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The naturalist imagination: Novel forms of British natural history, 1830--1890

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Dissertation
Author: Danielle Coriale
Abstract:
"The Naturalist Imagination" argues that a wide range of Victorian novelists drew on the language and logic of natural history to represent the working-class communities, rural spaces, and colonial territories of Britain in their novels. In so doing, this project seeks to recover the interconnections between natural history and novel writing that have been overlooked by subsequent scholarship, but which were nevertheless recognized by Victorian writers as sources of fruitful literary experimentation. After examining debates that erupted over the question of aesthetics in naturalist periodicals published in Britain during the 1830s, I study the relationship between natural history and the aesthetic advanced by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Richard Jefferies--each of whom studied natural history, composed their own naturalist writings, or read extensively about naturalist practices. Natural history's unique combination of empirical observation and aesthetic representation, I argue, provided a set of strategies British novelists could use to enhance both the romance and realism of their fiction. By studying novelists who practiced natural history as amateurs or were interested in amateur practice, I aim to complicate standard critical narratives that have focused exclusively on Darwin and the influence of professional naturalist discourses on literature of the Victorian period. Gaskell, Brontë, Eliot, and Jefferies each experimented with the representational possibilities they found in natural history and contributed to the production of a "naturalist aesthetic" in their novels. This aesthetic, I argue, usually begins with intricate descriptions of natural objects and extends to human life, yielding innovative narrative modes that resonated with period readers. Building on the notion that the Victorian novel functioned as a "Natural History of British life," as one critic claimed in 1859, my dissertation examines the works of these novelists as products of diverse naturalist imaginations struggling to describe seemingly alien or obscure communities for a broad, middle-class readership. While Brontë and Jefferies experimented freely with the adaptation of natural history to the representation of human life, I argue, Gaskell and Eliot produced works that illustrate the limitations of natural history's applicability to human subjects.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1 Natural History and the Victorian Novel

Chapter One 28 Productive Controversies Early Naturalist Periodicals and the Question of Aesthetics

Chapter Two 46 Gaskell’s Naturalist

Chapter Three 85 Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and the Grounds of Natural History

Chapter Four 124 Illuminating “Life on the Floss” George Eliot and the Limits of the Naturalist Imagination

Chapter Five 173 Radical Experiments: Richard Jefferies’ Novel Forms of Natural History

Works Cited 221

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x List of Illustrations

Fig 1 Serial Cover, Magazine of Natural History, 1838 31

Fig 2 “Paternoster Row,” Penny Magazine, 1837 41

Fig 3 “The Shirley Country,” J.J. Stead, The ‘Shirley’ Country, 1897 86

Fig 4 Four sketches by Charlotte Brontë, 1830-32 92

Fig 5 Page from John Stuart Mill’s botanical journal, 1873 126

Fig 6 Photograph of bramble leaf with larva mines 175

 I NTRODUCTION 

Natural History and the Victorian Novel

In British Novelists and their Styles (1859), one of the earliest works to present a critical appraisal of the British novel, David Masson argued that a wide variety of Victorian novelists produced a form of writing that resembled natural history: “It is as if,” Masson wrote, “proceeding on the theory that the British Novel, in its totality, should be a Natural History of British life, individual novelists were…working out separately the natural histories of separate counties and parishes.” 1 Masson’s hypothesis suggests the importance of regional affiliations to each particular novelist, an idea that has received critical attention in recent years. 2 But his theory also suggests that Victorian novels had come to seem like natural histories of British life to contemporary readers, an idea that has yet to be fully explored in critical treatments of literary production in the period. Building on Masson’s theory, this dissertation argues that British novelists routinely drew on the epistemological and aesthetic conventions of natural history to shape the characters, dialogues, plots, metaphors, settings, and narrative voices in their fiction. By studying works by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Richard Jefferies, most of whom were amateur naturalists, I argue that the novel became a unique medium in which writers could use naturalist strategies to translate their general

