The transcript of a talk I gave for Elizabeth Gaskell’s bi-centenary in 2010
Oh, have we started? I was just passing the time examining a bee. Fascinating creatures. You know, I’ve heard it said that, in terms of the ratio of its body mass to its wingsize, a bee shouldn’t be able to fly but, because it doesn’t know that, it carries on regardless. But I’m forgetting my manners; I haven’t even introduced myself. Good evening. My name is Roger Hamley and I’m a fictional character from Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel “Wives and Daughters”. I call her Elizabeth Gaskell, in line with your twenty-first century ways, but I was brought up to be more formal, and never to use first names – or Christian names as we called them – for anyone other than siblings, servants and spouses. So I shall call her Mrs Gaskell from now on.
The great advantage of being a fictional character is that, though you can be forgotten, as long as people keep reading the book you can never die. That’s how I can be here to talk to you tonight, nearly two hundred years after I was born. But I’ve kept abreast of the changing times, which means my way of expressing myself to you may seem more twenty-first century than Victorian, and my knowledge, particularly of chemistry and genetics, far exceeds what was known during my heyday, but I am still at heart an early Victorian gentleman. The advantage of outliving my creator is that though, whilst she was creating me, Mrs Gaskell could control everything I said and did, now that she is long dead, I am able to talk about her, and give you my perspective on what was she trying to say to you in her portrayal of me. Of course I never met her – we lived in different worlds – so all that I know about her I’ve learned from the same sources that you could use, but I do know some things about myself that she never wrote. I am aware that many of you may know more about Mrs Gaskell than I do, and some of you may even know more about me than I do, but, for the benefit of those of you who don’t, I will first tell you about my part in her book.
As an essentially romantic novel, about the tangled relationships, and particularly romantic attachments, of a rural English community, my chief reputation in the book is as a good, steady, loyal, but rather dull and socially awkward young man, who is beguiled by the beauty and sophisticated charm of Cynthia Kirkpatrick (to whom I become hastily, informally, and supposedly secretly, engaged before going to Africa for two years), without realizing that my real soulmate is her stepsister, the rather more plain, serious-minded Molly Gibson, who is the heroine – you would probably say chief protagonist – of the book and has been secretly devoted to me for some time. Some analysts of the book have even thought me to be a bit of a rotter, simply because my taste in women is so superficial, but that was not Mrs Gaskell’s view. I’d like to read you some of the things Mrs Gaskell said about me, particularly concerning my first two recorded meetings with Molly, before I move on to the influences that contributed to my creation. Our first meeting was when I came home from university to find Molly was staying at our house as a companion to my invalid mother.
He was a tall powerfully-made young man, giving the impression of strength more than elegance. His face was rather square, ruddy-coloured (as his father had said), hair and eyes brown – the latter rather deep-set beneath his thick eyebrows…. He had a large mouth, with excessively mobile lips; and …. when he was amused at anything, he resisted the impulse to laugh, by a droll manner of twitching and puckering up his mouth, till at length the sense of humour had its way, and his features relaxed, and he broke into a broad sunny smile; his beautiful teeth – his only beautiful feature – breaking out with a white gleam upon the red-brown countenance…… To Molly, who was not finely discriminative in her glances at the stranger this first night, he simply appeared ‘heavy-looking, clumsy,’ and ‘a person she was sure she should never get on with.’ He certainly did not seem to care much what impression he made upon his mother’s visitor. He was at that age when young men admire a formed beauty more than a face with any amount of future capability of loveliness, and when they are morbidly conscious of the difficulty of finding subjects of conversation in talking to girls in a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood. Besides, his thoughts were full of other subjects, which he did not intend to allow to ooze out in words, yet he wanted to prevent any of that heavy silence which he feared might be impending – with an angry and displeased father, and a timorous and distressed mother. He only looked upon Molly as a badly-dressed, and rather awkward girl, with black hair and an intelligent face, who might help him in the task he had set himself of keeping up a bright general conversation during the rest of the evening; might help him – if she would, but she would not. She thought him unfeeling in his talkativeness; his constant flow of words upon indifferent subjects was a wonder and a repulsion to her. How could he go on so cheerfully while his mother sat there, scarcely eating anything, and doing her best, with ill success, to swallow down the tears that would keep rising to her eyes; when his father’s heavy brow was deeply clouded, and he evidently cared nothing – at first at least – for all the chatter his son poured forth? Had Mr Roger Hamley no sympathy in him? She would show that she had, at any rate. So she quite declined the part, which he had hoped she would have taken, of respondent, and possible questioner; and his work became more and more like that of a man walking in a quagmire.
