INTRODUCTION

Ben Marsden

Cultures of Literature, Science and Technology
English literature between 1800 and 1914 was marked by an intense interest in sciences of all kinds. Science and technology transformed Britain’s intellectual landscapes and Britons’ everyday lives, making a profound and wide-ranging impact on literary culture. The ancestry of humans, the workings of the mind, the depths of space, the age of the earth and the powers of nature were topics which exercised the imaginations of novelists and poets as well as scientists, engineers and philosophers. But this was not an encounter between two mutually hostile, uncomprehending and separated ‘cultures’ of twentieth-century science and the humanities, like that imagined and lamented by novelist and one-time chemist C. P. Snow in his Rede Lecture (1959).1 In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain, scientific, technological and literary practices overlapped to a surprising degree. As many recent studies have shown, novelists and poets borrowed subject-matter and metaphors from those in scientific and engineering communities, transforming natural and technical knowledge for the wider public in the process.2 Conversely, in a process which has attracted less scholarly attention, literary culture played a vital role in the practice of science and engineering during this period. Scientific practitioners’ experiments with fictional and other narrative and poetic genres, and the representations of their work in literary periodicals, materially affected the way in which their science and engineering were understood by the wider public and by their fellow investigators.3 Meanwhile, the literary activities they privately indulged in helped them to frame their research priorities and develop powerful images of science’s cultural authority. Literary and historical work may have exploded the myth of separate and mutually un-informing ‘cultures’; but theorists have been left with the problem of precisely expressing the relations between scientific and literary communities in the long nineteenth century. If there are effective and workable definitions for ‘literature’ and ‘science’ in our chosen period, and we agree there are things to be said about ‘literature and science’ or about ‘science and literature’, what
–1–

Copyright

2

Uncommon Contexts

Copyright

then, to quote Gillian Beer, are the ‘diverse relationships concealed within the “and”’? What judgements do we make by placing ‘science’ or ‘literature’ first in these couples?4 Perhaps we should abandon our prejudices and think not of ‘two cultures’ at odds but, as George Levine has proposed, of one culture.5 If there is only ‘one culture’ of literature and science, or better, of literature and sciencewriting, the problem of modelling mutual ‘influence’ might disappear; however, Levine’s starting point is that literature and science remain distinct ‘modes of discourse’ even if they derive from ‘common cultural sources’.6 ‘Literature’ and ‘science’ were terms deployed in our chosen period by those figures we study, or our contemporary ‘actors’.7 Working from a historicist perspective, then, scholars have pondered the nature of the ‘traffic’ between what were often, for our actors, two fields of science and literature, even if those fields were ‘open’. The dominant mentality in early studies was to assume that the traffic flowed from ‘science’ to ‘literature’, with scientific ideas being variously re-expressed, elaborated and tested in fictional, poetic or ‘non-scientific’ imaginative formats: ‘literature learned, or tried to learn, from science’. Latterly, the expectation has been that, rather than have this one-way traffic, ‘literature’ has, in ways to be determined, informed, shaped and provided materials for science, considered in part but not in whole as a literary representation of the natural world: crudely, ‘science learned, or tried to learn, from literature’. That might leave us with a ‘two-way traffic’ model in which the pathways were different and also partial. As the shifting and permeable boundaries of ‘science’ and ‘literature’ have been re-examined by historians of science and literary historians, leading to a complex view of intermeshed local cultural practices, scholars may have reached a working model of ‘two-way traffic’, in which ‘science’ and ‘literature’, as defined by historical actors, borrow continually from each other, but in different ways best determined in case studies. Since the work of Gillian Beer, Sally Shuttleworth, George Levine and others in the 1980s, interest in literature and science, especially in the nineteenth century, has developed into a vibrant mainstream sub-discipline of the history of science and, simultaneously, of literary studies.8 There are periodicals, dedicated scholarly societies, and popular undergraduate programmes. The new interest in science ‘communication’ and its history has given literary studies of science a new currency, while papers on literature and science now regularly feature at international conferences on the history of science and on literary studies. Uncommon Contexts reveals the extent and variety of these relationships between literature and science, and between literature and technology. It is, of course, not the first collection of essays to do so.9 During the last three decades this cultural interface has become one of the most intensively worked areas in Romantic and Victorian studies and in the history of science. Clearly there has been, and there remains, much to be said. In the past, approaching key questions – studying science in literature, studying literature in science – has required different methods, and generated different

