I like to pride myself on being something of a time-wasting connoisseur. Give me an afternoon and I will show you how to do sod all, and take pride in it.
But today I realised that I was playing in the junior league compared to the world of academia across the pond.
According to a report in the Guardian, research by a team of American scientists has come to the astounding conclusion that the rise of the novel in the last eighteenth century “not only reflected the values of Victorian society, but also shaped them.”
Researchers asked 500 academics to rate the personality traits of characters from 201 classic Victorian novels and came up with this gobbet of wisdom:
“Archetypal novels from the time extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted co-operation and affability against individuals’ huger for power and dominance”
As an ex-English student, I am perfectly aware that I may have something of a chip on my shoulder, but this strikes me as the most ludicrous waste of time and money I have heard of since I read about someone sponsored to work out the equation to describe how a ball of paper crumples.
Even the most mediocre of A-level student could have told them that. In fact, anyone who has ever managed the briefest flick through a Victorian novel – the examples named being Middlemarch, Dracula and Wuthering Heights – could have picked it up before the end of the first chapter.
Furthermore, it is not only bad science, it is bad literary criticism. The article goes on to explain:
“They found that leading characters fell into groups that mirrored the co-operative nature of a hunter-gatherer society, where individual urges for power and wealth were suppressed for the good of the community”
So, society good, individualism bad, is that what we’re meant to learn from this insightful study?
Well, if the evolutionary psychologists in question had done their homework, they might have realised that history is, in fact, stranger than fiction.
While Jane Austen was carving her “little bit of ivory”, working on the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensiblity, two men were writing an introduction to a collection of poems that heralded a new era in how man understood himself.
The Preface to the Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is generally regarded at the beginning and manifesto of British Romanticism.
In it, they reject the studied artistry of their predecessors, arguing instead that poetry should be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” composed by a man “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility [who has] also thought long and deeply.”
That image of the haunted individual, isolated by his superior understanding, has played on our imaginations in its various forms ever since.
From the pages of Wuthering Heights to the James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, the image of the lone wolf has become the heart throb of generations.
Aspiration, drive, individualism – these are the features we admire most in today’s capitalist society. We may pay lip service to Mother Theresa, nod sagely at Ghandi, but if it came to the choice, how many of us would, really and truly, chose their lives of sacrifice over that of Warren Buffett?
To say that our genes have been writen by the pages of Middlemarch not only misunderstands fundamental traits of the human character, but also the literature of the period.
As Einstein put it: “The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”