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Geology as a Metaphor in Graham Swift’s Ever After (1992)

La géologie comme métaphore dans Ever After de Graham Swift (1992)
Isabelle Roblin


Dans Ever After, le cinquième roman de Graham Swift, Matthew Pearce, l’ancêtre victorien du narrateur principal, est géologue. Dans ses Carnets, il relate comment la lecture des Principles of Geology de Lyell (1830-1833) et de On the Origin of Species de Charles Darwin (1859) a complètement bouleversé sa vision du monde, révélant des «“lignes de failles épistémologiques” et des “fractures béantes” dans sa “compréhension téléologique” de la vie humaine. : “Si Lyell a raison”, s’exclame-t-il, “et que le monde a existé si longtemps sans que l’être humain ne l’habite, pourquoi devrions-nous supposer que nous occupons un place spéciale et permanente au sein de la Création ?” (Ever After 135). Cela fait bien sûr écho aux débats sismiques entre “créationnistes” et partisans de la théorie de l’évolution qui ont secoué la société victorienne et sont souvent représentés dans la fiction néo-victorienne. Cependant, ce n’est pas la seule ligne de failles du roman. Le texte même des Carnets est fragmenté, présenté de manière achronologique, et utilisé par Bill Unwin, le narrateur de la fin du xxe siècle, pour servir ses propres fins. Cela créée un sentiment de malaise et d’incertitude chez le lecteur, qui sent le socle de la fiction bouger sous ses pieds et ébranle sa zone de confort de lecture. La géologie et les lignes de failles sont donc une partie tout à fait essentielle du roman de Swift, aussi bien littéralement que métaphoriquement.

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Texte intégral

‘Les passages du journal [de Matthew Pearce] sont présentés dans un découpage qui pourrait sembler arbitraire, dans une mise en scène chaotique, désobéissant à la loi des effets et des causes. Ces notes font penser à des incisions, des entailles faites dans le temps géologique (signalons qu’il est beaucoup question de géologie dans le roman)’
(Germanos-Thomas 210).

1As Christian Gutleben remarks, Graham Swift’s Ever After, published in 1992, is too often approached as a novel with a single narrative voice, whereas there are two main narratives, Bill Unwin’s and Matthew Pearce’s, a late twentieth-century voice and a Victorian voice. In other words, Ever After is too often perceived as a specifically contemporary work, whereas it is a neo-Victorian piece whose interest lies precisely in the establishment of bonds between a postmodern and a Victorian state of affairs (2009/2010, 138).

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2With its dual Victorian and end-of-the-twentieth century narrators, stories and timelines, Ever After clearly belongs to the sub-genre of neo-Victorian novels, defined in general terms as ‘contemporary fiction set’ or as here partly set, ‘in the nineteenth century’ (Carroll 172). More specifically, it is one of the many neo-Victorian novels dealing with, at least in part, the defining sciences which ‘had the most impact on religion and its central concern of how humans are to understand their place in the order of things’ in the 19th century, that is, biology, geology and palaeontology (Glendening 14). Critical interest in science-related neo-Victorian fiction has been quite strong, especially since the beginning of the 21st century,1 and the following pages deal with how Swift in Ever After uses geology as a main theme in his novel both literally and metaphorically. I am going to focus mainly on one of the two narrative strata the novel, the fragments of Notebooks written in the nineteenth century by Matthew Pearce, the ancestor of Bill Unwin, the main twentieth-century narrator, and on Bill’s own comments on them. As Laïlla Germanos-Thomas points out in the quotation above, the extracts from Matthew’s Notebooks are quoted by Bill in a non-chronological, apparently arbitrary and in fact self-serving fashion. Taking my lead from these observations, I am first going to show how geology, and more particularly Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation published between 1830 and 1833, triggered Matthew Pearce’s crisis of faith, then I shall deal with how Swift uses geology as a metaphor both within the narrative structure of his novel and in his intertextual references.