Introduction

3

kinds of studies. As Charlotte Sleigh observes in her recent Literature and Science (2011), the field has yielded two kinds of crop in abundance.10 On the one hand, there are sensitive historical studies of the rhetoric of science and the transformation of natural knowledge in print culture.11 On the other hand, there are nuanced literary-critical accounts of science in the work of well-known novelists (George Eliot, Wilkie Collins or Robert Louis Stevenson) and poets (Samuel Taylor Coleridge).12 Collections of essays in this field tend to privilege either the one or the other perspective, depending on the disciplinary background of their editors. Literary-critical approaches dominate Transactions and Encounters: Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Roger Luckhurst and Josephine McDonagh (2002), and Literature and Science, edited by Sharon Ruston (2008). Book-history and science-history perspectives prevail in Books and the Sciences in History, edited by M. Frasca-Spada and N. Jardine (2000), Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, edited by Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman (2007), and, to a less exclusive degree, also in Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature, edited by Geoffrey Cantor et al. (2004). The second perspective has been immensely enriched through increasingly sophisticated studies of ‘popular science’ and science ‘popularization’ – labels which are for some scholars problematic.13 Uncommon Contexts attempts to cut across the disciplinary distinctions often implicit in such studies, to continue the move beyond a literary ‘canon’ of approved authors, and to broaden the range of source material to include, especially, that represented in the periodical literature of the time.14 It attempts to articulate varied and sometimes polarized forms hitherto adopted in ‘literature and science studies’, demonstrating by further example the interactive relationship, that two-way traffic if you will, of literary practices and textual strategies with scientific and technological change. The historicism underlying this study, following the practices and language choices of those we study, includes taking seriously the fact that the category ‘literature’ was widely felt to embrace nonfiction genres such as historiography, travel writing and biography, and more controversially the scientific essay, the cyclopaedia article and the physiological treatise, even as its boundaries, contents and internal hierarchies were hotly contested.15 Similarly, into the 1900s the term ‘science’ was understood to encompass a much wider range of knowledge than its narrower present-day usage allows. The time-span of this study, 1800–1914, has been chosen to reflect a period in which practitioners of science and of literature could be expected to read and understand each others’ works, a practice largely engendered by the periodical culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This formation in fact lasted until at least the 1930s, when nontechnical literary magazines continued to serve as sites for the making of scientific knowledge. The chronological scope of our volume emphasizes our contention that the relationship between

Copyright

4

Uncommon Contexts

Copyright

science and literature did not experience a sudden schism just because a new century had begun. The choice of contributors deliberately elides disciplinary boundaries between literary criticism and the history of science. The editors of this study are based in history and literature departments, with research interests on both sides. In ensuring the book’s appeal to readers from both disciplines, they draw on their experience of teaching an advanced undergraduate course on ‘Literature and Science’ to mixed groups of history and literature students since 2007. The essays included are written by historians of science and technology who are also literary scholars, and by literary scholars who are also historians of science and technology. Contributors combine literary and historical methodologies in their chapters. In a single volume, we illustrate a broad range of science–literature interactions, and offer a variety of techniques through which such interactions can be studied. In the wake of Gillian Beer’s seminal study Darwin’s Plots (1983), some of the best essays and monographs to defy the disciplinary polarization mentioned above have been studies of evolution in Victorian culture.16 Beer followed Darwin’s Plots with numerous essays on Darwin, evolutionary culture and literature.17 George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists (1988) also explored this territory.18 Recent elaborations of this theme have included: James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), which focuses on the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation anonymously published in 1844; Jonathan Smith’s Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (2006); and Gowan Dawson’s Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (2007).19 These scholars’ successful integration of historical and literary perspectives has given us a vivid and richly textured sense of the place of evolution in modern British culture. However, evolution is not the only area of science which can be thus illuminated. Scholarship in literature and medicine has burgeoned in the last decade, with general surveys and more focused studies on particular life sciences, including physiology.20 Beer’s work subsequent to Darwin’s Plots, much of it reprinted in her collection Open Fields, is perhaps the most sustained attempt to explore diverse sciences beyond the evolutionary. Beer and a growing team of scholars have engaged in studies of literature and such human sciences as anthropology, physiognomy and topography – especially as found in travel writing.21 As for the physical sciences, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been subjected to untold interpretations, in contexts ranging from natural magic to useful knowledge.22 For the early nineteenth century, Jenkins has investigated the territorial aspects of physical sciences in literature.23 The poetics and allegory in and of classical energy physics have been the subject of two monographs.24 Beer has published on Victorian solar physics and solar myth, the engagement with ‘imagination’ of materialist natural philosopher John Tyndall and scientifically informed poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and wave theory and modernism present in both the