As you will no doubt have realised, in common with many nineteenth century romantic novels, the first impression I make upon Molly is not good. Our second recorded meeting, a few days later, is when I stumble across Molly when she is very upset because she has just been told by her widowed father that he is to marry again (to a woman who turns out to be almost an archetypal, pantomimic, wicked stepmother, though Molly had never met her at the time). My fumbled attempts to make Molly see that she should try and look at it from her father’s point of view seem to make equally little impression, causing me to say:
You will have thought me hard. I never can manage to express what I feel, somehow I always fall to philosophizing, but I am sorry for you. Yes, I am; it’s beyond my power to help you, as far as altering facts goes, but I can feel for you, in a way which it’s best not to talk about, for it can do no good. Remember how sorry I am for you! I shall often be thinking of you, though I daresay it’s best not to talk about it again.
So you see, I don’t think I had any grounds for thinking of Molly as someone who was devoted to me, so I settled down to thinking of her as like a sister, to whom I could talk about my work and my concerns about my older brother, Osbourne, who, unlike me, is handsome, charming and romantic, but also irresponsible when it comes to things like work and money. I even call her Molly, like a sister, rather than the more formal Miss Gibson. So, when Miss Kirkpatrick comes back from finishing school to live with her mother and new stepfather and sister, she is well-practiced in the art of attracting men, and I feel free to be completely swept off my feet by her, even though she is rather shallow and has a scandal in her past which I know nothing about which will become revealed whilst I am abroad. Even Molly understands why I am so taken with Miss Kirkpatrick. Unlike Molly, Miss Kirkpatrick never takes any interest in my work, whereas Molly is frequently examining and drawing my natural history specimens.
You see, my work is very important to me, and, I think, to Mrs Gaskell, so it is what I want to talk about now. I am a scientist – a zoologist with a particular interest in insects – but I am also, significantly, an exponent of evolution, though in my heyday it was called transformism. Though interest in natural history was very common in Britain in the early nineteenth century, it was generally regarded as an amateur hobby, rather than a scientific study, until evolution theory became accepted. Most of Mrs Gaskell’s biographers and analysts have assumed that my role model is Charles Darwin, since the book was started in 1864, five years after the publication of “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Their other spurious grounds for believing this include my physical description, which I have already given, the fact that I go on a two year field trip to Africa in line with Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, that Mrs Gaskell was distantly related to Darwin, having met him on one or two occasions in the early 1850s, and that she referred to Darwin in her sales pitch for the book to her publisher. With regard to my trip to Africa, most scientists of my time went on long overseas trips in their youths, including Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Wallace, all of whom became evolutionists, but they have never been cited as role models, and the one continent Darwin didn’t visit was Africa. With regard to knowing Darwin, Mrs Gaskell would not have known he was an evolutionist when she met him, since he never revealed his views to anyone but Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker and probably his wife before 1858.