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observations about hum an life, the natural world, and modern social conditions into imagined stories about particular lives. No comprehensive effort has been made in literary criticism to trace the relationship between novels and natural history, or to focus on novels as the work of amateur naturalists studying different social and cultural enclaves throughout Britain. 3

When literary scholars address the influence of natural science on nineteenth-century British literature, they usually emphasize the intersections of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and narrative form. Most notably, Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983) analyzes the infusion of the naturalist’s plots and metaphors into the writings of George Eliot, Charles Kingsley, and Thomas Hardy. George Levine also traces the Darwinian strains of the Victorian novel in Darwin and the Novelists (1988), but focuses on the “evolutionisms” that pervaded Victorian literature before and after the publication of the Origin of Species (3). Although Levine does not study Darwin’s direct influence on contemporary writers, he does privilege the theoretical and discursive systems associated with Darwin’s most significant works. Many scholars have followed suit, examining how Darwin’s theories reverberated throughout Victorian cultural production, from novels and poetry to visual culture, and tracing what art historian Linda Nochlin has called “the Darwin effect.” 4

Understanding the circulation of Darwin’s theories and his influence on his contemporaries is critically important in our own historical moment, as George Levine explains in his recent work, Darwin Loves You. Levine claims that his own writing about Darwin is a political effort, an attempt to deflate fundamentalist views that falsely equate the naturalist’s work with the “disenchantment of the world,” a phrase he borrows from

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Max W eber. Levine bridles at Weber’s notion that the rise of modern science signaled the decline of spiritual and metaphysical explanations of worldly phenomena, and claims that the world was a deeply enchanted place for Darwin, who found the miraculous in the material world before him. While I acknowledge the political implications of analyzing Darwin, I also believe that the critical emphasis on the evolutionary paradigms so central to his work has eclipsed important aspects of natural history’s broad cultural presence in Victorian Britain. By focusing too keenly on “the Darwin effect” in nineteenth-century British literature, literary scholars have occluded the popular practices of everyday naturalists, leaving a vast critical lacuna that has yet to be filled. Historians of science, by contrast, have been laboring for the last thirty years to recover these quotidian practices. David Elliston Allen’s The Naturalist in Britain (1976) and Lynn Barber’s The Heyday of Natural History (1980) were among the first studies to provide a detailed account of British natural history beyond Darwin, an elusive and capacious field roughly defined, in the Victorian period, as the cumulative study of plants, animals, insects, and microscopic forms of life. Allen and Barber demonstrate that British naturalists studied objects as diverse as butterflies, birds, fish, insects, ferns, shells, seaweeds, and large mammals, and that they drew on an equally wide variety of methodologies when studying natural history. Indeed, naturalists approached the study of organic life in vastly different ways, particularly at the height of its popularity at mid- century. George Henry Lewes observed in Sea-Side Studies (1858), for example, that The naturalist may be anything, everything. He may yield to the charm of simple observation; he may study the habits and habitats of animals, and moralise on their ways; he may use them as starting-points of laborious research; he may carry his newly-observed facts into the highest region of speculation; and whether roaming amid the lovely nooks of Nature in quest of varied specimens, or fleeting the quiet hour in observation of his

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pets—whether he m ake Natural History an amusement, or both amusement and serious work—it will always offer him exquisite delight. (396) 5

These remarks describe the surprising inclusiveness and heterogeneity of Victorian natural history at its apogee and suggest that the field shifted as the methodologies associated with it became more diverse. As Lewes points out, the word “naturalist” was still a functional term despite its broad applicability: it could accommodate members of the most elite scientific circles as well as a growing body of popular practitioners. The naturalist, according to his account, could be an untutored observer, a pet-owner, a proto- ecologist, a scientist engaged in “laborious research,” or a high-flung theorist who sought to “carry… facts into the highest region of speculation,” in the fashion of Charles Darwin. As I shall argue, the association of natural history with a wide variety of living things (i.e. plants, animals, insects, etc.) and methodologies (i.e. observing, collecting, classifying, moralizing, theorizing, speculating, and delighting) is critically important to understanding the complex relationship between novel writing and naturalist activity throughout the nineteenth century. This project also builds on the growing body of scholarship that studies the social diversity among Victorian naturalists. In recent years, historians of science and literary scholars have focused on the women and working-class naturalists who were relegated to the category of the “amateur” or the “popular” after the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831. 6 Barbara T. Gates, Ann B. Shteir, and Mary Ellen Bellanca have examined the work of women naturalists in order to recover their important contributions to the field of natural history, which often strained against the paradigms and discourses established by the protoprofessional “gentlemen of