Introduction

5

physicist Arthur Eddington and the novelist Virginia Woolf.25 On light and vision we may turn to Martin Willis’s study.26 And, continuing into the early twentieth century, Michael Whitworth offers a seminal account of metaphor and modernism in the ‘wake’ of Einstein’s attack upon classical physics.27 Studies of literature and psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis and, more recently, memory have been common, notably including Sally Shuttleworth’s studies of George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and child development, the essays in a recent tribute to Beer, and Alexandra Lewis’s work on remembrance in Wuthering Heights.28 Although literary studies of engineering and technology are relatively thin on the ground, Clare Pettitt has shown how debates over patents, professional authorship and the work of Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy may be mutually illuminating.29 The present volume continues the exploration beyond Darwin and evolution, paying attention to apparently diverse but often related fields: geometry and mathematics, civil and marine engineering, geology and natural history, physics and familiar science, physiology and sensation, naval architecture and navigation, and telegraphy and telephony. All resonated no less powerfully than evolution through the wider literary culture of their day, or what Robert M. Young provocatively called the ‘common context’ of Victorian science.30 In his classic article, ‘Malthus and the Evolutionists’, Young argued that it made sense to speak of a ‘common context’ of what now tends to be called biological and social theory: subjects latterly separated into distinct disciplines were, through the early and mid-nineteenth century, contiguous or overlapping.31 Since nineteenth-century readers did indeed read those texts together, so too, Young claimed, should literary and science historians. Naturally Young’s views have been subjected to intense scrutiny. In his study of the production and reading of those widely circulated contributions to natural theology, the Bridgewater Treatises, Jonathan Topham suggested that historians should move ‘beyond the common context’, in part by closing a ‘communications circuit’. Rather than assuming that such works served as contributions to Young’s ‘common context’ with its initial focus upon debate among social and cultural elites, Topham stressed their circulation among many non-elite groups who invested them with diverse and often unexpected readings.32 James Secord’s masterful study of Vestiges illustrates, inter alia, how nineteenth-century readers and authors, anonymous or otherwise, were not, indeed, constrained by later disciplinary boundaries and compartmentalizations that could only be imposed retrospectively and anachronistically – although Young might have overestimated the degree to which participants in the ‘common context’ spoke the same language, and perhaps he too rigidly demarcated elite and radical science. Secord’s readers, of all stripes, were active and creative in constructing multiple meanings of the literature with which they engaged, often for purposes presumably unimagined by authors (could we but infer such intentions reliably).33

Copyright

6

Uncommon Contexts

Copyright

With those extensions, historians of science and literary historians have begun to study science and literature ‘in context’, which is to say: by being sensitive to contemporary writings in fields howsoever apparently diverse; by concerning themselves with the production, dissemination and reception of texts; and by analysing the many individualistic, ideological or cultural agendas, as well as constraints, placed upon readers, whosoever they might be, in their active consumption and appropriation of texts. In such studies nineteenth-century readers’ agency in making meaning has been recognized and, albeit partially and with difficulty, restored.34 Increasingly scholars have given attention to those beyond any clearly identifiable elites: that means considering non-elite readerships and audiences, non-elite or non-canonical authors (or patterns of authorship), and, for studies of literary fiction, non-elite or non-central ‘characters’. In Victorian literary studies, the focus has increasingly been on popular fiction and noncanonical texts. In diverse ways, the centre of attention has surely shifted. As our title, Uncommon Contexts, reflects, this ‘context’ was not a homogeneous realm of disembodied ideas, pigeonholed according to modern disciplinary conceptions and displayed as a backdrop for individual figures and texts placed squarely in the foreground. We might better think of our ‘uncommon contexts’ as distinctive and very varied features in a single cultural landscape of nineteenthcentury literature, the form and shapes of those features altering dramatically according to the historical actors’ viewpoints and, indeed, the present-day perspectives we inevitably bring to them. That the ‘uncommon’ or surprising to modern scholars might once have been routine or replete with meaning is a familiar trope. To explore and interpret that which initially seems strange or even bizarre has been a fruitful heuristic in many disciplines: Robert Darnton’s quest to uncover deeper systems of meaning from perpetrators’ accounts of the notorious eighteenth-century ‘cat massacre’ is a familiar example to cultural historians.35 Moving beyond the canon, and exploring popular literature’s many temporally and culturally contingent attractions, similarly, illuminates how nineteenth-century readers operated. For historians of science, then, context is the network of practices within which a particular science or field of engineering operates, and our contributors apply the same approach to literature. Each essay in Uncommon Contexts presents a micro-history of a particular episode in the mutual engagement of literary and scientific or technological practices. Rather than offering a comprehensive survey, this book uses the disciplinary breadth of its contributors to showcase the range of modes in which these engagements could take place. The book is divided into three parts. The chapters in Part I, ‘Literary Genres of Science Writing’, explore the poetic and narrative strategies of three different groups of scientific writings, situating apparently non-literary forms within the more familiar literary-historical contexts of fiction, poetry and drama. Paul White’s focus in Chapter 1 is the literature of physiology, from the discipline-

