In the early 1870s, George Eliot looked back forty years to the England of her childhood; Middlemarch is a “historical” novel, all the more so because Eliot’s concerns are often with how the past has shaped the present. Lydgate, the doctor who marries so unwisely and whose hopes of making a contribution to medical science are consequently derailed, absorbs much of Eliot’s sympathy and exasperation—as does Dorothea Brooke, whose own hopes of contributing to human progress in social reform are also thwarted.
That our sense of Lydgate’s failure to make “a link in the chain of discovery” is his personal tragedy and not a large one for us all depends on our accepting Eliot’s positivist belief in the progress of science, and hence human society, that everywhere infuses this novel. Eliot can rely on the shared sense with her readers that things are “much better than they might have been” for us; progress in society, and the advancement of science, are inevitable. So it is that the spirits of the English reformers, and of Pasteur and his colleagues, animate Middlemarch.
Certainly we no longer share Eliot’s confidence where social progress is concerned. We read War and Peace and think, “Human folly is inevitable.” If we read a historical novel that relies on the optimism of Marx’s ideas, or for that matter on those of our own American founders, we think, “If they only knew.” But for all that we deplore specific features of technology’s invasion of our lives, most of us retain a confidence that science itself, the knowledge that it brings, is good, and that it represents progress, maybe our only progress forward as a species. A novel about Galileo, or Nightingale, or the conquest of typhoid prompts gratitude, the sense of what we owe to these heroes of science. The fiction writer today who writes about science and its discoverers can rely, just as Eliot did, on readers’ shared sense of wonder and admiration for the work itself.
Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution are the heroic presences that hover behind these two new books of historical fiction. In Andrea Barrett’s central story, “The Island,” a young woman scientist is transformed by the experience of reading On the Origin of Species. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s sprawling new novel, The Signature of All Things, a female botanist independently arrives at her own theory, similar to Darwin’s, in the middle of the nineteenth century.
There, it must be said, the similarity between the two books ends. Andrea Barrett is a splendid writer of what, for lack of any better term, we call literary fiction; Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the extremely popular memoir Eat, Pray, Love, is an energetic scribbler. Barrett writes of science and scientists from profound understanding and passion, exploring how scientific reason and human feeling collide and illuminate one another. Gilbert’s…
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