3As made clear in the Notebooks, geology is quite literally at the heart of the life of Matthew Pearce, a Victorian surveyor. To show more clearly Matthew’s evolution in the Notebooks over a period of six years (from 1854 to 1860), it is necessary to study them chronologically, thus piecing together the elements of his story disseminated throughout Bill’s narrative. To begin with, when he is a student at Oxford, between 1837 and 1840, Matthew sees no contradiction between his deeply held religious beliefs in the biblical account of the Creation and his study of geology, and particularly Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. As Bill Unwin comments, ‘after three years’ exposure to scholarly scepticism and the rigours of science, he would not have relinquished the belief that every word [the Bible] contained was the literal and immutable truth’ (Swift 92). When he starts working, he finds at first a total correspondence between his faith and his job: ‘Geology drew him, in the first place, precisely because it was a science of solidity . . .. Matthew loved land as a surveyor and a believer in God should’ (93). However, one particular event is going to change his Christian worldview and lead him to question the basic postulates of his faith when, in the summer of 1844, while walking on a cliff in Dorset, he comes across the skull of an ichthyosaurus that is being excavated by a team of palaeontologists. What had been until then an intellectual theory he had read about in Lyell’s Principles without paying attention to it suddenly becomes tangible. As Nicole Zand puts it: ‘C’est seulement quand il a vu cette créature, même si c’était un fossile, qu’il a eu immédiatement la sensation physique d’être en face de quelque chose qui venait de millions d’années. Il s’est senti tomber dans un immense gouffre, parce qu’une notion intellectuelle devenait soudain pour lui une réalité physique’ (30). Ten years after this extremely disturbing experience, he refers in his Notebooks to this encounter as ‘a moment of acute perspicacity’ (100; original emphasis) and then as ‘the moment of [his] unbelief’ (101). There are two main reasons for this sudden realisation that will trigger his crisis of faith. First, thanks to—or because of—his scientific background, he instantly recognises that ‘he stood face to face with the skull of a beast that must have lived, so certain theories would have held, unimaginably longer ago than even the most generous computations from Scripture allowed for the beginning of the world’ (101). The twentieth-century Bill, manifesting his own bias, then concludes: “he is the creature, the creature is him” (101). In that chiastic expression, the supremacy of man is negated and the implied equivalence between the organic and the inorganic has clear metaphysical consequences: no longer a divine creature, man is posited as the product and the origin of a fossil, an identity incompatible with the Christian faith (Gutleben 2001, 147).

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4However, Matthew is not yet intellectually ready to accept the inevitable conclusions of this fated and earth-shaking encounter with the ichthyosaurus and this ‘moment of [his] unbelief’ is also ‘the beginning of [his] make-belief’ (101): ‘God knows how much since I have pretended’, he records in one of the first entries of his Notebooks dated 10th June 1854, before remarking on the irony of his choice of words: ‘God knows!—but there, in a phrase, is the essence of my pretence’ (99). For the next ten years, in what could be a typical example of Sartrian bad faith (mauvaise foi) according to Bill’s existential reconstruction of his ancestor’s attitude (Letissier 2012, 98), he is going to silence his doubts and to pretend that nothing has changed. He is going to get on with his busy professional life, marry Elizabeth, the daughter of a staunchly Anglican rector, and have four children. However, the very nature of his successive jobs is going to reinforce his religious scepticism. When he starts working as a consultant in the Cornish copper mines, he is confronted to what Georges Letissier calls the ‘subterra incognita2 (2002, 291): ‘[b]eneath the day-to-day bustle of it all, the uncanny irony must surely have struck him. That he should be plunged, literally, so nakedly, into the realms of Geology. That he should be lowered . . . into those subterranean zones from which no one returns without having their view of life on the surface modified’ (129).