Introduction

7

defining handbooks for the laboratory produced by James Burdon Sanderson and Michael Foster, to Wilkie Collins’s novel Heart and Science (1883) read against the physiologically laden genre of ‘sensation fiction’. In Chapter 2 Melanie Keene discusses Robert Hunt’s experiments with the narrative frames appropriate to conveying ideas about nature, whether the fantastical romance Panthea: The Spirit of Nature (1849), The Poetry of Science (1848) in its occasionally florid prose, or the textbook Elementary Physics (1851). Hunt’s eclectic choices make sense, Keene argues, when we understand this multi-genre author’s attempts to connect with and comprehend the active and powerful forces of the natural world, and to inspire diverse groups of readers to action. In Chapter 3 Ralph O’Connor explores the value of verse ephemera for uncovering the cultural meanings of science and the participation of scientific practitioners in private literary culture.36 The object of his central case study is a manuscript poem entitled The Professor’s Descent, written in the 1820s both to commemorate William Buckland’s celebrated reconstructions of prehistoric animals and to satirize the ‘Satanism’ of Lord Byron. Part II, ‘Pushing the Boundaries of “Literature and Science”’, tests out two ‘hard cases’ for literature-and-science studies, mathematics and engineering – not areas which one associates immediately with literary history. In Chapter 4 Ben Marsden re-reads Isambard Kingdom Brunel not primarily as the producer of innovative practical works, like the Great Western Railway or the Great Eastern steamship, but as a participant in wordy cultures of reading and writing, shared among early and mid-nineteenth-century engineers. In this reading of ‘Brunel, reader’, an experiment in literary biography recovers a writer, editor and critic participating in mutually enforcing literary and practical cultures. In Chapter 5 Alice Jenkins takes the apparently a-cultural and a-historical verities of Euclidean geometry within nineteenth-century mathematics as a lens through which to discuss what has been achieved in the cultural history of literature and science, within and beyond the life sciences, and to make challenging claims about future possibilities. We return in Part III, ‘Science and Technology in Fiction’, to more familiar territory, exploring the representation of particular cultures of science, technology and engineering in fiction. Yet these chapters, too, reveal intersections of authorial and scientific practices surprising to a modern reader but perfectly natural in their own time and place. In Chapter 6 Anne Secord argues that Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton (1848), with its ambitious suggestions for the improvement of class relations in Manchester, assigns a pivotal role to working-class naturalist Job Legh. Gaskell could place such importance upon Legh because she grounded her novel, in part, by using actual observations of the poor. Chapter 7 by Crosbie Smith places Conrad’s early literature of the sea, especially Typhoon (1901), in cultural and religious contexts which, simultaneously, establish the conditions for doing natural philosophy (physics) and for

Copyright

8

Uncommon Contexts

navigating through an unpredictable storm. In our final study, Chapter 8, Hazel Hutchison reads Henry James’s In the Cage against contexts as seemingly diverse as the capacity of the ‘ordinary reader’ for unmediated knowledge, Karl Pearson’s Grammar of Science and contemporary telegraphic practice.

