, 26.
22 AYR, Vol III, (June 2nd) 1860, 176 ! and 299.
23 Ibid., 299.
24 He certainly knew about it later. He wrote jokingly to Wills on Sunday 21st Oct. 1866 : 'The secret concerning our Vestiges friend remains a secret,' letter repr. in Lehmann, Charles Dickens As Editor, London, 1912, 352. The reference here seems to be double : to the (open) secret by 1866 of Chambers's authorship of the book, and to the (closed) secret of his forthcoming marriage. Four years later, when Chambers's wife died, Dickens sent a consolatory word to him. Chambers, who was born with six fingers, came from a hexadactyl family and was fascinated by Owen's approach to anatomy, particularly by his lectures on the nature of limbs. Herbert Spencer also attended these lectures.
25 'Dickens in relation to Criticism', Fortnightly Review, February, 1872.
26 It's all the more curious when we remember that it is Lewes himself who is credited by the Oxford Dictionary as first coining the word 'anthropomorphism'. See R. Ashton, G.H.Lewes : A Life, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1991, 187.
27 'Progress ! Its Law and Cause,' Westminster Review, 1857, New Series, Vol I, 446.
28 Compare Levine here, however, op.cit., 154, who regards Bleak House as 'organicist'. But he is clearly following George Eliot and imposing a version of her organicism on Dickens, which is precisely the point I am putting at issue. Cf with Levine, the account of how Dickens treats the ramifying complexity of society in Richard C. Maxwell, 'GWM Reynolds, Dickens, and The Mysteries of London,' Nineteenth Century Fiction, 32 (1977) : 188-213.
29 For detailed discussions of relations between Dickens and Science (including Darwinism ), see J. Politi, The Novel and Its Presuppositions (Amsterdam, 1976) ! G. Beer, Darwin's Plots, (London, 1983) ! and G. Levine, Darwin and the Novelists, London, 1988.
30 See J. Politi, op.cit., for a discussion of 'regression' in Bleak House.
31 OMF, Signet ! New American Library, p. 16. All subsequent references to this edition.
32 In 1861, on the 26th January, AYR, Vol II, 237, carried an article about fossil remains called 'Earliest man', in which the writer dramatised in mock-Dickensian fashion changes of opinion in the Scientific World ( who is made into a Podsnap-like character) concerning the antiquity of human fossil remains, after recent examination of specimens found in the Brixham cavern in Devon, the writer appoeals to Lyel, Anstey and Owen as authorities in this dispute about the antiquity of man :
Last dying speech and confession of scientific World was published by Professors OWEN and ANSTEY and SIR CHARLES LYELL, who assisted at the mournful ceremony... Professor Owen says that the flint weapons found in the gravel were "unquestionably fashioned by human hands" (alas ! poor Scientific World !) and Sir Charles Lyell expresss his conviction of "a vast lapse of ages separating the era in which the fossil implements were formed and that of the invasion of Gaul by the Romans."
Accordingly, it is no longer scientific to doubt that weapons made by the rude warriors of primeval days are to be found in the strata containing the remains of the Mammoth. That human bones have not yet been met with is no argument, this issue of the antiquity of man continued in the early sixties to arouse considerable interest, partly because of its relation to darwinian claims about gaps in the fossil record ! and it is not surprising that Dickens had in his library Lyell's 1863 treatise, Geological Evidence For the Antiquity of Man. This book was duly boiled (probably by Wills) in a piece called 'How Old Are We ?' on 7th March, 1863, which concludes :
The issue of all these researches is, in the opinion now held by geologists, that although man, whose traces are found only in the post tertiary deposits, is geologically a new comer upon earth, his antiquity is, nevertheless, much greater than chronologists have hitherto supposed. AYR, Vol IX, 37
33 A Report of a Sad Case, recently tried before the Lord Mayor, Owen versus Huxley, in which will be found fully given the merits of the recent great Bone Case, (London, 1863). For a discussion, see R. Ashton, op.cit., Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1991, 215.
34 Since the 1830's in fact. Desmond, op.cit., refers to the discussions in Owen's notebook (Oct-Dec 1830) BM (NH) LOC.O.O.25, for October 1830, concerning the brains of apes and men and the problems of spirit preservation.
35 Roy Mcleod, op cit., 259-80.
36 Ellgard, op.cit., 30.
37 op.cit., 278.Haut de page
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Victor Sage, « Dickens and Professor Owen ! Portrait of a Frienship », Sillages critiques, 2 | 2001, 87-101.
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