5Another momentous event in his private life is going to put an end to his ten-year self-imposed silence: the sudden death of his son, his third child, the ill-named Felix, who dies of scarlet fever just before his second birthday, in April 1854. Matthew then definitely loses his faith and starts to voice his doubts aloud, especially in his increasingly tense conversations with his father-in-law the Rector. He also starts writing his Notebooks, in the form of a diary. On June 18th, 1854, meditating about his son’s death, he writes: ‘I cannot believe that in this prodigious arbitrariness there is any purpose that grants life to a child only to withdraw it after two years’ (102). In October 1856, he goes back to Lyell in two consecutive entries, confirming John Glendening’s argument that ‘[e]specially as widely disseminated by the three volumes of Charles Lyell’s The Principles of Geology (1830–33), geology spread the idea of an inconceivably ancient earth’ (17):

24th October 1856:  . . . I am a surveyor; I go out with my yardstick to measure the field. I am told by Lyell, whose Principles of Geology rest at my elbow and whom I do the credit of re-reading, this time with my eyes open, that the universe is a thing beyond all known calculation (135; original emphasis).

25th October 1856: If Lyell is right, and I cannotwithout shutting my eyespronounce him wrong, then the Book of Genesis is not a history but an allegoryand an imperfect one . . .. Suppose that aeons elapsed before the Creator made Man, before the world became such as we see it to be, and that the six days of Genesis are properly to be counted in millions of years; then the entire record of human history is as a wink in the world’s duration. And if the world existed so long without Man upon it, why should we suppose that futurity holds for us any guaranteed estate and that we occupy any special ad permanent place in Creation? (135; original emphasis)

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6In an attempt to try and make the Rector understand his point of view, Matthew lends him a copy of the Principles, which the Rector returns in November, ‘conced[ing] he will not judge what he cannot pretend to have studied’ (138). At that point in time, the tension between Matthew and his father-in-law progressively reaches breaking-point and Matthew records a few months later in November 1857 that even at the dinner table ‘the Rector cannot altogether restrain the animosity [towards him] formerly confined to his study’ (139–40).3

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7By the time of the first publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, Matthew had already lost his faith, like many real-life Victorians. Indeed, John Glendening remarks that ‘Victorians certainly experienced crises of faith, either in painfully overcoming challenges to belief or in giving up religion and sometimes mourning its passing, and many of these fraught experiences predated The Origin of Species. Geology had been a potent source of religious unease and occasional crises since the beginning of the century’ (Glendening 17), paving the way for and underwriting Darwin’s theories. Matthew’s crisis of faith is thus not stricto sensu a ‘Darwinian crisis of faith’ (Gutleben 2009/2010, 139) and his epiphany is certainly not a ‘Darwinian epiphany’ (Gutleben 2009/2010, 139).4 As John Glendening also notes, in the minds of many twentieth-century scholars of the Victorian era (including the fictional Michael Potter, the self-proclaimed specialist of ‘the spiritual crisis of the mid-nineteenth century’ within the contemporary diegesis of Ever After [164]), for neo-Victorian novelists but ‘probably also in the minds of today’s educated reading public, it is the challenge of science to religion that delivered one of the greatest blows to Victorian self-confidence, with Charles Darwin as focal or flash point’ (15). This view is echoed within the novel itself by the contemporary narrator, for whom the Origin is ‘the bombshell which tore apart [his ancestor Matthew Pearce’s] life and horrified Victorian society’ (223). This however, as we have seen, is contradicted by the very chronology of the Notebooks, creating an epistemological fault line between the two narratives. In his analysis of Ever After, Glendening makes the point that

[i]t is natural history, as it merges with geological and paleontological concern about the history of the earth, that unalterably changes the life of Matthew Pearce, a story told both in his own words and in Unwin’s glosses and speculative reconstructions.  . . . The novel shows itself aware that this experience [of the encounter with the ichthyosaurus] is pre-Origin—a reaction, not at all reliant on Darwinian theory, potentially available to anyone of the time familiar with early nineteenth-century geology. At least two critics, however, identify Pearce’s experience with the ichthyosaur as specifically Darwinian (MacLeod 375; Gutleben ‘Shock’, 139), an understandable mistake, so central is Darwin to science-related neo-Victorian fiction (64).