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science.” As Gates has argued, Victorian and Edwardian wom en actively “interrupted, revised, ignored, and sometimes disrupted masculine discourse as they participated in conceptualizing, describing, representing, and preserving the natural world of their time” (7). More recently, Anne Secord has traced the history of artisan naturalists who gathered in pubs to exchange specimens and learn classical nomenclature. Secord’s valuable work shows that working-class naturalists supplied important observations and specimens that advanced natural history, even as they remained outside the elite circles of the scientific community in Victorian Britain. The social and methodological diversity of nineteenth-century natural history so carefully traced in these studies found regular expression in the British novel. Indeed, a wide variety of naturalist characters appears in fiction written throughout the Victorian period: Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton (1848), features a working-class naturalist, while her final novel, Wives and Daughters (1864-66), includes women botanists and a world-traveling naturalist meant to resemble Charles Darwin. Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) depicts a mother and daughter on a naturalist ramble and a middle-class woman and factory operative who bond over their shared knowledge of natural history. George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72) contrasts Tertius Lydgate, the modern medical professional, with Mr. Farebrother, the Vicar who professes a comparatively old-fashioned interest in natural history. As we are told, Farebrother has “made an exhaustive study of the entomology of this district” and had a “bookcase filled with expensive illustrated books on Natural History” (172). Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) includes a vitriolic passage narrated by the character Gabriel Betteredge, the head-servant of the main estate in the novel. The fastidious Betteredge

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com plains of the “nasty science” of natural history (63), and decries the young naturalists who “go out, day after day…with empty pill-boxes, and catch newts, and beetles, and spiders, and frogs, and come home and stick pins through the miserable wretches, or cut them up, without a pang of remorse” (62). Thomas Hardy includes a trilobite-studying geologist in a Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Joseph Conrad illuminates the central themes of Lord Jim (1900) through Stein, the Bavarian butterfly collector whose specimens occupy the final lines of the novel. This overview is hardly exhaustive, but it gives a sense of the naturalists who populate the pages of Victorian novels. They are women, clergymen, children, working- class figures, and gentlemen of science who participate in a wide range of activities, from the collection and preservation of specimens to imaginative speculations and reveries rooted in empirical observations of organic life. These characters, I will argue, allowed Victorian novelists to reveal and test the social, ethical, and aesthetic aspects of natural history in the period. Beyond the inclusion of naturalist characters, moreover, Victorian novelists also constructed naturalist narrators whose stories offers a rare glimpse into the world as a naturalist might perceive it. Looking beyond the explicit pronouncements of scientific ideas in novels of the period, this project focuses on the ways that natural history reveals itself through the subtle operations of formal features of the novel, such as characterization and narrative voice. While these formal tactics are critically important to understanding the function of natural history in novelistic discourse, they are also outward signs of a more elusive phenomenon: the deep entanglement of novel writing and natural history. Most of the novelists I examine in this dissertation were active naturalists who read extensively in the

