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Making love in the green fields.

Darwin’s Influence in The Small House at Allington.

The College of William & Mary.

[Undergraduate Trollope Prize Winner 2014]

darwinPRIOR TO THE publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species in 1859, scholars viewed scientific study and observation through a lens of divinity, and natural theology formed the basis of logical thought. Darwin’s work has since been recognized as the foundation for evolutionary biology, and many postulates’ accuracy have been confirmed through the discovery of genes, modern technology, and the improvement of the fossil record. In mid-Victorian England, Darwin’s theory wrought significant intellectual change. While it was met with resistance by some—those who were unwilling to accept the inferences of the natural historian due to religious reasons or the belief in other leading theories (i.e. theory of transmutation of species, of spontaneous generation, Lamarckian theory)—throughout the 1860s and ’70s, leading thinkers began to recognize Darwin’s work as a significant addition to the study of not only science, but society and religion as well. A large portion of responsibility for the changes brought about Darwinian theory (and responsibility for much of the resistance to the theory as well) lay in the renegotiation of long-held beliefs regarding God as the only influence on earthly events. Following On the Origin of Species, debate on scientific theory expanded to be more welcoming of arguments that held there was no God-like figure at work in nature. These changes in scholarly thought were recognized in literary works in the years following the publication of Darwin’s theory.

Darwin’s theory was not officially named “evolution” at its inception, but gained the title after some time in the scholarly arena. Darwin’s theories of sexual selection were expounded in the 1871 publication of The Descent of Man: this work formed the basis of evolutionary psychology, outlined the differences between sexes, and was in essence the explicit application of Darwin’s theories to humankind. A current argument in evolutionary theory is that of “adaptationism,” where all organisms “have evolved through an adaptive process of natural selection” and the development of complex structures gives “prima facie evidence of adaptive constraint” (Carroll, vii). While evolutionary psychology was not the significant focus of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the concept of the “adapted mind,” where “human nature is both the source and subject of literature,” is seen in the writings of Anthony Trollope (Carroll i). In Trollope’s writing, character reigns supreme over plot, an echoing of the Darwinian belief that the individual drives evolution, and the development of species—small pictures control the big picture in both authors’ imaginings. While it has been argued that Trollope “probably knew less and certainly cared less about science than Dickens,” it is evident that his style of writing and the subject of his writing allow “the complex and abundant worlds” described by both Trollope and Darwin, to converge. (Levine 181). Trollope was an author concerned not with “ideas, but (with) the texture of social intercourse itself,” in the same way Darwin painstakingly detailed natural history to support his hypothesis, rather than write sweeping abstract scientific notions (Levine 180). In The Small House at Allington, fertility takes the center stage, and given that the novel was written a few years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and published in 1864, Trollope would have had the opportunity to study the theory of natural selection.

IN THIS ESSAY'Small House' title page, I argue that Trollope was not only versed in Darwinian theory, but also agreed with the natural historian. The pastoral is irrevocably altered in Trollope’s vision of the village at Allington. The author peels back the corner of the peaceful façade of the town, revealing the truth of nature: the cold, unfeeling forces that drive individuals and the societies they work within. The economic pressures and romantic struggles featured within the novel, and meticulously impartial narration on behalf of Trollope demonstrate the concept of what is now known as “Survival of the Fittest1.” Trollope was not writing a reassuringly familiar tale of pastoral romanticism in Small House at Allington. Morse argues that in writing this installation of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Trollope was partaking in ”the only form the genre (pastoralism) can authentically take2,” after the publication of Darwinian theory (Morse 45). My interpretation of the text finds that this “predatory” element is evident in Trollope’s writing style and subject. Nature is God to Trollope, and nature does not shed a tear over the plight of supposed-heroine Lily Dale.

A large point of contention for those who disapproved of Darwin’s theories were those who found that the statements on natural selection “undermined the value of traditional religion and morality…accepted for centuries as the guiding principle of mankind” (Diniejko 1). Institutionalized religion finds no home within Small House at Allington, and religion itself does not seem to be of much concern for the main characters3. Trollope does spend time describing the village church in the first chapter of the novel, but it is made clear the church is not a priority to the novel’s plot. A church similar to “thousands in England,” the narrator wishes to waste “the fewest possible number of words” (Trollope 9). Religion and God-fearing behavior is not the focus of the novel: this is truly significant in a Victorian novel centered upon character development. Lily Dale’s behavior and growth does not require a religious experience, no moral mortification. Her “sins” go unchecked by the retribution sanctioned by a Church, and she instead suffers due to the inheritance of a family trait.