8Matthew Pearce does read On the Origin of Species when it is published, and it merely confirms his ‘apostasy’ as his father-in-law sees it, in a scene once again reconstructed by Bill:

When matters reached their head, Rector Hunt . . . must have cursed Charles Darwin, not for his assault on religion—that could have been dismissed, he could have consigned the man to the realms of irrelevance so far as his congregation was concerned—but for timing the publication of his outrageous work so as to clinch his son-in-law’s apostasy, bring scandal on his family and parish, and smash for ever that image of himself as a spiritual champion (143).

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9The final clash between the two men is reported by Matthew in his Notebook entry dated 24th June 1860: ‘I only urge you’, Matthew tells the Rector, ‘to read what Mr. Darwin has written . . .. Whereupon the Rector cried, with a force that seemed to take even him by surprise, “Damn your Darwin! Damn your detestable Darwin, sir!” There was a moment when I thought he might add, “And damn you, sir”. But he did not do this’ (181). Matthew is then banished from the parish, and a month later he leaves, without his wife and children, who have refused to follow him, for his father’s home in Launceston. This is also the end of the Notebooks. All in all, it had taken him sixteen years to act on his spiritual and intellectual moment of crisis. Then another nine years later, in a farewell letter to his wife dated Plymouth, 12th April 1869’ Matthew explains that ‘in deference to Old Life’ he is sending her ‘the notebooks that [he] began to keep after [their] poor Felix died, and kept, intermittently, until the dissolution of [their] marriage’ (51). He dies at sea shortly after when the ship on which he was sailing to America sinks. For Georges Letissier, this last letter, which is quoted in full in chapter 5, can be seen as a metaphor for what geologists call an unconformity,5 yet another juxtaposed narrative stratum that does not connect the two timelines of the novel:

Les paroles couchées dans cet ultime témoignage ne rendent pas compte d’une interpénétration des niveaux du temps ; elles constituent un noyau isolable qui s’interposerait entre le Matthew d’avant, la strate la plus profonde, et le narrateur présent, celle qui affleure. En s’intercalant ainsi, ce niveau rappelle ces surfaces d’érosion et de sédimentation enfouies entre deux couches géologiques qui dans la théorie huttonienne sont la marque tangible de l’incommensurabilité du temps. En géologie, le terme « discordance » (unconformity) est employé pour désigner ces surfaces d’érosion fossilisées qui ouvrent une brèche temporelle entre deux strates. (2001, 289)

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10The letter and the extracts from Matthew’s Notebooks are not presented chronologically6 by Bill Unwin, who ‘selects and intersperses them throughout his own narrative while translating portions of the Pearce documents into his own words’ (Glendening 62), trying to make sense of his own life by delving into his ancestor’s, to bridge the historical and cultural gaps between them. One of the ways in which the twentieth-century narrator endeavours to understand what his Victorian ancestor went through and establish a bond between them is to read Lyell and Darwin himself. In the University Library, Bill depicts himself ‘bent over a book about the antiquity of rocks’, as he attempts to read the 1853 revised edition of Lyell’s Principles of Geology (‘the edition which Matthew would have lent Rector Hunt and which the Rector failed to finish’ [164]) as well as the 1855 enlarged edition of his Elements of Geology, which he even briefly quotes: ‘We are prepared, therefore, to find that in time also the confines of the Universe lie beyond mortal ken…’ (170; original emphasis). However, he finds that he cannot concentrate nor ‘feel whatever it was Matthew had felt’ (170). He, as a late-twentieth-century reader, simply cannot see the point and what was so unsettling for the Victorian Matthew. He then turns to Darwin, quoting a letter to his wife, written in 1858, a year before the publication of the Origin (225). He soon realises however, as he ‘pick[s] at the Journal . . ., struggle[s] with the Origin, home[s] on the letters and the Autobiography’ (225), that it is ‘heavy going’ (223) and even concludes that ‘[r]eading Darwin, you sometimes get the feeling that the man was—dim’, picturing him as he is writing the Origin as a ‘gnarled and lugubrious septuagenarian in his creaking wicker chair, author of hundreds of pages of meticulous, fatiguing, world-shattering prose’ (225). In the end, Bill has to admit that, in spite of his best efforts, he cannot make sense of Matthew and that the Notebooks are in fact but his ‘lifeless remains’ (166) and not a series of clues that would allow him to get access to him. From a narrative point of view, as Stef Craps puts it, ‘the numerous extracts from the notebooks inserted into the narrative already carry an implicit recognition that the evidence of the past cannot simply be integrated into a coherent, conclusive story’ (137). Georges Letissier sums up the unconnectedness of the two-layered narrative:

Ever After est traversé par une brisure fondamentale ; ce récit en deux strates (le niveau victorien et le palier contemporain), ne comble jamais le hiatus temporel. Matthew Pearce, géomètre victorien, périt noyé au large des îles Scilly en 1869 et ses carnets […] ne font que renforcer l’opacité d’une destinée énigmatique. Les deux paliers romanesques se superposent comme deux couches étanches et distinctes (2001, 288–89).

11In this novel as in others, Swift also piles up intertextual references, both explicit and implicit. Hannah Jacobmeyer remarks, as she catalogues them, that ‘[e]ven a first, brief look at Ever After will show that several clearly distinguishable hypotexts are integrated into the novel, for example several plays by Shakespeare, Hamlet being the most prominent among them if we consider the frequency of its presence in the hypertext’ for the Bill Unwin narrative (n.p.). Within the contemporary diegesis, Bill, a fellow at a prestigious university and a life-long student of literature, peppers his text with literary references, allusions and echoes. He uses references to Hamlet to try once more to connect his Victorian forefather to his own literary obsession with the inky Prince and identify, or at least, empathise, with his ancestor. He characterises Matthew as ‘just another disillusioned idealist, an over-reactive Hamlet type—couldn’t take it that the world was real’ (211; emphasis added). This is of course another attempt at projecting his own vision of himself onto Matthew, to create a personal bridge between them through literature since he failed to do so by reading Lyell and Darwin. Moreover, ‘[t]he parodic bias cannot be overlooked in certain textual distortions, as when Bill compares Matthew’s religious doubts triggered off by his encounter with the remains of an ichthyosaurus with Hamlet’s meditation in front of a skull, another form of fossil, before concluding: “Alas, poor ichthyosaurus…”’ (Gutleben 2001, 144). In spite of all his attempts, light-hearted or not, at finding some common ground between the present and the past, between Matthew and himself, at ‘knowing who Matthew was . . .. And why things mattered so much to him’ (49), Bill, paraphrasing the famous opening line of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between comes to realise that ‘the past, they say, is a foreign country’ (229) and his ancestor remains as enigmatic and elusive at the end of his narrative as he was when he first read the Notebooks.

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12There are in Ever After many layers of implicit intertextual references by Swift himself rather than his main narrator.7 Indeed, ‘[e]ven in the intertextual network, Swift suggests the interdependence of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as if he were systematically exploring the ramifications, in history and in literature, of one of his paradigmatic metaphors, that of geological stratification’ (Gutleben 2009/2010, 13940). I shall concentrate on three novels which are literary forebears of Ever After. The first two, Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) also deal in part with geology and with ‘the establishment of an aesthetics of doubt’ (Gutleben 2001, 147). In A Pair of Blue Eyes, ‘in a strongly contrived scene, the amateur geologist Henry Knight finds himself dangling from a Dorset cliff and staring into the eye, not of an ichthyosaur, but of a fossilized trilobite’ (Glendening 3). Hardy’s protagonist, “[b]y looking into the eye of an extinct creature,

not only confronts his own mortality but recognizes a relationship with organic history that confusedly both expands his sense of self as a form of life and seems to reduce him, like dead individuals and species, to just another momentary and inconsequential flicker in the immensity of time and space’ (Glendening 4).