That brings us on to the thorny issue of the dates. Gaskell scholars have been thrown into confusion over my creator’s intended setting of her book. In Chapter One, when Molly is twelve, Mrs Gaskell says “Five-and-forty years ago, children’s pleasures in a country town were very simple”, which would place the start at 1819, but, seven years later, when Molly is nineteen, Mrs Gaskell refers to a trip on the London to Birmingham railway line, which was only completed and opened in 1838. That would make seven years of Molly’s life expanded out over nineteen calendar years. I’m sure that what my creator didn’t manage to make clear was that the ‘five-and-forty years ago’ was meant to be when Molly was born and not to when she was twelve, so that makes the main section of the book, when I get to know Molly and later Miss Kirkpatrick, in 1836. Darwin was still on the Beagle then, and hadn’t even become a convert to evolution, let alone evolution by natural selection, about which he wouldn’t publish anything for over twenty years. So, where did I get evolution theory from? Though my character may be partially based on Darwin, whose fame in 1864 would have been very useful to Mrs Gaskell in her sales pitch, my life story is not his, unless she was trying to tell you something rather speculative and unflattering about Darwin, since I am not an original thinker and I obviously get evolution theory from someone else, in the 1830s, before I go on my trip. I believe Mrs Gaskell was surreptitiously telling you where she got evolution theory from, in the 1830s, and it had nothing to do with Darwin.
In her biography of Mrs Gaskell, Winifred Gerin suggests that my role model may be a professor of zoology at Edinburgh, George James Allman, with whom Mrs Gaskell stayed in early 1864, just before she started writing the book. In a letter, Mrs Gaskell refers to him as “the most charmingly wise and simple man I ever met with. I mean he is full of deep thought and wisdom and knowledge and also like a child for unselfconsciousness, and sweet humility.” That hardly sounds like me, and besides, he is not known to have been an evolutionist and his speciality was marine biology whereas mine is insects. She may have been inspired to write a novel which features a zoologist through meeting him, but neither my character nor my life story are his. So we must look elsewhere for my principal role model, and here we come to what I call the French connection. The issue of France is very significant in “Wives and Daughters”, as it was in English society in those turbulent years after the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. My Tory father, squire Hamley, is fanatically anti-French, even more than he is anti-Whig, as is shown in the following passage when he is trying to persuade me not to take up an invitation from the Whiggish Lord Hollingford to meet a French anatomist.
You young men think you know everything. I tell you it’s a palpable Whig trick. And what business has Roger – if it is Roger the man wants – to go currying favour with the French? In my day we were content to hate ’em and to lick ’em. But it’s just like your conceit, Osborne, setting yourself up to say it’s your younger brother they’re asking, and not you; I tell you it’s you. They think the eldest son was sure to be called after his father, Roger – Roger Hamley, junior. It’s as plain as a pike-staff. They know they can’t catch me with chaff, but they’ve got up this French dodge. What business had you to go writing about the French, Roger? I should have thought you were too sensible to take any notice of their fancies and theories; but if it is you they’ve asked, I’ll not have you going and meeting these foreigners at a Whig house. They ought to have asked Osborne. He’s the representative of the Hamleys, if I’m not; and they can’t get me, let them try ever so. Besides, Osborne has got a bit of the mounseer about him, which he caught with being so fond of going off to the Continent, instead of coming back to his good old English home.
But Mrs Gaskell was a Francophile, who frequently visited France, and particularly Paris, where her good friend Madame Mohl lived. So the issue of France is generally more favourably mentioned in her book. Miss Kirkpatrick went to finishing school in France, Molly expresses the desire to learn French and is later found to be reading books by French scientists recommended by me, my brother Osbourne is secretly married to a Frenchwoman and dare not tell father for fear of being disinherited, and I am in thrall to French science. Mrs Gaskell is trying to tell you that she, like me, was well aware of what was going on in France at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and she left lots of clues in her book. For instance, I write an article which confutes an article by a French physiologist and comes to the favourable attention of a French anatomist – the very one that yet another evolutionist, Lord Hollingford (who has told Molly that he was also impressed by my article and who will become my patron), invites me to meet.
All this business about French physiologists and anatomists is completely superfluous to the plot of “Wives and Daughters”, unless giving an excuse for my father to have a rant is considered necessary. All that the plot requires is that I write an article which comes to the favourable attention of Lord Hollingford, who subsequently uses his influence to secure me a substantial bequest to go on a field trip to Africa. That enables me to solve my brother’s and my father’s immediate financial problems, and make myself scarce for two years, whilst other plot developments happen, including Molly’s melancholia, my brother’s illness and Cynthia’s past catching up with her. (I call her Cynthia after my engagement, so I guess I should have included sweethearts in my previous list of siblings, servants and spouses) Unless she was trying to tell you something, it was certainly unnecessary for Mrs Gaskell to name the French anatomist, which is what she did in the invitation.