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subject and drew from their own naturalist experiences to compose their fictional worlds. Missing from critical discussions of the Victorian novel, however, is an account of the crosspollination of their naturalist activities and novel-writing practices. While the scientific aspects of George Eliot’s novels have received sustained critical attention from a wide variety of scholars, only Amy King has seriously considered the connection between Eliot’s theory of the novel and her seashore ‘naturalizing.’ Charlotte Brontë’s lifelong interest in natural history has only been noted in passing, and its relationship to her fiction has eluded critical attention altogether. Elizabeth Gaskell, though not a self- professed naturalist, had read about the field and its practitioners and experimented with the tactics she associated with natural history to compose her first novel, Mary Barton. Gaskell’s interest in natural history has nevertheless escaped attention in most critical treatments of her early work. The novelist and amateur naturalist Richard Jefferies, finally, has been the subject of various monographs, but his writings have not been read alongside those of other Victorians who shared his interests in narrative forms of natural history. In an effort to redress these critical oversights, this dissertation argues that these writers developed diverse naturalist imaginations that reoriented the formal strategies underwriting their fiction. Each novelist drew on his or her own naturalist knowledge to construct the characters, dialogues, narrative voices, and other formal features of the novel. Elizabeth Gaskell, for her part, experimented with taxonomic and narrative forms of natural history in an effort to tell the story of working-class lives. Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot constructed whole worlds according to naturalist principles and produced what I call a “naturalist aesthetic,” which combined observation and imagination in a way

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that appealed to writers of realist fiction. Richard Jeffries used natural history to experim ent with plot and character, and in so doing, produce radical innovations in the genre of the novel. All of these writers found in the naturalist imagination a way of mediating the two impulses that drove their fiction: the ethical impulse to represent the world mimetically and the aesthetic impulse to create imaginative works of art. Gaskell, Brontë, Eliot, and Jeffries were ultimately drawn to natural history, I argue, because it could enhance both the romance and the realism of their fiction, even as the cross-applied the strategies associated with it to the study and representation of human life. As we shall see, these writers experimented with the epistemological and representational systems associated with natural history to delineate the different features of individuals and social groups throughout Britain in working-class communities, rural spaces, and colonial territories. In order to trace the workings of the naturalist imagination through different Victorian novels, this project first studies the place of aesthetics in the natural history books and periodicals published in Britain during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. In so doing, I show that both the popularity and instability of natural history as a scientific field depended on aesthetics and the interplay among different forms of naturalist writing, including rigid catalogues, narrative accounts of naturalist rambles, and poetic reveries. As I argue, the internal conflicts that transpired within natural history during the Victorian period, when taxonomy became increasingly important to the field’s status as a scientific discipline, are critical to understanding its presence in the novel. In what follows, I will provide a brief overview of natural history’s vernacular roots, which persisted alongside taxonomy throughout the Victorian period. I identify three modes that

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survived from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries and continued to shape naturalist discourses, frustrating those who sought to professionalize the f ield. As these roots became increasingly powerful and problematic in naturalist circles, they became an increasingly important resource for Victorian novelists struggling with their own conflicting impulses. In the Vernacular: Three Alternatives to Taxonomic Natural History As many scholars have demonstrated, taxonomy has been an integral part of natural history since Linnaeus. 7 In The Order of Things, for example, Michel Foucault identifies taxonomy as part of a larger episteme that flourished in the eighteenth century and faded with the dawn of the nineteenth century. Within that episteme, he argues, the biological concepts of “life” and complex “organisms” did not yet exist; rather, “living beings…were viewed through a grid of knowledge” (127-28) and sorted according to their visible characteristics rather than their life functions. He claims that taxonomy relied on a particular “theory of words,” wherein natural objects are stripped from the stories and “the language of everyday life” that accrue to them, and are assigned a binomial that corresponds to its structure (161). The antagonism Foucault identifies between taxonomy and the “language of everyday life” is critically important to my own study, as Victorian novelists regularly allude to that antagonism in their fiction. There are, however, two significant problems with Foucault’s theory of natural history that my own project seeks to redress by drawing on recent studies of the field. First, Foucault reduces the heterogeneity of the field to taxonomy, stating that “Natural history is nothing more than the nomination of the visible” (132). Secondly, he makes it seem as if classification fit neatly into the unified