Trollope, like Darwin, believed nature drove the choices and actions of organisms.

The inheritances of the Dales serve as a focal point for most of the novel, whether they be genetic behavioral traits or physical inheritances. Trollope, like Darwin, believed nature drove the choices and actions of organisms, and the author believed that humans were not spared from these inherited dispositions. God and religion act as extensions of man’s adapted mind, and the treatment of land, in particular the matter of its entailment, serves as the creed of the Dales:

It had been a religion among them; and seeing that the worship had been carried on without fail, that the vestal fire had never gone down upon the hearth…To this religion they had all adhered, and the new heir had ever entered in upon his domain without other encumbrances that those with which he himself was then already burdened…The idea of an entail was necessary to the Dale religion that each squire should have the power of wasting the acres of Allington—and that he should abstain from wasting them….And so it was with the Dales of Allington (Trollope 4).

This stubborn adherence to a family rule which goes largely unspoken could best be described by a term from evolutionary psychology: an adaptive constraint. Within the field of sociobiological evolutionary theory, adaptive constraints are believed to evolve to prevent change within a species4. This aversion to change is typically considered to be in place to preclude further natural selection for a trait. The squires of Allington, believing themselves to be great men with appropriate traditions, would have developed these constraints in thinking that it would stop the “fatal glass” from breaking, and the luck of the Dales from ending (Trollope 4). Their inability to adapt threatens the future of the family. Of course, in combination with other seemingly hereditary traits of the Dales, this quasi-religious refusal to entail the land spells disaster for the family line when Christopher Dale does not produce an heir, and his nephew and niece do not marry each other.

BEFORE DARWINIAN THEORY, it was widely accepted that cousins of any degree could marry and reproduce. Following Darwin’s publications in 1859 and 1871, however, this allowance of blood-relatives reproducing began to be questioned, as it was theorized, both through his work in Origins and past work with cross-breeding plants, that inbreeding could have potentially disadvantageous outcomes for offspring. Christopher Dale hopes to have Bernard, his nephew and heir presumptive, wed Bell Dale, his niece. This potential match is commented on most drily by another one of Bell’s suitors, Dr. Crofts: “I’m not quite sure that it’s a good thing for cousins to marry,” says Crofts to the Earl de Guest (Trollope 216). This statement could be construed as the potentially jealous Crofts trying to convince the earl that there could be a better choice for Bell (himself) or, it could be construed as Trollope’s own amusement at the ubiquitous marriage of cousins in England, in the face of Darwin’s findings. By putting this opinion in the mouth of a respectable doctor, whose later fecund marriage with Bell5 bolsters his wisdom, Trollope gets the point across to his reader in a reasonable fashion.

Another inherited trait of the Dales is their inability to let go of lovers who have scorned them. Christopher Dale, when he learned the woman he loved did not return the feeling, “had been unable to transfer his heart to another” (Trollope 6). His niece, Lily, suffers from this same trait—it is this inability to move on that causes her punishment after Crosbie breaks off their engagement. “The Dales were ever constant….Ever constant!” the squire remarks to himself upon leaving Lily after the news of Crosbie’s new engagement breaks (Trollope 332). This inherited constancy, an adaption that in the past had allowed for great loyalty and depth of feeling (positive traits to be sure), this fidelity proves to be the near-ruination of Lily Dale. This inherited failure to adapt, first seen in the Dale’s refusal to entail their estate, now threatens Lily’s chances at producing offspring.