Before I reveal to you who he is, I will just speculate about other potential influences, including the possibility that, in her portrayal of the eccentric, scientific, free-thinking Lord Hollingford, Mrs Gaskell may have had in mind the eccentric, scientific, free-thinking Lord Monboddo, an eighteenth century Scottish judge whose speciality was the evolution of languages from a common origin, who also believed that humans had a close affinity with apes, and, rather bizarrely, that the secret function of midwives, which could not be mentioned in polite society, was to cut off the tails of human babies. I include that as an amusing anecdote, and not because Lord Hollingford is a sufficiently developed character to warrant analyzing. However, Mrs Gaskell could easily have known about Lord Monboddo through her Scottish father, William Stevenson, who had worked as a journalist in Edinburgh and took a great interest in scientific matters. Through him, she might also have learned about Robert Grant, the zoologist who tried to persuade Darwin of the veracity of evolution whilst Darwin was at Edinburgh University in 1826, or even of Patrick Matthew, the Scottish arboriculturist who briefly annunciated the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1831. (See separate essay on Darwin’s Guilty Secret)
Mrs Gaskell’s husband, William Gaskell, the Unitarian minister, also took a great interest in scientific matters, and particularly geology. Like every other scientifically-minded intellectual in the 1830s, he would have read Charles Lyell’s hugely influential “Principles of Geology”, which contained an extensive critique of the theory of evolution expounded by the man who, if there was any justice in this world, would be universally most closely associated with the theory of evolution – Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Biographers generally believe that the Gaskells had an intellectually-open marriage, so there is no reason to think that William Gaskell would not have discussed this revolutionary idea with his wife. If Mrs Gaskell did not know about Lamarck’s views in the 1830s, she certainly would have done by the time she created me, which means I know all about him.
The thing I think Lamarck would like to be remembered for, apart from being the first fully-committed, natural evolutionist, is his bold assertion that there is no such natural thing as species: what natural historians strove to define as species were just artificial constructs – the present-day and fossilized snapshots of a process of change, from the simple to the complex, over vast eons of time. Following the lead of his mentor, Georges Buffon, who publicly maintained that the world was at least 75,000 years old, and is alleged to have privately believed it to be more like three billion years old, Lamarck wrote in 1802:
Oh, how very ancient the earth! And how ridiculously small the ideas of those who consider the earth’s age to be 6,000 odd years.
What Lamarck has been remembered, and disparaged, for is his belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which was thought to be a nonsense throughout most of the twentieth century but is now being discovered to be a reality that evolutionists must come to terms with. (See Review of “Evolution in Four Dimensions” and the essay, “Lamarckian Inheritance From Epigenetics”) Scandalous though the views of Lamarck and his less bold predecessor, Buffon, were at the time, they were certainly known about by curious, intellectual, natural historians throughout Europe. (See Lamarck Essay) For instance, Buffon’s 44-volume “Histoire Naturelle” had been read by Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin – another early evolutionist that Mrs Gaskell probably knew about, especially since he had Unitarian connections.