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epistem e that also shaped linguistics and economics during the eighteenth century. 8 In his account, the episteme associated with taxonomy ended abruptly with the rise of biology in the early nineteenth century. But the taxonomic or classificatory episteme persisted well into the nineteenth century and was full of inconsistencies and contradictory impulses. As Harriet Ritvo has argued, there were considerable “gaps in the epistemic zeitgeist” associated with classification, which “left room for a lot of free-floating resistance to the very idea of system” (23). In The Platypus and The Mermaid (1997), Ritvo argues that the official scientific taxonomies associated with natural history “developed in… continuing relation, whether parallel or antiphonal, to robust vernacular versions or alternatives” (187), and that these alternative categories included imaginary creatures such as the sea serpent, the unicorn, and the mermaid (186). Building on Ritvo’s analysis of the productive tension between the scientific and vernacular modes of classification, my project identifies three distinct modes of vernacular natural history that took root during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and continued to shape naturalist discourse throughout the Victorian period. Oliver Goldsmith alludes to the first of these modes in his preface to An History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774). Goldsmith describes the two practices commonly associated with natural history at that time: the first involves classifying natural objects, and is “systematical and dry, mechanical and incomplete.” The second “more amusing” practice involves “describing the properties, manners, and relations, which they bear to us, and to each other” (iii). According to Goldsmith, it is this second mode that makes it possible to “to drag up the obscure and gloomy learning of the cell to open inspection: strip it from its garb of austerity” (118). Indeed, Goldsmith’s Animated Nature provides a

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com pilation of lively anecdotes, personal narratives, and excerpts from earlier natural histories about the various creatures that appear in his study. He includes one of his own anecdotes, for example, in the section of the book dealing with toads: “I once from my parlour window, observed a large toad I had in the bank of a bowling green, about twelve at noon in a very hot day, very busy and active upon the grass. So uncommon an appearance made me go out to see what it was.” The important feature of the passage is its anecdotal structure: it presents a short, amusing account of the naturalist’s journey to discover or to investigate a curiosity, and it includes detailed particulars (the temperature, time of day) that lend it some degree of credibility. This passage, like many others in Goldsmith’s book, translates a naturalist experience into a narrative form that would be important to Victorian novelists and amateur naturalists. Over twenty editions of Goldsmith’s Animated Nature appeared throughout the Victorian period, and both Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot reference the book in their novels (see Chapters 3 and 4). The book resonates with narrative forms of natural history that flourished during the 1850s, in particular. Jane Loudon’s Entertaining Naturalist (1850) is built around “popular descriptions, tales, and anecdotes,” for example, and Loudon cites Goldsmith’s Animated Nature throughout the work. Barbara T. Gates argues that these anecdotal natural histories were often written by women such as Margaret Gatty, whose pedagogical work, Parables of Nature (1855; 1857) reformulated naturalist knowledge into a series of parables for an adolescent audience. Men also contributed to this body of narrative natural history, however, with such works as W. J. Broderip’s Leaves from the Note Book of a Naturalist (1852), George Henry Lewes’ Sea- Side Studies (1858), and J. G. Wood’s Common Objects of the Country (1855), which

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sold over 100,000 copies. Naturalist narratives thus proliferated at m id-century and were received as welcome contributions to the field of natural history, even as they moved further from the taxonomic language and factual style associated with its more rigorously ‘scientific’ mode. Echoing Goldsmith’s foundational work, these narrative natural histories were unique hybrids that blended empirical knowledge with amusing stories that included fictional and/or imaginative components. 9 The idea that naturalists could present accurate knowledge through imaginative narratives would be important to Victorian novelists who worked in a similar medium and wrote with a similar purpose in mind—to learn more about the habits and behaviors of different forms of organic life. The second mode of vernacular natural history is associated with poetry, a particularly contentious subject among naturalists during the early Victorian period. The infusion of poetry into natural history prompted a series of contentious debates that unfolded in the naturalist periodicals of the 1830s and 1840s. As the tide of professionalism began to crest during those decades, systematic naturalists began to repudiate the poetic articulations of naturalist knowledge. In 1837, one writer in The Magazine of Natural History remarked that “Zoological details clothed in the language of poetry should always be received with caution, and perhaps even some degree of distrust” (49, emphasis in original). Poetry was construed by professionally-oriented naturalists as an impediment to scientific knowledge, or as an article of clothing that obscures the empirical knowledge hidden beneath. The estrangement of poetry and taxonomy was not restricted to the naturalists—the Romantic poets also disparaged the work of systematic naturalists who catalogued the living world according to an artificial system of knowledge. Jonathan Smith has analyzed the “Romantic hostility toward the

