Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
"Renegotiating Science: British Women Novelists and Evolution Controversies, 1826-1876," examines the cultural and literary discourses surrounding the publication of controversial evolutionary theories in mid-nineteenth century Britain. This project focuses on the intersection of genre, gender, and interventions in scientific discourse, arguing that the novel offered women an opportunity to act as serious investigators of the social implications of evolutionary theories and to voice their evaluations of the validity and usefulness of such theories alongside male fiction and nonfiction writers. In the nineteenth century, nonscientists could take scientific developments as open to collective negotiation, not as authoritative proclamations to be outright accepted or rejected. The women writers my dissertation focuses on reshaped evolutionary theory to meet social and individual needs from an applied perspective; their arguments forwarded the ethical values that were more salient from their gendered standpoint. While these scientific developments were still new and at their "most fictive" - as Gillian Beer put it in her seminal work, Darwin's Plots - Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot constructed thought experiments that highlighted the problematics of theorizing evolution as an embodied experience and of failing to consider the concrete nature of evolution's consequences for all populations, whether privileged or vulnerable. Moving away from a unidirectional model of influence from science to literature, my project instead draws on the insights of rhetorical theorists to argue that literary and scientific texts are similarly constructed, mutually constitutive, and equally representative of the cultural discourses from which they arose. The novels this dissertation focuses on individualize the lived experience of evolution and consider from multiple perspectives the ethical impulses and failures that arise from evolutionary theories, particularly the struggles of women to have their perspectives validated in a globalizing and modernizing world that was increasingly being shaped by scientific culture.