*
Below we discuss the chapters comparatively and elaborate four related and recurrent themes: exploring uncommon contexts; the varieties of literature, genre and audience; constructing and critiquing knowledge-making while policing the boundary of fact and fiction; and finally ‘characters’, their fabrication and their occasional responses to reading. The editors do not claim here that these themes exhaust the insights of the various chapters, or even that they will for all readers necessarily qualify as the most important aspects. Rather, these are four significant themes which may be taken to unify the book and which should be of interest, simultaneously, to literary scholars and to history of science scholars. We suggest, in particular, that the approaches taken by our contributors have supplemented and enriched the repertoire of ways in which such themes may be addressed. Readers might choose to read this section first, as a perspective on the chapters to follow; or they may wish to read it after having read some, or all, of the chapters, to see four general themes compared.

Copyright
Uncommon Contexts

In this volume, while recognizing the very fine work that has been done, the contributors also seek out contexts for the production and reading of literature, broadly understood, which have as yet received insufficient scholarly attention. Few would doubt the value and potency of reading elite Victorian fictions against such socio-cultural or politico-economic contexts as class, industrialization, religious dissent, gender difference or imperialism. And of course it is only the success of Beer, Shuttleworth and others that makes reading novels against contexts of natural history, evolutionary plots, or Victorian psychology begin to seem unsurprising or even ‘natural’. What are the surprises to untutored modern readers that were, perhaps, not surprises to authors and readers in the long nineteenth century? It is not difficult to find examples. In Jenkins’s paper, which surely tackles a ‘hard case’ head on, Euclidean geometry figures in fiction: a mathematical genre epitomizing purity and epistemic security for many of its producers and consumers turns out to have historical and cultural dimensions for nineteenth-century authors and readers.37 The engineer Brunel appears in this volume as an author, a literary labourer for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) in its attempts to purvey affordable reading matter deemed socially valuable especially for the lower classes;

Introduction

9

Brunel found his engineering practice shaped by literary conventions he could not always control. O’Connor argues that scientific practitioners, in private circumstances, used old and new narrative genres, including satire or the apparently trivial and comedic genre of burlesque – to convey natural knowledge and intervene in wider cultural debates: formally speaking, Buckland’s poem is a parody of Thomas Gray’s Norse ode The Descent of Odin, with Buckland himself replacing Odin as the necromancer-hero.38 Discussions of Gaskell’s Northern industrial realism are here reassessed by Anne Secord who reconnects them to the observational regimes of natural history. Those familiar with Robert Hunt through his discussions of Cornish folklore, and wedded to later generic categorizations, will be surprised to learn of his eclectic adventures into ‘science fiction’ in the 1840s. In White’s reading, novelist Wilkie Collins engages in a scientific experiment on readers’ nerves. Continuing a long shift in critical emphasis from contexts of psychological ‘thought’ to those of material culture and consumption, Henry James’s In the Cage is here examined against the communicative practicalities of telegraphy.39

Literature, Audience, Genre
The working definition of ‘literature’ in this volume is deliberately broad, though it is not the widest conceivable approach. Secord alludes to the education of the poor, Jenkins discusses mathematics as writing and Marsden comments on ‘scribal’ productions like calculation books: thus, our contributors are here occasionally concerned with questions of ‘literacy’ in its many guises. Contributors are certainly not, then, exclusively concerned with ‘high’ literature narrowly defined, with ancient and modern cultural exemplars, and with those texts deemed worthy of discussion by professional literary critics, like Matthew Arnold, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards.40 Even in the realm of fiction, we do not insist that the literature discussed should be, or should ever have been, considered exemplary – though Jenkins, Marsden and O’Connor do refer to the Greek and Latin classics, consumed as part of a rich educational context or variously appropriated and transformed. We are, pace Arnold and his followers, curious about whatever nineteenth-century readers of fiction read, whether or not by now-prominent authors referred to in this volume (Shakespeare, Byron, Gaskell, Dickens, Collins, Eliot, Poe, Zola, Conrad, James), whether or not still familiar (Mary Barton, In the Cage, Typhoon, Cain, The Descent of Odin, Pamela), or largely forgotten (Picciola, Hunt’s Panthea), or indeed, in one case, whether or not published or intended to be so (The Professor’s Descent). As much recent scholarship shows, particularly in the field of nineteenth-century women’s studies, non-canonical, obscure or undistinguished literature can offer sharper insights and stronger challenges to preconceptions about the past than texts which fit more easily into modern aesthetic codes.41

