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The University of California, Berkeley
“Charles Dickens, Transformist: Popular Science and the Victorian Novel.”

The enormous cultural prestige of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory has eclipsed earlier and alternative versions of nineteenth-century evolutionary science, both (until recently) among historians of science and among literary scholars. As a result, critical discussions of Dickens’s fiction in relation to Victorian natural science have tended to assimilate it to a Darwinian model – even though most of the novels were written before On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. My paper will make the case for Dickens’s commitment to an evolutionary vision of the natural and human world, drawn however from Robert Chambers’s best-selling synthesis of pre-Darwinian transformist speculation, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Focusing on Dickens’s boldest aesthetic experiment, Bleak House (1852-53), I argue that this transformist natural history accounts for the novel’s distinctive formal features: grotesque or monstrous characters, the division of the narrative, and an allegorical rather than realist representation of the world as a total system.


Ian Duncan studied at King's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1977) and Yale University (Ph.D., 1989). He taught for several years in the English department at Yale, before being appointed Barbara and Carlisle Moore Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Oregon in 1995. He came to the University of California, Berkeley in 2001, where he was appointed to the Florence Green Bixby Chair in English in 2011. He is a recipient (2017) of the university's Distinguished Teaching Award.

Duncan is the author of Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge University Press, 1992), Scott's Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton University Press, 2007), and a new book, Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution (forthcoming from Princeton University Press in September 2019). Other books include several co-edited volumes, including Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism (Cambridge UP, 2004) and The Edinburgh Companion to James Hogg (Edinburgh UP, 2012), and editions of Walter Scott’s Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, James Hogg’s Winter Evening Tales and Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and Travel Writing 1700-1800 (coedited). He is currently writing a short book for Cambridge University Press on Scotland and Romanticism.

Duncan is a Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a member of the editorial board of Representations, a General Editor of the Collected Works of James Hogg, and co-editor of a new book series, Edinburgh Critical Studies in Romanticism. He has held visiting positions at the Universities of British Columbia and Konstanz, Boğaziçi University, Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich, and Princeton University.