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13The parallels with Matthew’s encounter with the ichthyosaurus are striking. However, unlike Matthew (for whom, according to Bill, ‘He is the creature; the creature is him’ [101]), Henry Knight still clings to a hierarchical differentiation between ‘this underling’, a creature representing ‘a low type of animal existence’, without ‘an intelligence worthy of the name’ on the one hand and the superiority and ‘the dignity of man’ on the other, and he deplores that ‘[h]e was to be with the small in his death’ (chapter XXII, n.p.). In Hardy’s novel, even though scientists, represented by the geologist Henty Knight, have assimilated the idea that earth is millions of years old and that successive rock formations represent ‘immense lapses of time’ (chapter XXII, n.p.), on the other hand man’s ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth’ (Genesis 1, 26) still prevails. This is no longer the case in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, set in 1867, mostly in Lyme Regis. The protagonist, Charles Smithson, is an amateur geologist, a fossil-hunting palaeontologist and a self-confessed passionate Darwinian (Fowles 141). The conversation he has with Mr. Freeman, his future father-in-law, about Darwin, is in some respect similar to Matthew’s final discussion with the Rector in 1860: ‘You will never get me to agree that we are all descended from monkeys. I find that notion blasphemous’ (Fowles 249–250), Mr. Freeman says at first.8 However, between 1860 and 1867, Darwin’s ideas have gained some acceptance in Victorian society, and he goes on:

‘I would have you repeat what you said, what was it, about the purpose of this theory of evolution. A species must change…?’
‘In order to survive. It must adapt itself to changes in the environment’.
‘Just so. Now that I can believe’ (Fowles chapter 37, 250).

14In this multi-layered intertextual context, Matthew Pearce thus stands in between Hardy’s Henry Knight and Fowles’s Charles Smithson in the succession of fictional Victorian protagonists who have to contend with one of the major philosophical and theological problems of the nineteenth century:

geological and paleontological evidence for an ancient earth and the repeated emergence and extinction of many life forms yielded a view of the world that not only fit poorly with the Bible but seemed to diminish the centrality of humanity in the scheme of things, a diminution that to a degree already had occurred spatially through astronomy’s demonstration of a vast universe in which the earth was not the center but only a marginal speck (Glendening 17–18).

15Among the three protagonists, Mathew’s response, and its consequences, are by far the most extreme, since his embracing Lyell’s, and then Darwin’s, scientific explanations of the history of the earth led him to give up the Christian faith he had relied on most of his life, and ultimately to lose his wife, his children, his home, and his previous life.

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16There is a precursor novel to which Swift and Fowles (and perhaps Hardy) pay homage that is also intertextually linked to the others through geography rather than geology or palaeontology: Jane Austen’s last published novel Persuasion. Indeed, ‘Lyme Regis cannot but evoke the setting of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818). The reference is almost signposted by Swift, since he introduces an incident of an injured ankle clearly echoing the similar incident in Austen’s novel’ (Gutleben 2009/9010, note 4, 153) when Louisa Musgrove falls after jumping from the Cobb and hits her head (chapter 12, 133). In Ever After, Matthew, remembering the scene of his encounter with the ichthyosaurus on the cliffs of Dorset, also recalls ‘the sudden cry of a young woman who had slipped on the wet surface further down the path, . . . the pale face of the victim (victim!) supported by one of her party while she tried the strength of her ankle’ (99–100). In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, three epigraphs (chapters 4, 10 and 14) are direct quotations from Persuasion, and within the diegesis of the novel, Ernestina, Charles’s fiancée, remarks as they walk on the Cobb in Lyme Regis: ‘These are the very steps that Jane Austen made Louisa Musgrove fall down in Persuasion’ (Fowles chapter 2, 12). In another example of structural intertextuality, Sarah, the female protagonist, pretends to have twisted her ankle9 to lure Charles into her room and seduce him (chapters 46 and 47). If we take into consideration Fowles’s numerous and self-conscious references to Austen, and the fact that in turn ‘Ever After transparently draws on Fowles’s pioneering neo-Victorian novel’ (Gutleben 2009/2010, 139), we can conclude with Daniel Lea (quoted in Gutleben 2009/2010, 139) that through this ‘palimpsestic stratification of literary forebears’ Swift ‘completes a postmodern cyclicality, Ever After being a novel commenting on a novel commenting on the nineteenth-century novel’ (Lea 136 137).

