08 July 2015

Review: Born in Exile by George Gissing

Hardcover, 485 pages
Published 1970 (originally 1892)
Acquired and read January 2013
Born in Exile
by George Gissing

The loss of romance from science is a driving theme of George Gissing’s novel Born in Exile. Published in 1892, just a year before John Tyndall—that preeminent proponent of science as a source of “transcendental materialism”—died, the novel presents a very different kind of Victorian scientist than previous literature had. Many previous literary scientists were enthusiastic crusaders after truth. Thomas Thurnall from Charles Kingsley’s Two Years Ago (1857), Roger Hamley from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864-66), Tertius Lydgate from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72), and Swithin St. Cleeve from Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882) all fall into this category of course, but even villainous scientists like Edred Fitzpiers from Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887) and Nathan Benjulia from Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science (1882-83) are typically presented as seeking truth in their own, immoral ways. Gissing’s protagonist, Godwin Peak, is from an age where being a scientist is just another profession; his sole desire in becoming a chemist is as a stepping stone for his considerable ambition.

In some ways, Peak is the product of a mainstream, professional scientific education. One of Tyndall and Thomas Henry Huxley’s consistent fights was for scientific education; both pushed for science as the foundation of all education. In the early part of the century, few direct opportunities were available to the man of science. In 1838, when Huxley decided that he wanted to study “natural philosophy” as a boy of thirteen, he had to pursue a surgical apprenticeship because he had no money available to him, and Huxley was later forced to join the Royal Navy as surgeon’s mate to avoid debt.

By the time of Peak, the would-be scientist is not forced into such an arrangement thanks to the work of Huxley himself and Tyndall. Ursula DeYoung’s intellectual biography of Tyndall says that he “argued that the classical authors, while neither irrelevant nor worthless, simply did not provide the education necessary for success in the modern world” and he insisted that “there must be a complete overhaul of educational policy with a new emphasis on scientific knowledge and modes of thought” (148), while Huxley once observed that a Roman centurion’s son in a contemporary university “would not meet with a single unfamiliar line of thought.” Born in Exile shows a world where Tyndall and Huxley have won. In its opening scene, one of Peak’s schoolmates calls classical learning “antiquated rubbish” (17), and prizes are given not just for students’ performance in traditional categories such as philosophy, Greek, and Latin, but also geology, chemistry, and physics. Science is now a subject (or rather, a set of subjects) at school, not something that one must go to great lengths to pursue.

Peak is a product of the professionalization that Huxley and Tyndall desired; according to Desmond’s biography of Huxley, he foresaw a science-led society being governed by “only knowledge well organized and well tested. And that made Nature’s own education the best guide… the only way forward was a competitive, technocratic society, with the science professionals at the helm” (210-11). Huxley wanted to reshape science: “Science required factory discipline, ‘steady punctual uninterrupted work’. His scientific-artisan lineage was being forged, a work-bench mentality far from the leisured aristocratic ideal” (198). But such an arrangement of society privileges those who master the profession of science, and means that advancing within science becomes advancing within society, making the desire for scientific knowledge something other than just a desire to discover truth.

For Peak, the pursuit of a scientific career is essentially only about public demonstration of his abilities: he wants to be the technocrat at the helm of society. Peak believes that he was mistakenly born into a lower middle-class family when he should have been a member of the aristocracy (the “born in exile” of the title), and wants to climb out of his position. He rejects laboratory work at a university instead of London, asking himself “what would come of that—at all events for many years?” (73) A friend of his tells him that he must specialize, because “a man must concentrate himself. Not only for the sake of practical success, but—well, for his own sake” (90), and Peak follows that advice.

Professional science becomes just another area of society where someone can get ahead, according to Born in Exile. Tyndall’s transcendental materialism did not meet the requirements of the laboratory science era, and it is easy to imagine Peak disparaging the work of a scientist like Tyndall as unambitious and not sufficiently rational. I say “seems to” because we almost never see Peak in the act of conducting science, aside from a couple conversations with an old geological mentor. The reason for the lack of direct depiction here is that if, thanks to professionalization, there is no romance or emotion in science, there is nothing for the novelist to work with.

The loss of romance from science is paralleled by a loss of romance in the scientist’s life. Romance is never a factor for Godwin Peak: he spends most of Born in Exile pursuing Sidwell Warricombe, but only because of the social status she can bring him: “he neither was, nor dreamt himself, in love with her” (213). He sets himself on a plan of winning her over by practicing a long-term deception, compromising his intellectual beliefs to fulfill his desire because she has the class status that he requires. Even once he realized that he is genuinely falling in love with Sidwell, Peak’s plan is still “[t]o wait… to make sure his progress step by step,—that was the course indicated from the first by sudden audacity; for him was no hope save in slow, persevering energy of will. Passion had all but ruined him; now he had recovered self-control” (306). Peak’s plodding, dull work of pursuing Sidwell, which would be interrupted or disrupted by the use of passion, seems like the romance equivalent of his scientific work. Rational, but completely uninterested in transcendence: this is the mentality ostensibly created (or at least shaped) by the professionalization of science. Romance itself has become a factory pursuit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Born in Exile ultimately ends in defeat for Peak. He is found out, causing Sidwell to spurn him. She ultimately forgives him when she realizes he really did come to love her, but cannot bring herself to marry him, and Peak works ploddingly as an industrial chemist for many years, ultimately dying alone. I cannot glibly assign all of his defects of character to the professionalization of science, but it obviously contributes. Science fits as an occupation for Peak because it is both rational and professional, allowing for demonstrations of his cruel coldness and his ambition. I don’t think, however that Gissing was somehow constructing an argument against science’s professionalization. But Born in Exile does stand as a strong demonstration of DeYoung’s claim about the shifting place of science across the course of Tyndall’s lifetime: even a generation prior, a scientific career could not have been shown as a logical choice for a careerist mind, as there would not have been sufficient schooling or jobs available in the field. Tyndall would have been appalled at the kind of scientist that Peak was, but it was a type of science he himself had helped create.

It is important to note that in the case of Godwin Peak, a scientific education and career make a somewhat positive difference in his life, and could have made a much more positive one if Peak had been a somewhat different person. Peak comes from a poor family, and he attends university thanks to the benevolence of a rich benefactor—it is only his pride that causes him to leave school, when he becomes afraid that a relative will open a pastry shop called “Peak’s” across the street, revealing the secret of his class origins to his schoolmates. Without this pride, he could have probably done much better for himself, as he would not have been forced to take a job to support himself at the university he switched to. There is a real opening of possibilities from the professionalization of science—one does not need to be independently wealthy to pursue knowledge

If professionalization really did cause a shift from Tyndall’s transcendental materialism to Huxley’s knowledge factory, that should not be surprising. According to DeYoung, “The artist and the scientist… though divided in their purposes… are united in Tyndall’s vision by their possession of ‘inspiration and creative power’” (95). The project of transcendental materialism comes from the same place within the soul as that of the novel, so it is no wonder that the novel does such a good job of recording it. But the products of factory science are antithetical to the aims of the novel. Whether or not the professionalization of science in the late nineteenth century was a positive change, we should not be surprised that some novelists viewed it with suspicion and displeasure.

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