Copyright

10

Uncommon Contexts

Copyright

Equally important in this volume, however, and again following the linguistic usage of the period studied, is our insistence that ‘the literature’ of a particular topic need neither be fictional nor fanciful. Contributors are just as often concerned with formal writing in articles, reports and textbooks as with poems, novels and romances. For Brunel and his fellow professionals ‘engineering literature’ was not an oxymoron: it encompassed cherished books of facts bequeathed to protégés, projectors’ prospectuses, reports to directors, cyclopaedia entries, printed government investigations, treatises and textbooks, illustrated architectural and antiquarian tomes, anonymous pamphlets, newspaper anecdotes of heroism, insider company ‘puffs’ – and industrial guidebooks. In O’Connor’s account the literature of geology included verse ephemera in the form of songs, skits and parodies. Secord reveals Gaskell’s concern to extract Legh’s fictional character from published reports of impoverished Lancashire artisan naturalists. Keene finds a complementary and composite literature of science in a single individual’s work, from poetic inspiration to mundane physics textbook. For White, a physiological manual, Carpenter’s ‘textbooks’, a vivisectionist’s genre-defying exposé (appropriating and supplementing specialist material), and a ‘sensation’ novel by Collins (managing and manipulating readers’ expected feelings of excitement and suspense but in this case eschewing easy shock-tactics) were all in different ways physiological literature. Smith reads serialized tales, Glasgow’s newspaper reports, the novels and stories of Conrad and Neil Munro, navigation manuals, bibles and prayer-books in order to chart the literature of the sea as contemporary readers did. Finally, in its use of treatise, novel, history and autobiography, Hutchison’s analysis follows contemporary literary critic George Saintsbury’s broad definition of what counted, in the late nineteenth century, as the ‘literature’ consumed by omnivorous and not always discriminating ‘ordinary readers’. Contributors here do not propose that these different forms and examples of literature are somehow ‘all the same’, to be read as if on a level playing field of ‘ideas’ for idealized, catholic, all-knowing and yet disinterested readers. Like Young they avoid erecting false boundaries; but at the same time, with Topham, James Secord and others, they refuse to smudge together such works as material for the perusal of intellectual elites. There were many different kinds of authors, their stated ambitions achieved with greater or less skill and success. Publishers and editors informed, in different ways, both authors and readers. Nineteenthcentury readers consumed, digested, appropriated and deployed material in complex ways – and contemporaries knew this, whether they saw them as part of ‘the mass’ or as creative individuals. Readers’ digestion and appropriation of print might take time: Jenkins highlights the methodological challenge of determining the residue, in adult writers, of the geometry central to the educational regimes to which they were exposed as adolescents. Readers might receive advice – heeded or unheeded, more or less compelling – about what to read and why:

Introduction

11

Brunel told his student engineers to avoid French theory as much as French morals, but he could as easily control them and their interpretations as he could the producers of print. Readers might be empowered, at times disturbingly: critical newspaper reports of ongoing engineering projects could undermine shareholder support. Literary figures showed, if anything, greater sensitivity to the appetites, capacities and malleability of readers: James, in Hutchison’s reading of In the Cage, hints at the vulnerabilities of ‘ordinary readers’ who learnt too little at first hand and whose imaginations were too often conditioned by a diverse literature including romantic historical novels. In perhaps the most densely interwoven example presented in this volume, White shows the author Collins depicting a lone physiologist concerned to condition, through reading, a character under his insalubrious power. Thus authors, critics and readers knew that literature came in very many forms, but thanks to the complex capacities of audiences, its power was like that of the golem: intense, but hard to tame. One way of beginning to tame this plethora of print, of course, was to abide by, or develop creatively, the constraints of genre: kinds of literary work, styles of expression, forms or techniques indicating particular classes of literature. Literary theorists have recognized that, in theory and practice, genre does and has done more than merely label a limited and fixed array of pigeonholes receiving past, present and future works, facilitating publishers’ activities and preparing readers’ expectations. Authors have shown, by turns, conformity to conventions, reverence for archaic forms, playful subversion and experimental innovation.42 Although historians of science have long been interested in aspects of the science and literature problem, it is only relatively recently that they have started to prioritize genre, to look significantly beyond analyses of, say, the modern ‘scientific paper’, and to study the testing of generic boundaries by past science writers.43 James Secord’s Victorian Sensation focuses upon the material production and apparently infinite variety of readings of Vestiges but it does so in part to frame genre and literary-critical discussions. In reading a book, Secord there insists, ‘the first question to be decided is the genre to which it belongs. Assumptions about genre assist readers, publishers, and authors in creating stable conventions for interpretation’ – and yet Vestiges was a ‘generic monster’, belonging to no single category and challenging such conventions.44 Secord does not imply that readers’, publishers’ and authors’ work stops when that question is answered. Explicit genre designations might funnel authors’ and readers’ expectations in restrictive ways; and genre classifications might change too quickly to be reliable as reading guides. Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science also balances explicit attention to genres and to literary strategies within texts with a focus upon book-history and authorial lives. The modification of old and the creation of new ‘narrative formats’ are discussed but they are not always centre-stage.45 O’Connor has recently urged upon historians of science the value of literary