17Ever After is a typical example of a neo-Victorian novel. First because of its two superimposed layers of narratives and dual 19th and 20thcentury narrators whose existential differences are never resolved, in spite of Bill Unwin’s best efforts to empathise with his Victorian ancestor. Then, because of its fascination for geology, palaeontology and what we now call earth sciences, the sciences that, in the 19th century, initiated a profound upheaval in our understanding and apprehension of human evolution, moving away from the traditional and until then dominant Christian worldview in Western societies. What is especially interesting in Swift’s novel is that this deep-seated interest in geology in particular is not just a topic to be discussed within the novel but also a guiding metaphor throughout the narrative for its structure and its use of intertextuality, as his own contemporary novel is implicitly and explicitly made up of successive and intricate layers of previous literary texts. It is a literary tour de force which can be compared to A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), another novel of the same period with a similar dual time structure.

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Zand, Nicole, ‘La rencontre de l’ichtyosaure’, Le Monde 19 mars 1993, 30.

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See for example, George Letissier’s pioneering 2001 essay on Ever After which brings together palaeontology, geology and biology, and more recently Carmen Lara Rallo’s 2016 study of geology and the mineral world in A. S. Byatt’s novels. John Glendening’s 2013 opus is wide-ranging, and examines in detail the relationship between religion and science in Ever After and other neo-Victorian works of fiction: John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) and ‘Morpho Eugenia’ (1992), Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby, Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal, Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter, all three published in 1998, Mathew Kneale’s English Passengers (2000), Tom Holland’s The Bone Hunter (2003), Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness (2005), Nicolas Drayson’s Confessing a Murder (2002) and Love and the Platypus (2007) and Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (2009).


‘Le forage des puits pour extraire le cuivre . . . offre l’occasion à Matthew de se tourner vers la prospection minière et, ce faisant, de découvrir ces couches fossiles qui ébranlent ses certitudes passées. La surface terrestre n’est plus le reflet d’un ordre porté par une histoire géologique solidement ancrée dans les récits bibliques mais l’écorce ténue de profondeurs inconnues : une véritable subterra incognita. Ainsi l’excavation des couches enfouies rend-elle caduque les bornes d’antan ; plus d’alpha, plus d’omega, mais selon la formule de Hutton : “no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”’ (Letissier 29091)


More recent neo-Victorian novelists are less definite in opposing science and religion. For example, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016), set in the 1890s, some thirty years after the end of Matthew Pearce’s Notebooks, shows how science and religion might in fact cooperate to fight superstition. Early in the novel, the amateur naturalist Cora Seaborne somewhat reluctantly acknowledges that ‘it was not necessarily the case that a man of the cloth would be ignorant of modern science’ and the narrator discloses that ‘among her favourite books was a thesis from an anonymous Essex rector on the high antiquity of the earth, which crisply dispensed with notions of calculating the date of creation from Old Testament genealogies’ (52). Moreover, the Reverend William Ransome, one of the main protagonists, who could be seen as the antithesis of Matthew’s Rector father-in law, has read Darwin and Lyell (as well as Marx 331) and concedes that ‘there may be much truth in their theories which later generations will prove to be true’ (123), while remaining true to his faith.