In the “struggle for existence”…the struggle that plagues all organisms, nostalgia is a form of surrender, of death, and of reproductive failure

The young Dale reflects too long on her own “natural” history, a nostalgia that is both “regressive and sterile,” her reflections on a lost “paradise of fertile promise” promising nothing but her own disappointment (Morse 46). Darwinian evolution does not entertain the nostalgic wishes of anyone, not even the charming Ms. Dale. In the “struggle for existence” described by Darwin in Origin of Species, the struggle that plagues all organisms, nostalgia is a form of surrender, of death, and of reproductive failure (Darwin 52). Lily’s role prior to Crosbie’s abandonment had been one of potential fertility, of rural richness. In one letter however, this future is snatched from her, and her chances of reproductive success greatly diminish. Lily condemns herself to infertility, an unforgivable action to Darwinian evolution. Truthfully, her chances at reproductive success ended the moment she selected Adolphus Crosbie as her intended mate: Crosbie, a weak man who chose the stark, barren urban setting over the fertile, lush and rural environment.

lilydaleThe fertility of Lillian Dale is a cause of great distress for Adolphus Crosbie. Why he feels this terror is integral to understanding Trollope’s own viewpoint on mankind’s relation to Darwinian theory. As stated before, prior to the Origin of Species, natural theology formed the basis of scholarly thought: a major tenet of this philosophy was the belief that man was an elevated species. With Darwin’s publication and suggestion of a common ancestor, man was relegated to just another animal species. Trollope’s characters are not spared from this judgment, and Adolphus Crosbie’s fight-or-flight response kicks in when he considers the reproductive potential of mating with Lillian Dale. His lover is attuned with nature: while she does not possess a depth of worldly knowledge, Lily does understand, at least subconsciously, the implications of their union. She happily envisions their shared future, a natural future. This same vision terrifies Crosbie. When he departs the Small House, he reflects upon the great pleasures of “making love in the green fields” at Allington: an animal may have felt the same pleasure, and would have enjoyed the same activity in much the same setting (Trollope 166). In visiting the Small House at Allington and falling prey to its verdant charms, both through the scenery and those Pearls of Allington, Crosbie enters the world of the natural, of the untamed. His stark, cold way of living in the city lies temporarily forgotten as he roams the fields and gives into instinct. The instinct here is loving6 Lily Dale, but it is the consequences of this love that bring him the most fright.

A man who fears reproduction is a strange man indeed—Darwin’s theory of evolution held that the greatest purpose of an organism was to reproduce.

Adolphus Crosbie is on the train, a modern technology that bears him away from the natural world of the Small House at Allington and Lily Dale, when the terrifying notion of children comes to him. A man who fears reproduction is a strange man indeed—Darwin’s theory of evolution held that the greatest purpose of an organism was to reproduce. And yet, Crosbie’s thoughts on the train return to the prospect of “babies with their belongings,” followed by a lifetime of “dull evenings, over a dull fire, or else the pining grief of a disappointed woman” (Trollop 167). He tricks himself into thinking that he may grow to like this fire, with another woman, but here he is gravely mistaken as the reader learns. He chooses instead to wed the cold Lady Alexandrina, who is hardly the fertile figure our Lily is. Crosbie chooses sterility, and his fate at the end of the book is just as impartially delivered, and just as dissatisfying as Lily’s fate. The breaking of their union yields their continued discontent with their lots in life.

Trollope employed the impartial narrator, much the same way Darwin issued his impartial essay on natural selection. Trollope was writing people, not characters—people not locked in time with a set beginning/end, but who had to live, change, and die. In earlier theories of biology, transmutation was a popular concept—where changes in species were abrupt, and there were several leading schools of thought on how species changed so quickly. Spontaneous generation and hybridization were two of the most popular rationales, and had been supported by Darwin prior to On the Origin of Species. Natural selection and the concept of microevolution eventually replaced these ways of thinking, and Trollope’s writing refutes the transmutation of species: the presence of Harding in the novel contests this theory as much as any explicit mentioning of the concept would.

Trollope does not provide his characters with the dignity of abrupt departure from the reader’s attention in his observations.

ANOTHER GLIMPSE INTO the Darwinian influence on Trollope’s world is in the fateful meeting of Crosbie and Harding, which follows the train ride. Not only does the appearance of Mr. Harding connect Small House at Allington to the other novels in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, but it also serves to display a theory of evolution. Change is gradual, not sudden, and time does not slow down or stop for any individual. Normally literary characters are spared the passage of time, especially following the conclusion of their story, but here the inclusion of Mr. Harding’s aged person, having fallen from his position at the hospital described by The Warden, reminds the reader and Crosbie that life and nature are impassive to the fate of man. There is no spontaneous generation: instead there is an ebb and flow, seen both in the gradual decline of the Dales, and in the aging of Harding. Crosbie’s meeting with Mr. Harding, then, takes on a considerable weight. Mr. Harding has aged significantly since his days in The Warden, and now he faces the nearness of death. When Crosbie leaves Harding behind, it signifies that Darwinian survival: the narrative pushes forward, moving on, just as the immovable surge of nature pushes forward species. Trollope does not provide his characters with the dignity of abrupt departure from the reader’s attention in his observations. His characters must live and die, and the apparent conclusion of Harding’s story in The Warden did not free him from aging until the moment we see him in Small House. The appearance of Mr. Harding connects the narratives, and his life in the moments when he did not appear in the Chronicles has still taken place. Nature is just an impassive observer as Trollope. Harding and his circumstances have changed, and so has the world around him.