Copyright

12

Uncommon Contexts

Copyright

approaches to genre and suggests that we are witnessing a gradual sharpening of our sense of the literary genres of science writing from the binary ‘popular writing versus specialist paper’ to a much wider spectrum of genres, many of which emerged during the nineteenth century or changed substantially through it.46 All of our contributors attempt, in different ways, to address genre – and three may be seen, in very different ways, to consider the issue of ‘realism’. Anne Secord reassesses the question of how, precisely, Gaskell is to be seen as a ‘realist’: the author’s concern appears to have been to represent the poor fairly, based on documentary accounts; and yet Legh, in his solitary and especially his sober aspects, is deliberately unlike his ‘real’ models – who met communally, sometimes in the pub. Jenkins, too, notes the prevalence of correlations inferred by scholars between the realist novel, rich in character histories, with the types and narratives of natural history, the life sciences and evolutionary theory.47 However, she also pugnaciously asks whether there is space, in studies dominated by those sciences, to find a relationship between the realist work of mid-nineteenth-century fiction and mathematical formulations. Marsden’s main aim is to delineate the genres of ‘engineering literature’: business letter, fact-book, treatise, prospectus, guidebook and ‘puff ’, patent and polemical pamphlet. Might any of these be seen as ‘realist’ by extension? Although hardly romances, such forms of writing could only by unpractised readers be consumed as faithful representations of past and future realities. Such engineering histories and utopias, alike, excelled in amnesia and euphoria. And generically, they were anything but ‘givens’: Brunel, for example, advised his publisher on how the genre of ‘railway guide’ might best by constructed from the matter of pre-existing forms designed with interest, not disinterest, in mind. As well as O’Connor, our contributors Keene, White and Hutchison address the issue of genre directly in ways most closely articulated to literary-critical discussion. As well as illustrating the facts of generic diversity, innovation and sensitivity for their authors, these contributors indicate some of the personal and disciplinary consequences of expanding, or contracting, the types of genre valued in different contexts. Keene indicates that no single genre was sufficient for the experimental science-writing of self-conscious, and indeed audienceconscious, author Hunt. Given half a chance he would have explored not only romance, verse and prose but also ‘sketch’, narrative, autobiography and ‘science fiction’ (though not perhaps as we know it).48 White looks at multiple authors with divergent agendas, some of whom wanted to police, not proliferate, physiological genres. He presents professional laboratory-based physiological authors developing new formal constraints, like the experimental report and recipe – as they looked for ways to structure, collate, assemble and enliven, or even deaden, their narratives. Here, professional boundaries echoed discursive ones. Polemicists, opponents and sensation novelists, in appropriating such material, refused to accept a deadened, unadorned and ‘plain style’, reintroducing those polluting elements the professionals seemed concerned to expunge.49 White also indicates

