cholars have recently begun to refresh familiar Victorian writers and works by attending to that which that, paradoxically, demands to be overlooked. Such moments -- of reticence, reluctance, strategic understatement, or tact -- constitute a literature of what literary critic Anne-Lise François has called "recessive action." Michael Tondre's new study of Victorian literature and science, The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender (2018) slots neatly into this category, exploring the ways in which major mid-Victorian writers quietly and unobtrusively recast, resisted, and otherwise subverted dominant modes of understanding and analyzing natural and social phenomena. According to Tondre, the use of such strategies paralleled and often anticipated the development of cognate ideas in the natural sciences. "What we are approaching," Tondre writes, "is a tradition of realism couched in the conditional or subjunctive mood," a realism leavened with a touch of unreality in the form of expectations that don't quite come to pass, plots that don't quite cohere in the end, scientific observations that are not quite error-free. (4) In each case, there are at least two realities: imperfect reality and the lost dream of perfected reality, which exists inside the first one and haunts it. In Tondre's own words:
Within the decades I interpret, the domain of historical possibilities stood situated between the material and the immaterial, occupying an ambivalent space of both, which was quintessentially that of the novel. On the one hand, alternative possibilities seemed to be epiphenomena: no more than practical projections, serving to compensate for our all-too-human failure to trace the divine telos of each particle and force in the world. On the other hand, those possibilities were often implied to have an actual existence, in the hyperconnected ensembles of movement and interrelationship that scientists intuited in the nether reaches of the real. (10)
Tondre's first chapter examines George Meredith's novel, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1857-59), in light of contemporary developments in mathematical probability. The philosophically-inclined mathematician Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871) contributed notably to the popular perception of probability and "was quick to point out the moral benefits of the subject," benefits that included "a liberal recognition of other perspectives, training one to explore how disparate individuals think and feel." (36) Reading Meredith's Feverel through this lens, Tondre traces themes of chance and probability, suggesting that Meredith deployed these ideas in order to counter more deterministic views of individual development. Significantly Tondre sees the novel's central aim as contesting the standard "marriage plot," which begins with two solitudes and ends in heterosexual marriage, figured as the start of adulthood. The novel's hero, Richard Feverel, is under tremendous pressure to marry yet remains reluctant to do so. A potential union, with Lucy Desborough, is proposed under conditions of hesitation, uncertainty, and anomaly. When it is pointed out that Feverel could do worse than marry Lucy, "the threat of a random alliance" throws a long and anxious shadow over proceedings. As search for an appropriate match intensifies, the action takes a reflexive turn and "proceeds in search of lost versions of Richard himself." (46) Meredith presents Feverel's foreclosed futures: Feverel remembers his younger self, dreaming of dressage and joining the cavalry. Had he not "been bred to believe he was born for great things?" With these counterfactual fantasies, Meredith rings a change on the standard plot of masculine development by situating it "within a field of occluded counterlives" (46-47), any of which might have been available to Feverel given the contemporary understanding of the laws of chance.
In his second chapter, Tondre turns to the sensationalist novels of Wilkie Collins. In Armadale (1864-66) Tondre spies an opportunity to unsettle the longstanding view that, like other authors of sensationalist fiction, Collins was primarily concerned to thematize speed in reaction to the rise of rapid travel and the steam engine. (62) Tondre turns this well-worn position on its head by claiming that the central issue is not speed but postponement. Tondre traces Collins' rhetoric of postponement and connects with contemporary work in the psychology of work, particularly scientific research. In 1815, the Koenigsberg astronomer Friedrich Bessel published a study of observer error in astronomical measurement after becoming intrigued by a regularity: "whenever two individuals recorded a time that a star passed through the cross wires of a telescope lens, Bessel found that the results varied by at least one tenth of a second." This variation was "both ubiquitous and impervious to remedy" as well as "constant in each observer." (64) Tondre broadens his discussion of this constant error to include contemporaries studies of reaction times more generally. Tondre reads the strange plot of Armadale, in which the son of a murderer befriends the son of the man murdered by his father and then worries that the past will repeat itself, through the lens of such "errant temporalities" (72). Drawing on the arguments of François, whose Open Secrets (2008) provocatively analyzed similar chronological switchbacks in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, Tondre shows how the postponements that structure the novel free Collins' characters from the forward-pressing movement of the standard sensationalist plot so they may reimagine and perhaps change their fates. (77)
Tondre next turns his attention to the notorious "fatal problem" in the conceptual framework of Darwinism, that is, the presence of nonreproductive individuals in a species. Concrete, well-known examples of this "fatal problem" were presented by worker ants and bees, both of which were widely observed to engage in species- supporting but not individually reproductive activities. Prominent among those writers who anticipated something of this "fatal problem" was Charles Dickens, as Tondre finds evidence of investigation of this theme in his novel Dombey and Son (1846-1848). On his reading, Tondre sees the partnership between Ned Cuttle and Sol Gills as a powerful force in creating and sustaining a community. Their vibrant network of chosen intimates contrasts starkly with the declining fortunes of the once-powerful Dombeys, whose family relationships should have remained closer and more coherent if the Darwininian rule were ubiquitously in play. On Tondre's view the novel "prefigures Darwin's understanding of moral and social variation" by first accepting "the seeming self-evidence of interpersonal conflict" while it "posits how nonreproductive individuals might offer an altruistic alternative," one that proffers "a more encompassing vision of communal change" and "attests to the growth of new socialities." (115)
George Eliot, perhaps the most visible figure at the intersection of Victorian science and literature, provides the focus of Tondre's final chapter. Although Middlemarch (1871) has traditionally functioned as a keystone text in studies of literature and science, Tondre nevertheless avers that its relevance to Victorian science has not been fully appreciated or understood. Despite the long-standing interest in Eliot's web of literary and scientific connections, influences, and sources, Tondre asserts that scholars have so far missed the novel's "acute ties to theories of diffusion," particularly diffusion of energy in the form of work. Just as Victorian investigators discovered that "the effects of 'wasted energy' could be approximated through the calculus of probabilities, even when a total account of individuals remained elusive," (127) so Middlemarch are the heroine's potentials only apparently thwarted by her dull marriage to Casaubon and his subsequent decline. After a series of shocks to her views of herself, her husband, and her marriage, Dorothea fails to respond with decisive action. Rather, her "ambitions are 'scattered' in the manner of ice after heat is applied," and "such signs of lost energy extend to other characters whose ambitions are also blocked." (149) Nevertheless this apparently "lost" energy still manages to do various kinds of narrative work. Tracing Eliot's variations on this theme, Tondre reveals the details of the novel's "probabilitistic vision," according to which "the power of dead hands [...] increases all the more as their vitality is lost." (131)" In this way, Eliot transformed "the second law of thermodynamics into a means of figuring failed sympathies" (148).
