Evolutionary regression in Victorian children's literature

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species coincided with a growing number of fantastical children’s texts in Victorian Britain. This thesis examines how children’s literature envisions evolutionary change in idiosyncratic ways, arguing that children’s authors blend evolutionary paradigms rather than subscribing to any particular theory. I identify how children’s writers approach key evolutionary ideas, such as progress, agency, kinship with animals, and mutual aid. Children’s authors are particularly interested in recapitulation, the idea that individual development mirrors the evolution of the species, but they often envision it as nonlinear or regressive. Spanning children’s works from 1861-1911, this thesis draws together several academic disciplines, including history of science, Victorian studies, and scholarship on children’s literature. I examine a wide, and often hitherto unstudied, variety of texts: major scientific publications, scientific lectures, essays in periodicals, and children’s fiction, among other contextual and biographical materials. This thesis fills multiple gaps in scholarly literature by re-evaluating children’s authors as scientific theorists in their own right who contribute new ideas to evolutionary discourse.

The first chapter discusses Andrew Lang’s concept of relapse, by which he promotes a physical and epistemological blend of past and present. Chapter 2 analyzes George MacDonald’s Princess books, in which physical regression is intimately related to spiritual evolution. The third chapter examines the violent and nonsensical animal worlds of Lewis Carroll, Jean Ingelow, and Tom Hood. In the fourth chapter, I discuss Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books, which use Darwinian kinship with all life forms to establish an interspecies community. Finally, Chapter 5 considers Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, a text that encapsulates the Victorian fascination with alternative modes of evolution. These writers’ depictions of evolutionary regression challenge a monolithic definition of evolution, epitomizing the striking diversity of evolutionary thought in the late nineteenth century.
Date of Award28 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorGregory Paul Tate (Supervisor)


  • Children's literature
  • Evolutionary theory
  • Recapitulation
  • Fantasy
  • Regression

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 4 August 2028

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