Darwin's Sirens


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This site supports research funded by a SSHRC Standard Research Grant (2004-2006) that focuses on one of the most problematical areas of literary, gender and intellectual history, namely Victorian British women’s responses to Darwinian evolutionary theory.  

Dr. Ann-Barbara Graff  in a research program called Darwin's Sirens:  Women Writing Evolution, with the assistance of graduate students at York University and the University of Guelph, and undergraduate students at Nipissing University and the University of Toronto, is examining how nineteenth-century British women, specifically George Eliot, Olive Schreiner, Annie Besant, Sarah Grand, Frances Power Cobbe, and Eliza Lynn Linton, but other less well-known writers as well, coopted, adapted, and rebutted Darwinistic ideas in their fiction and prose non-fiction.  

Darwinian evolutionary theory dramatically affected women’s social reality, especially as maternity quickly became the predominant focus of evolutionary science.  Evolutionary science placed women at a disadvantage by codifying certain types of behaviour as normal or necessary to the preservation of the species, while inscribing and policing the dominant gender ideology of the era.  While white bourgeois women were being constructed as the “mothers of the nation,” they were seemingly bereft of the opportunity to define that role or invest it with import firstly by being excluded from the scientific clubs where evolutionary theories were debated and secondly by being drawn into a debate in which the agenda was determined by the terms of Darwin’s theory, i.e., the scope of debate was confined to gradations of biological difference. 

The research objectives of Dr. Graff's research are as follows:

(1)     to uncover sites of fundamental criticism of evolution within contemporary British women’s prose not only to reveal occluded spaces of agitation but also to discuss the rhetorical strategies deployed to disrupt or buoy the dominant discourse; 

(2)     to interrogate race and class prejudices that informed nineteenth-century British women’s activism and are exposed in the ways that the rhetoric of evolution is used to displace patriarchal oppression onto a degraded female Other; 

(3)     to challenge conventional histories of liberalism and women’s activism; 

(4)     to focus scholarly and pedagogical attention on women’s prose non-fiction, a genre devalued in courses and scholarship not only because texts are difficult to access but also because prose non-fiction does not conform nicely to disciplinary categories.


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Site Objectives

This site is intended to expand the catalogue of accessible, teachable, and materially relevant prose non-fiction works of Victorian women writers.  The goal is to provide researchers and scholars access to bibliographies and e-texts of primary and secondary sources of material tied to the research mandate.  

As well, Dr. Graff's goal is to promote the work of young scholars as well, by providing students with a forum for their work on related projects.


Team Profile

The students and research assistants associated with this project are dynamic and enthusiastic.


Contact Information

Professor Ann-Barbara Graff
Department of English Studies
Nipissing University
North Bay, Ontario, CANADA
Email:  annbg@nipissingu.ca

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Nipissing University
Contact:  Professor Ann-Barbara Graff
Department of English Studies
Email:  annbg@nipissingu.ca
Last modified: October 12, 2004