In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Survey Essays
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Scientific Method
  • Scientific Readerships
  • Science and Religion
  • The “One Culture” Model
  • Literary Darwinism
  • Periodicals
  • Poetry
  • Scientific Life-Writing
  • Darwin and Evolution
  • Biology
  • Natural History and Botany
  • Zoology
  • Geology
  • Psychology and Neurology

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Victorian Literature Science
Alice Jenkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0061


The study of literature and science does more than trace the “literature in science” and the “science in literature.” It problematizes the stability of the two fields as distinct types of knowledge and endeavor, and it explores the transformations that words and ideas undergo as they travel through the many different disciplines and genres that make up the totality of writing in given periods, locales, and networks. It is interdisciplinary not only in its subject matter but also in its methodology, drawing on material and techniques from a number of related fields, including history of science, cultural studies, philosophy of science, and history of the book. Victorian writing was a key focus of the scholarly works that are generally seen as among the foundational texts of literature and science studies, and since the publication of those works in the mid-1980s, the Victorian period has continued to attract a large proportion of the research in this field. One factor in this focus on Victorian writing has been the methodological success of the “one culture” model, which saw in 19th-century culture a unified intellectual context not yet fragmented by hard and fast disciplinary boundaries, and thus a particularly fertile ground for relationships between literature and science. Another factor in the field’s major focus on this period is its early and continuing interest in evolutionary science: Darwin and Darwinism have been extensively and immensely productively studied by literature and science scholars. In recent years, the influence of the “cultural turn” in the history of science and the rise of the history of the book have encouraged scholars working on 19th-century literature and science to give increasing attention to the period’s readers and reading practices, publishers and periodical presses, and interactions between writing and exhibitions, lectures, and other forms of entertainment and education. The methodologies developing to investigate these topics are updating and rethinking the “one culture” model, and are to some extent replacing it. One result is that the range of writers and genres that literature and science studies investigates is broadening and diversifying; another is that the boundaries of literature and science studies are becoming increasingly indistinct, as its characteristic interests and themes become more and more central to Victorian studies. Since the late 20th century “literature and science studies” have come to major prominence in the scholarship of Victorian culture. The extraordinary and lasting impact of some research published in the mid–1980s, together with the “cultural turn” taken by the history of science during roughly the same period, contributed to the production of an interdisciplinary field that not only traces the “literature in science” and “science in literature,” but also has often shown that traditional constructions of the two modes are inadequate. Within literature and science studies, the Victorian period in particular has been a key focus of scholarly attention, partly as a result of the enabling influence of the “one culture” model discussed here. Developed as an historical interpretation of the particular conditions of producing, disseminating, and consuming texts that held during much of the Victorian period, the one culture model’s methodological success and growing authority helped to make Victorian source material especially important for literature and science scholarship. Another reason for the field’s major focus on this period is its early, and continuing, interest in evolutionary science: Darwin and Darwinism have been extensively and immensely productively studied by scholars in this field.

General Overviews

Cosslett 1982, Christie and Shuttleworth 1989, Chapple 1986, and Paradis and Postlewait 1985 date from around the emergence of literature and science studies as a distinct field. Their overviews are to a greater or lesser extent intended to persuade skeptical readers that scientific ideas and texts are a cogent and productive topic for Victorian studies. They remain useful as introductory surveys, but more recent scholarship, including Rauch 2001, necessarily gives a better picture of the field as it has developed, especially by its tendency to read science and literature as part of a larger cultural field, rather than focusing on the back-and-forth transactions between the two. Rauch 2001 also exemplifies the increasing tendency of literature and science studies to cross the boundaries of traditional literary periods and include the first decades of the 19th century, and even the last years of the 18th century, in studies of “Victorian” literature. Levine 2008 presents a selection of criticism written by this key figure in literature and science studies since 1980, giving a picture of developing themes and methods in the field. Dawson 2006 provides an account of the recent state of the field, and comments on the relationship of “Literary Darwinism” to Victorian literature and science studies. With the great exception of George Eliot, whose work has of course been a key locus for investigation, Victorian women writers are comparatively under-explored in literature and science studies. Gates 1998 is one of comparatively few full-length works dedicated entirely to women’s textual production and has made a major contribution to the field.

  • Chapple, J. A. V. Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1986.

    A brief introductory survey, structured mainly by scientific disciplines.

  • Christie, John, and Sally Shuttleworth, eds. Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700–1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1989.

    As well as a helpful introduction, this volume includes essays by Gillian Beer on Darwin and Victorian language theory, Sally Shuttleworth on Charlotte Brontë and phrenology, Peter Allen Dale on Hardy and evolution, and Greg Myers on science in the Victorian dialogue.

  • Cosslett, Tess. The “Scientific Movement” in Victorian Literature. Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1982.

    A basic account of scientific themes in In Memoriam, Middlemarch, Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, and George Meredith’s “A Meditation under the Stars.” The introduction gives an overview of how ideas such as “truth” and “law” were dealt with in Victorian scientific and literary writings.

  • Dawson, Gowan. “Literature and Science under the Microscope.” Journal of Victorian Culture 11 (2006): 301–315.

    DOI: 10.3366/jvc.2006.11.2.301

    An excellent account of some major trends in and challenges to studies of Victorian literature and science.

  • Gates, Barbara. Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    A study of women and the idea of nature both pre- and post-Darwin; discusses female literary and scientific writers, illustrators, and naturalists, including Beatrix Potter, Vernon Lee, and Marie Stopes. Numerous illustrations.

  • Levine, George. Realism, Ethics, and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    A collection of some of Levine’s essays, including new work as well as some articles published after 1980. Includes wide-ranging essays on positivism, science and religion, the methodology of literature and science studies, and a highly influential essay, “George Eliot’s Hypothesis of Reality.”

  • Paradis, James, and Thomas Postlewait, eds. Victorian Science and Victorian Values: Literary Perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

    A rather dated but still useful collection of essays by major scholars, addressing a very wide range of Victorian literary writers and scientific ideas.

  • Rauch, Alan. Useful Knowledge: The Victorians, Morality, and the March of Intellect. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

    The introduction gives an extremely useful and very readable account of both science and literature as elements in the early Victorian obsession with information. Victorian-focused chapters center on Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.

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