However, the French anatomist that I was invited to meet at Lord Hollingford’s house was Monsieur Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who was a real person – a French evolutionist who was a colleague and supporter of Lamarck and had become quite famous in the early 1830s. That is how I knew about him, and it is probably how Mrs Gaskell knew about him. What’s more, Geoffroy, as I shall call him (in common with all subsequent commentators), is known to have come to Britain in 1836, ostensibly to visit his friend, Robert Grant – the man who befriended Darwin at Edinburgh University who had become an exponent of Lamarckism and a friend of Geoffroy’s whilst studying in Paris in the early 1820s. That raises the question of how Mrs Gaskell knew that Geoffroy came to Britain. Did she perhaps know more about Grant than I have previously indicated? Could I, or Lord Hollingford, be partly based on him – a man whose chief personal reputations are as a political radical, an atheist and an alleged homosexual? The answer to both those questions is probably “No”. Mrs Gaskell knew much more about Geoffroy than she did about Grant. She knew that Geoffroy came to Britain because she visited his son, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in Paris in 1855. We know this because Mrs Gaskell’s favourite daughter, Meta, who accompanied her to Paris, wrote to her sister Marianne that tomorrow we “go on to the Geoffroy Saint-Hilaires, where I’m afraid we shall have to talk zoologically, and be kissed”.
Isisdore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire had succeeded his father in both evolutionary views and in academic post and it is extremely likely that he would have given Mrs Gaskell a copy of his 1847 biography of his by-then dead father. So, she must by 1855 have learnt all about the evolutionary views of Lamarck and the two Geoffroy Saint-Hilaires. However, the fact that Meta knows, in advance, that they will talk zoologically suggests that Mrs Gaskell already knew about the Geoffroy Saint-Hilaires. As I indicated earlier, it is quite likely that she knew about Geoffroy senior in the early 1830s as a consequence of a famous series of debates that occurred in 1830 between Geoffroy and the undisputed king of French science – Georges Cuvier. These debates were widely reported in intellectual and scientific circles throughout Europe. For some, they even overshadowed the second French revolution in 1830, when King Charles was deposed. When news of that reached Weimar in Germany, a friend of the all-round genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, reported:
The news of the outbreak of the revolution of July arrived in Weimar today and has caused general excitement. In the course of the afternoon I went to Goethe. “Well?” he exclaimed as I entered, “what do you think of this great event? The volcano has burst forth, all is in flames, and there are no more negotiations behind closed doors!â” “A dreadful affair,” I answered, “but what could be expected under the circumstances, and with such a ministry, except that it would end in the expulsion of the present royal family?” “We do not seem to understand each other, my good friend,” replied Goethe. “I am not speaking of those people at all; I am interested in something very different. I mean the dispute between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, which has broken out in the Academy, and which is of such great importance for science.”
It is not widely known that, among his many talents, Goethe was a scientist, and a passionate evolutionist, who coined the word ‘morphology’ as the study of forms or shapes. In his 1795 “Introduction to Comparative Anatomy”, he had boldly written:
Thus much then we have gained, that we may assert without hesitation that all the more perfect organic natures, such as fishes, amphibious animals, birds, mammals, and man at the head of the last, were all formed upon one original type, which only varies more or less in parts which are none the less permanent, and still daily changes and modifies its form by propagation.
It appears that Geoffroy himself had been influenced by Goethe, since that was exactly the stance that he took in his career as a zoologist and in the famous debates with Cuvier. I do not propose to go into any detail about those debates, since they were very technical. Instead, I will briefly tell you about the life and developing views of Geoffroy, and his changing relationship with Cuvier up to those debates. As a young man during the French revolution, Geoffroy showed great bravery in saving his favourite professor, and several priests, from the guillotine. As a reward, the professor used his influence to get Geoffroy a position, in 1793, as professor of vertebrate zoology at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, which was where Lamarck was the newly appointed professor of invertebrate zoology. Geoffroy’s appointment was somewhat strange, since he had previously studied mineralogy and knew next to nothing about zoology, but he studied hard and recruited a zoologist, Cuvier, to work with him, and the two became close friends. In 1798, they were invited, along with many other scientists, to accompany Napoleon on a military expedition to Egypt. Cuvier declined and Geoffroy accepted.