While the Origin of Species deals largely with the operation of organisms within nature, Trollope adapts the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest” to include economic struggles. When the old reverend mentions that he cannot take Crosbie in to see the house connected to the hospital, because of the large family that resides there, Crosbie’s thoughts return to “his own future home and limited income” (Trollope 172). While the fight for resources and ostensibly survival are key features of Darwin’s theory, Crosbie’s fear of financial difficulty separates him from making an abundant union with Lily Dale. By the end of the novel, Crosbie has returned to London, and is separated by a great deal of physical and emotional distance from his wife, Alexandrina. He is surrounded by only men: his wife and Lily keep company with their respective mothers (Trollope 665). This reproductive failure across their young generation is alarming, and could have been prohibited by more advantageous coupling. The provision of offspring, and the protection of offspring is an important feature throughout the novel. Altruistic selflessness is the order for parents, and the widowed Mrs. Dale thinks to herself that she would be happy to “bury herself in order that her daughters might live well above the ground” (Trollope 25). Protecting one’s offspring is the best way to further one’s genetic line. Lily, Crosbie, and Alexandrina’s infertility prevents them from developing this selflessness—a character and biological flaw in Trollope’s estimation, given the way all three’s storylines end.

200px-Darwin_-_Descent_of_Man_(1871)The 1864 publication of The Small House at Allington preceded Darwin’s The Descent of Man by the better part of a decade, yet the storylines regarding the dangers of improper sexual selection seem to predict the findings of Darwin’s later work. The concepts outlined in On the Origin of Species can be found littered throughout Trollope’s novel, informing and influencing his characters’ developments and decisions. The adaptive constraints evolved by the Dale family spell reproductive disaster for the future of the line—Trollope predicts this disaster within the very first pages of the book. One of the basic precepts of Darwin’s theory of natural selection is that traits should be evolved to protect the reproductive success of an organism. But, Christopher Dale and Lily Dale’s shared inability to develop romantic attachments following the dissolution of a first love, seem to be in noncompliance with this notion of inherited advantageous traits.

Lily Dale, made out at the beginning of the novel to be the simple, charming heroine, develops into a far more complicated character. She goes through significant stress and emerges both changed and unchanged compared to her character at the beginning of the novel. She rejects fertility and embraces sterility: she removes herself from the gene pool and demonstrates a shocking obstinacy to change. Her resistance to personal evolution is both frustrating and endearing—sympathetic and antagonizing. Lily’s adaptive constraints are in place to protect her, but in the end do nothing more than prevent her from reproducing. One of the novel’s more villainous characters, Adolphus Crosbie, is almost forgiven of his transgressions from a moral standpoint in the face of Darwinian theory. The search for resources is a significant driving force in the decisions and actions of an organism—yet turning his back on the chance of reproductive success with Lily Dale is unforgiveable from the same perspective. His villainy is almost forgotten in the post-Darwinian age: if man is no better than the beast, Lily’s humiliation at his hands can either be construed as an act of cruelty, or as Crosbie acting in self-preservation. Regardless, he condemned both parties to reproductive failure when he abandoned his engagement with Lily Dale to pursue less ample pastures with the Lady Alexandrina. This is the one true conclusion to be derived from the characters’ fates: no metaphor is needed to underline their collective reproductive failure.