This is a finely written book. Tondre lays out his arguments in a clear and organized manner, and virtually every sentence is polished to a high shine. Among Tondre's particular strengths is a willingness to take the mid-Victorians seriously. Tondre patiently identifies and traces the influence of less well-known figures such as the Welsh inventor William Grove (1811-1896), author of a popular history of science in which many of the probabilistic ideas explored by Tondre were first brought to a wide audience in Great Britain; and the mostly forgotten Henry Buckle (1821-1862) whose ambitious histories were also widely read, reviewed, and discussed. Tondre sensibly points out that scholars who play down the mid-Victorians will inevitably be tempted to see the history of modern science as a series of upheavals, as previously acceptable ideas are rendered unacceptable on the basis of new evidence or new ways of interpreting old evidence. This failure to appreciate mid-Victorian contributions "heightens a narrative of modern epistemic rupture." It might be better, Tondre suggests, to contextualize mid-Victorian ideas as "artifacts from a moment of cultural intensification, when Newtonian assumptions were crumbling but still salient" even as "the physics of variation took hold." (172)
For all its strengths, however, this book is likely to disappoint readers searching for clear and substantively documented links between the technical history of science and Victorian literature. Although Tondre claims to be doing more than merely showing how novelists are "appropriating scientific insights" (137), appropriation of ideas is still what he's describing, and the mechanisms for this appropriation remain unclear beyond the familiar mechanism of popularization. Particularly in relation to the history of mathematical physics, Tondre relies primarily on popularized versions of that material, and he himself points out that the probabilistic mathematics informing his readings of Middlemarch and Richard Feverel was widely if rather superficially understood at midcentury. But these popularized versions rarely conveyed original ideas fully and accurately, and it is just here that Tondre's argument sometimes runs into trouble. For instance, Bessel's isolation of constant observer error is not quite the same as what Tondre calls "lag time," although it may have been perceived by popularizers as such. Nevertheless Tondre's imposition of an idea of a "lag" does much of the conceptual work in linking Bessel's research on constant error to Collins' management of reader expectations in Armadale. While the connection intrigues, I remained unconvinced by it. Tondre goes to great lengths to situate Armadale within a psychological discourse of delay in which Bessel played rather a minor role, mediated in any case by his exigetes in Britain who did not themselves adhere particularly faithfully to his original concept. (66)
Although Tondre does point out direct connections between historical actors -- writers, scientists, popularizers -- where they exist, his primary aim is to articulate thematic connections between bodies of ideas. Tondre believes such thematic connections arise because ideas diffuse like scents through a room. To explain this diffusion, Tondre relies on the notion of "ensemble effects," which unfortunately does not explain the diffusion so much as providing another name for it. Do these thematic connections have an independent historical reality apart from Tondre's perception of them? For instance, if these ideas were widely understood, we might expect them to crop up with some regularity in other mid-Victorian works. Because Tondre limits his literary analyses to marquee figures, it is hard to know if they do. Nor does Tondre explore the limits of such effects, for instance by discussing sites and texts where such effects were the most and least pronounced. According to Tondre, the mechanisms of diffusion included not only the well-known "dynamics of popularization" but also "patterns of thought and feeling that comprised potential theories but began as preconceptual patterns of writing." (24-25) Here the ice grows thin indeed. If these patterns truly are pre-conceptual, it is strange that they should appear in otherwise conceptually rich writing. That these patterns are necessarily unremarked by the writers themselves as well as their critics and partisans adds another layer of difficulty, for one cannot confirm the historical existence of such "ensemble effects" without departing from the categories of analysis and modes of thought used by the actors themselves. Tondre's is a risky kind of knowingness, in which the critic presumes to see more clearly than her subjects, from whom she is nevertheless far removed.
François, Anne-Lise. Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Tondre, Michael. The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2018.
Last modified 13 June 2019