During his three years in Egypt, which was where I first went on my African trip, Geoffroy accumulated many zoological specimens, while his compatriots were discovering and plundering the famous Rosetta stone, which, by virtue of having the same text inscribed on it in three different languages, including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, proved to be the key to solving the mystery of what those hieroglyphics meant. By the time Geoffroy and his colleagues were ready to leave in 1801, the British had Alexandria under siege, and they guaranteed safe passage home to all the French scientists provided they left their accumulated treasures behind. Once again, Geoffroy took a heroic stand and said he would rather destroy his collection, and be killed, than leave without it. As it happened, the British were only really interested in the Rosetta stone, which they did keep, and Geoffroy was able to return home, to a hero’s welcome from Napoleon, with his treasures.
In his absence, things had changed at the Museum, and Cuvier had assumed a position of considerable power which would further increase over the following thirty years. As well as being a brilliant anatomist and fossil expert, Cuvier was a political animal who always knew how to ingratiate himself with his superiors, for which trouble he was eventually made a Baron. Crucially for our story, Cuvier was an implacable opponent of transformism, especially after Lamarck published his evolutionary masterpiece, “Philosophie Zoologique”, in 1809. If Cuvier had become an evolutionist, it would now almost certainly be his name which is most closely associated with evolution theory – such was his power and fame. Cuvier believed that fossils were the animals that had been destroyed during the Flood, or many floods, and that every animal had been designed so that all its organs and bones performed specific functions. Geoffroy meanwhile was coming round to the idea that there was only one basic animal, and that all the different animals that existed had altered the form of their bones and organs over the course of many generations. In terms of the snappy soundbites that you are so fond of in the twenty-first century, Cuvier maintained that form follows function, whilst Geoffroy maintained that function follows form. That was essentially what the debates were about. Evolution was the elephant in the debating chamber, since Cuvier’s stance was incompatible with evolution whereas Geoffroy’s was supportive of it.
By the time those debates occurred, Geoffroy and Cuvier had become bitter enemies, although, as intellectuals, they were always polite and respectful of each other’s differing views. As long as Geoffroy confined himself to merely maintaining that, amongst the vertebrates, the same basic bones and organs had different sizes, shapes and even functions in different species, Cuvier was content to let him be, since it could be viewed that God used the same basic plan for all the vertebrates, but when, in the 1820s, Geoffroy went further and included invertebrates in his unity of composition plan, that transgressed Cuvier’s classification of four distinct and separate phyla in the animal kingdom and led to open conflict which culminated in the famous debates.
That brings us on to the idea for which Geoffroy became most famous, and most ridiculed, until quite recently, when geneticists have discovered he was right after all, just as epigeneticists have discovered recently that Lamarck was right after all. One of Geoffroy’s concerns was over the origin of the vertebrates. It was known from fossils that the arthropods – a phylum which includes insects and crustaceans – existed long before any vertebrate animals had arrived, and that the more advanced arthropods not only had hard parts (known as exoskeletons) on the outside of their bodies, but also brains, limbs, eyes, central nervous systems and other internal organs. Cuvier did believe in the fossil evidence but maintained that God had created the vertebrates after the arthropods, using a completely different plan.
To many early evolutionists, who believed in a linear progression from the simplest animal to man, it was inconceivable that brains, eyes and central nervous systems could have evolved more than once, so it made sense that the first vertebrate evolved from the most advanced arthropod. The problem with that was that not only did the arthropods have exoskeletons, but their internal organs were all arranged in the opposite way from vertebrates. In order to become a vertebrate, an arthropod would have to undergo a massive internal rearrangement. But Geoffroy advocated just that – a vertebrate was an inverted arthropod. By implication, at some point in evolutionary history, some arthropod had undergone what is now called a dorso-ventral flip, and turned itself inside out in order to start the vertebrate phylum. In case you are imagining a reversal of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, in which a giant beetle transforms itself overnight into a human being, let me assure you that no-one was advocating that. The most that has been claimed, in Geoffroy’s name, is that the first vertebrate – a small fish – was born to a marine arthropod, having undergone the changes during its embryological development.
