Charles Darwin's profound interest in Austen's novels—Persuasion (1817) in particular—is well known. This article offers a new interpretation of Persuasion as a pre-Darwinian novel, concerned with the processes of natural selection and evolution in human societies. Many of the discoveries and theories that Darwin drew on in developing his work on evolution came about in the late eighteenth century. We are accustomed to reading Victorian literature in a Darwinian context, but research into the impact of geological and paleontological discoveries on the literature of the romantic period is scant, despite explicit references in, for example, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1820) and Charlotte Smith's Beachy Head (1807). In Persuasion, Austen offers examples of successful evolution, and also of the failure of some individuals to survive in their environments. Sir Walter Elliot, Austen writes, “had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him.” The romantics' newly formed understanding of the process of extinction, led by a growth in the study of fossils, forms the background to this novel in which Austen radically questions the desirability of the very existence of the British landowning classes, concluding: “They were gone who deserved not to stay.” Austen's ultimate ambivalence about the survival of her culture's values and even its members takes on new significance when read in light of novels that import romantic tropes of exile in the face of ecological cataclysm.

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