Georges Letissier had come to a similar conclusion in his study of Ever After: ‘Darwin, avec l’hypothèse de l’évolutionnisme qu’il précise à l’aide de la sélection naturelle des espèces . . . ne fait à la vérité que mettre en forme et étayer une thèse déjà largement répandue dans la première moitié du xixe siècle, à la suite notamment de Lyell et de Robert Chambers.’ (2001, 286)


An unconformity is defined as acontact between two rock units. Unconformities are typically buried erosional surfaces that can represent a break in the geologic record of hundreds of millions of years or more. It called an unconformity because the ages of the layers of rock that are abutting each other are discontinuous’. See


‘[L]es quelques vingt-cinq citations de ces Notebooks, clairement identifiées par une mise en page et une typographie qui leur sont propres, sont inégalement réparties sur un certain nombre de chapitres dans un ordre non chronologique : elles forment la plus grande partie du chapitre 11, et une partie variable des chapitres 9, 15, 17, 18 et 20. De plus, un chapitre entier (le cinquième) est intégralement constitué par l’autre document constituant le métarécit : la lettre d’adieu datée “Plymouth, 12th April 1869” écrite par Matthew à sa femme Elizabeth, postérieure donc d’une dizaine d’années aux Carnets.’ (Roblin 4–5)


Catherine Pesso-Miquel for example has studied the ‘direct echoes in the title of Stoppard’s [1982 play The Real Thing]’, which is also the title of an 1893 short story by Henry James as well as another one by Doris Lessing published in 1987 (Gutleben 2000, 36). However as Christian Gutleben, remarks : ‘[l]es allusions à ces textes restent aléatoires et dissimulées dans le roman de Swift, elles ne peuvent être comprises dans le système des références culturelles affichées et revendiquées.’ (2000, 36)


He had reportedly said earlier that ‘Mr Darwin should be exhibited in a cage in the zoological gardens. In the monkey-house.’ (Fowles chapter 2, 11)


The ploy of the heroine’s fall (literal and/or moral) and subsequent rescue is often used, with a few variations, to further the narrative. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sarah may have got the idea of this stratagem by reading Persuasion or from a previous encounter with Charles on the cliff above Lyme Regis when she ‘slipped on a treacherous angle of the muddied path and fell to her knees’. Charles, helping her up, then tells her: ‘I dread to think, Miss Woodruff, what would happen if you should one day turn your ankle in a place like this’ (chapter 16, 104). In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s first published novel, Marianne Dashwood’s ‘false step’, fall and twisted foot brings her literally into Willoughby’s arms as he carries her back to her house (chapter 9, 40). In Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, in a parallel scene preceding the one described earlier when Henry Knight slips and falls over the edge of the cliff, the main protagonist Elfride Swancourt falls from a parapet: ‘Elfride’s foot caught itself in a little tuft of grass growing in a joint of the stone-work, and she almost lost her balance. Knight sprang forward with a face of horror. By what seemed the special interposition of a considerate Providence she tottered to the inner edge of the parapet instead of to the outer, and reeled over upon the lead roof two or three feet below the wall’ but unlike in Persuasion where Captain Wentworth fails to catch Louisa in time as she jumps from the Cobb, Henry Knight manages to halt Elfride’s fall and she gets off fairly lightly with a ‘severe cut in her wrist’ (n.p., chapter XVIII).

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Isabelle Roblin, « Geology as a Metaphor in Graham Swift’s Ever After (1992) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Roblin

Isabelle Roblin is a retired emeritus assistant professor at the Université du Littoral-Côte d’Opale (France), specializing in contemporary British literature, and has published many academic papers on Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, C. S. Forester, Salman Rushdie, John Fowles, Ian McEwan among others. Recently, she has been focusing on neo-Victorian novels by Graham Swift, A.S. Byatt, Emma Tennant or Alison Case. She has been working at the same time on the literary and filmic adaptations of novels. In 2011 she published a critical study of all of Harold Pinter’s screenplays entitled Harold Pinter : la liberté artistique et ses limites.

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