Geoffroy’s seemingly ridiculous big idea was dismissed after the rise of Darwinism on the grounds that evolution could develop the same organs more than once, independently, in processes known as parallel or convergent evolution. Neo-Darwinists have always blithely evoked convergent evolution whenever two different species have come to the same solution from seemingly different starting points. In recent years, genetic evidence suggests that convergent evolution is a lot less common that had previously been thought. In particular, it has been discovered that the Hox genes, which control embryonic development in all vertebrates and advanced invertebrates, have the same origin. They did not evolve independently in the vertebrates. Furthermore, they contain certain mutations which are exclusive to all vertebrates but not to invertebrates. That has led some geneticists to seriously maintain that, when those mutations first occurred, the arthropod embryo to which they occurred must have done a dorso-ventral flip and become the first vertebrate animal. So, if you have faith that genes are the determinants of characteristics, that makes Geoffroy right after all. That may be perfectly acceptable to you, but it flies in the face of one of the central tenets of Darwinian evolution, which is gradual – almost imperceptible – change.
I must apologise if that bit got a bit too technical for you, or, in case any of you are biological scientists, if it was a bit too simplistic for you. I will now come back to my part in all this, and hence Mrs Gaskell’s, and my connection with Geoffroy. I have said that I first caught the attention of Geoffroy by writing an article which confuted the views of a French physiologist. That physiologist was not named in the book, but I can tell you he was Pierre Jean Marie Flourens, who took a particular interest in the famous debates, being a friend and supporter of Cuvier’s. In 1864, shortly before Mrs Gaskell started writing “Wives and Daughters”, Flourens published a scornful critique of Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. I’m quite certain that she deliberately had me rubbishing his views as her way of giving a subtle riposte to that publication. Additionally, my two main interests are insects, which are arthropods, and osteology, or the study of bones, both of which were so central to Geoffroy’s stance in the debates with Cuvier. What turned me into an evolutionist was those debates, and the greatest single influence on my views and working life was Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. That doesn’t mean I am him. I’m English and he’s French, and, besides, I was invited to meet him. That would be a bit surreal – a fictional character meeting his real-life role model. But it was Mrs Gaskell’s knowledge of him which led to her creating me. Perhaps, through Geoffroy’s son, she did know that Grant, and hence Darwin, were influenced by Lamarck and Geoffroy, and consequently, in that respect, I do represent both Grant and Darwin.
Before I finish, there is one other connection between the Gaskell family and Geoffroy which I would like to mention. William Gaskell’s first cousin once removed, Walter Holbrook Gaskell, was a distinguished British physiologist, who, in his later life, became obsessed with the issue of the origin of the vertebrates. He agreed with Geoffroy that they must have evolved from the most advanced arthropods, but he couldn’t accept the notion of the dorso-ventral flip, as being contrary to Darwinian gradualism, so he devised a scheme, which most people regarded as even more ridiculous than Geoffroy’s, whereby certain organs gradually altered their functions and the exoskeleton was gradually enveloped to become an internal skeleton. Who knows but, in time, he could also come to be regarded as having got it right.
To conclude, analysts of “Wives and Daughters” have often described it as a post-Darwinian novel – which of course it literally is – on the grounds that it is set against a background of social change connected with the 1832 Reform Act, that the characters change, in common with most fiction, and that three characters are scientists who have a particular interest in new theories in the biological sciences. In those respects, those analysts really mean it is a post-evolution novel, but they equate evolution with Darwin. I have tried to show that Mrs Gaskell was indicating that she knew about, and approved of, evolution theory long before Darwin’s development. What distinguishes Darwinian evolution from the transformism of Buffon, Lamarck and Geoffroy is that Darwin essentially believed that change was internal and directionless, caused by what are now known as mutations, to be dealt with by natural selection, whereas the earlier evolutionists believed that change was caused, either directly or indirectly, by the conditions of existence, or what you would now call the environment. I maintain that the evolutionism of “Wives and Daughters” is of the earlier, rather than the Darwinian, kind – that most of the changes are caused by external events, not internal modifications. For instance, what eventually causes me to come to my senses, in the way of all good romances, and to realize that Molly is the girl for me, is not some internal revelation, but the fact that Cynthia breaks off our engagement and marries someone much wealthier than me.