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class ificatory sciences” (Fact, 64), citing works by Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge, while Eric Miller and Theresa M. Kelley have charted John Clare’s aversions to classificatory systems. Like Clare, many of the Romantic poets bristled at the taxonomic practice of dividing the organic unity of the living world into a set of arbitrary categories comprised of artificial and alien names. Despite the suspicion and opposition expressed early on by poets and systematic naturalists, the notion of a hybrid form of poetic natural history gradually gained currency after 1830. Thus in 1860, Philip Henry Gosse confidently described that “the poet’s way” of studying natural history as his own method of choice (3). Accordingly, Gosse associated his naturalist writing with an “aesthetic aspect, which deals, not with statistics, but with the emotions of the human mind,—surprise, wonder, terror, revulsion, admiration, love, desire” (3). This highly aestheticized form of natural history appeared in such profusion during the Victorian period that it constituted a whole new genre that Lynn Merrill describes as “romantic natural history.” This aestheticized mode was of particular interest to novelists who sought to introduce into their fiction an aesthetic that would accommodate their impulse to remain objective and to faithfully report the material conditions, social relations, or psychological characteristics they observed. Drawing on the naturalist aesthetic common in ‘romantic natural histories,’ I shall argue, Victorian novelists resolved the problem of potentially bleak, dry, or inartistic realism. One Victorian naturalist, writing about the poetic form of natural history he championed during the 1830s, made the point that novelists implicitly understood: that “Fiction itself became tiresome [when] unrelieved by those descriptions of natural objects, which were like the sparkling jewels to the metal in which they were set.” 10

Full document contains 241 pages
Abstract: "The Naturalist Imagination" argues that a wide range of Victorian novelists drew on the language and logic of natural history to represent the working-class communities, rural spaces, and colonial territories of Britain in their novels. In so doing, this project seeks to recover the interconnections between natural history and novel writing that have been overlooked by subsequent scholarship, but which were nevertheless recognized by Victorian writers as sources of fruitful literary experimentation. After examining debates that erupted over the question of aesthetics in naturalist periodicals published in Britain during the 1830s, I study the relationship between natural history and the aesthetic advanced by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Richard Jefferies--each of whom studied natural history, composed their own naturalist writings, or read extensively about naturalist practices. Natural history's unique combination of empirical observation and aesthetic representation, I argue, provided a set of strategies British novelists could use to enhance both the romance and realism of their fiction. By studying novelists who practiced natural history as amateurs or were interested in amateur practice, I aim to complicate standard critical narratives that have focused exclusively on Darwin and the influence of professional naturalist discourses on literature of the Victorian period. Gaskell, Brontë, Eliot, and Jefferies each experimented with the representational possibilities they found in natural history and contributed to the production of a "naturalist aesthetic" in their novels. This aesthetic, I argue, usually begins with intricate descriptions of natural objects and extends to human life, yielding innovative narrative modes that resonated with period readers. Building on the notion that the Victorian novel functioned as a "Natural History of British life," as one critic claimed in 1859, my dissertation examines the works of these novelists as products of diverse naturalist imaginations struggling to describe seemingly alien or obscure communities for a broad, middle-class readership. While Brontë and Jefferies experimented freely with the adaptation of natural history to the representation of human life, I argue, Gaskell and Eliot produced works that illustrate the limitations of natural history's applicability to human subjects.