Assistant Professor of English
Anna Henchman was awarded a 2012-2013 Junior Faculty Fellowship at BU’s Center for the Humanities to work on her second book project, The Inner Lives of Tiny Creatures in Victorian Literature and Science. Like her forthcoming first book, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, this project explores how literature represents or challenges the constraints of everyday perception. Inner Lives of Tiny Creatures takes on problems of human and animal consciousness that grew up in Victorian Britain. Before and after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Victorian literary writers and scientists alike were fascinated by how consciousness in any form had evolved out of inanimate matter. What continuities and discontinuities might there be between human minds and the minds of creatures whose organs of perception were distinctly unfamiliar, such as worms, ants, or snails? To what extent could these beings be thought of as having inner lives? Professional scientists and amateur collectors of fossils, shells, and insects were obsessed with reflex actions in minute jellyfish, the agency of oysters, sensory perceptions of “mere particles of living jelly,” or how ants remembered their way home. But perhaps more surprising was the recurrent literary fascination with tiny minds. Tennyson, for example, strains to imagine the “dim water-world” that the tiny inhabitant of a whorled shell once pushed its way through, while Edwin Abbott creates a world of two-dimensional beings who see only lines or points. Dickens surmises that rabbits “may be lively of ideas of the breezy days when their ears are blown about.” In science and literature, such moments mark the boundaries of what human beings can know or even imagine. The difficult of imagining what it might mean for life and consciousness to evolve over time where there had been no life before resonated with another compelling problem in the era: Where do we locate an individual creature, whether human or nonhuman? Where does an individual begin and end, temporally and spatially? Writers use animal skins, membranes, and shells to explore distinctions between animate and inanimate matter, life and the absence of life.