Darwin’s description of a perpetual struggle against the world is echoed in Trollope’s Small House at Allington—nature is not so much cruel as it is impassive. The impartiality of Trollope’s narrator and the events of his novel demonstrate an understanding of Darwinian theory. While it may be true that Trollope was no scientist, he certainly recognized the implications of Darwin’s theory for the mid-Victorian society in which he was writing. On the Origin of Species changed the way scientists, scholars, and theologians thought and argued about life—it also added another dimension to the potential interpretations of daily interactions one would have with the world. Due to the proximity in publication to On the Origin of Species, Trollope’s characters in The Small House at Allington act in a way that can be viewed through the lens of Darwinian theory: through this lens, their machinations and actions, and the entire pastoral world they live in, can be better understood.


Molly Menickelly is an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. This essay won the 2014 Trollope Prize awarded to the best undergraduate entry.

A Gutenberg file for The Small House at Allington is here.

Works Cited

Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: evolution, human nature, and literature. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Darwin, Charles, and Gillian Beer. The Origin of Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Diniejko, Andrzej. “Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Intellectual Ferment of the Mid- and Late Victorian Periods.” . Victorian Web, 11 May 2010. Web.

______6 May 2014. <>.

Levine, George Lewis. “The Darwinian World of Anthony Trollope.” Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988. pp. 177-209. Print.

Tredennick, Bianca (ed.), and Deborah Deneholz Morse. “’Nothing will make me distrust you’: The Pastoral Transformed in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington.” Victorian Transformations: Genre, Nationalism, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Press, 2011. 45-59. Print

Trollope, Anthony. The Small House at Allington. ed. New York City: Penguin Books, 2005.  Print.


Works Consulted

Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: evolution, human nature, and literature. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

David, Deirdre, and Kucich, John. “Intellectual Debate in the Victorian Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, N.J.:Princeton University Press, 1981. Print.

Darwin, Charles, and Gillian Beer. The Origin of Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Diniejko, Andrzej. “Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Intellectual Ferment of the Mid- and Late Victorian Periods.” . Victorian Web, 11 May 2010. Web.

_____6 May 2014. <>.

Levine, George Lewis. “The Darwinian World of Anthony Trollope.” Darwin and the novelists: patterns of science in Victorian fiction. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988. pp. 177-209. Print.

Lewontin, R. C.. “Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program.” Behavioral Science: 5-14. Print.

Morse, Deborah Denenholz. “Broken English Pastoral: Small House at Allington (1864).” Reforming Trollope: race, gender, and Englishness in the novels of Anthony Trollope. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. Print.

Markwick, Margaret. Trollope and Women. London: Hambledon Press, 1997. Print.

Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Biology. London: Williams and Norgate, 1864. Print.

Tredennick, Bianca, and Deborah Deneholz Morse. “‘Nothing Will Make Me Distrust You: The Pastoral Transformed in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (1864).”Victorian transformations: genre, nationalism and desire in nineteenth-century literature. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Pub., 2011. pp. 45-59. Print.

Trollope, Anthony, and Stephen Charles Gill. The Last Chronicle of Barset. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.

Trollope, Anthony. The Small House at Allington. ed. New York City: Penguin Books, 2005.  Print.

Trollope, Anthony. The Warden. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 2000.


  1. This phrase was not conceived by Darwin himself, but rather Herbert Spencer, in The Principles of Biology: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called “natural selection”, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” (vol. 1, page 444). Note: Principles of Biology was published in 1864, the same year as The Small House at Allington. Darwin would integrate the phrase in the edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1869.
  2.  From the essay “Nothing Will Make Me Distrust You’: The Pastoral Transformed in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (1864),” Chapter 3 of Victorian Transformations: Genre, Nationalism and Desire in Nineteenth-century Literature, edited by Biana Tredennick and published in 2011. Content of this essay reappears in Morse’s book, Reforming Trollope: Race, Gender, and Englishness in the Novels of Anthony Trollope, published in 2013, as the first chapter, titled “Broken English Pastoral: The Small House at Allington (1864).
  3.  For further discussion on the treatment of religion and religious figures in Trollope’s writing, see John Kucich’s essay “Intellectual Debate in the Victorian Novel” in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, pages 214-217.
  4.  See Lewontin’s “Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program” for further explanation on adaptive constraint’s significance to the field.
  5.  Bell and Dr. Crofts have multiple children together, as evidenced in The Last Chronicle of Barset when the doctor “thinks of nothing but his patients and his babies” (Trollope 341).
  6.  Whether this love is consummated is the reader’s decision. Margaret Markwick surmises this physical consummation in Trollope and Women, a deduction agreed upon by Morse in Reforming Trollope.