Introduction

13

that the early physiological literature, rather than being a specialist technical form, was often deliberately written for, and presented to, what publishers promoted as the ‘general reader’. Hutchison puts a ‘short story’ or novella at the centre of her discussion; and it proves significant that James’s chief character is herself a susceptible ‘ordinary reader’ influenced by her encounter with the popular historical novel Picciola (1836), set in Revolutionary France, its plot dependent upon the telegraphs of Claude Chappe. But Hutchison’s account indicates that short story, historical novel, philosophical treatise and other forms are mutually illuminating. Several of our contributors refer to a genre, or rather a group of genres, which has received much attention in the last few years: familiar science, or the desire to explain otherwise difficult natural phenomena or abstract theories, including mathematical ones, to special audiences by recourse to common things of day-to-day experience. Those audiences classically included children, women or those deemed in need of ‘elementary’ education. They were effectively catered for in the ‘anecdotes’, ‘letters’ and ‘dialogues’ of Priscilla Wakefield, the expository ‘conversations’ of Jane Marcet, and a host of similar works for ladies, juveniles and the yet-to-be-improved working classes.50 In this volume, Jenkins shows how apparently culturally impenetrable and timeless abstract geometry could be made accessible to such audiences in the present through concrete metaphors, practical instruments described or the striking illustrations of Oliver Byrne’s edition of Euclid. Keene shows how such approaches formed one arrow in Hunt’s quiver of techniques, as he patched together his elementary treatise on physics; words, pictures, and word-pictures were more palatable than equations. As an author in the SDUK stable, Brunel was briefly engaged in a comparable exercise, avoiding formulae while still purveying useful knowledge by way of homely example, like a cricket match. For White’s physiologists too, William Carpenter’s The Microscope and Its Revelations (1856) was an example in the expanding corpus of familiar science. In the chapters included here, classic divisions (fiction and fact, or non-fiction) are therefore present but they are often explicitly tested and contested. We do find our contributors discussing poetry, but it is a form which for Jenkins may be associated not only with emotion but also with the sterner structures of mathematics; for O’Connor, a poem is at the heart of geological discourse and its informal communities; for Keene, after Hunt, there is indeed a Poetry of Science. These case studies remind us that we cannot assume a gaping chasm between the imaginative in poetic form and the scientific. Keene gives us, in Panthea, a dramatic scenario which at the same time proposes an enlarged view of nature and its activities. The comedic elements of Buckland’s poem support, rather than undermine, the practice of geology – and so forth. Like later writers better known to modern readers, such as Charles Kingsley, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Hunt saw little problem in discussing nature through fantasy and romance.

Copyright

14

Uncommon Contexts

Scientific Knowledge Constructed and Critiqued
Although we cannot here review in any depth the complex relationships of literary form and the construction and representation of knowledge, we recognize that scholars in the field of ‘literature and science’ have made strategic interventions on such questions. Steven Shapin’s well-known study of the early Royal Society of London’s and Robert Boyle’s ‘literary technology’, for example, correlated three elements: a circumstantial ‘plain style’ of writing (avoiding dogmatic professional jargon); a social technology of ‘virtual witnessing’ (by groups of Christian virtuosi warranting matters of fact); and a material technology in the air-pump (emblematic of the new experimental life).51 For several of our contributors, ‘witnessing’ provides an exciting way of bridging literary analysis and the history of science and technology. Although, as Shapin shows, Boyle was not exactly self-effacing – he was keen to record every dead-end personally encountered – there are parallels between Shapin’s work and Levine’s later study, connecting the act of self-effacement with the process of knowing: Victorians, he said, at least in their scientific writing, were ‘dying to know’.52 Death might seem a high price to pay for knowing and Jonathan Smith instead proposed a lively tension between ‘fact’ and ‘feeling’ in the Baconian science of the nineteenth century.53 The most recent study of the latter dynamic appears in Adelene Buckland’s Novel Science (2013).54 Contributors in the present volume have important things to say on the question of the relationship between written rhetorical forms and varied critiques, or even constructions, of knowledge. Jenkins, for example, is concerned with the classical case of deductive knowledge found in geometry, its rigid patterns in stark contrast with the empirical knowledge of natural history or the laboratory. She suggests that for most Romantic and Victorian writers, geometry was the very antithesis of history. If, as she claims, it has been common, even easy, for scholars of literature and science to relate (or equate) literary realist approaches with the nature-historical, that might seem to preclude realist literature from having much to say about mathematics. Yet for Jenkins, the geometrical pursuits of the Victorians remain in their literary works. The apparently a-historical, apolitical and class-free certainties of geometry might provide a model for the kinds of certainties Victorian authors, in their works, re-assessed. Marsden’s study of Brunel might seem an odd place for discussions of the rhetoric of knowledge-making, but Brunel’s ‘Treatise on Draught’ claimed originality by disparaging all predecessors as unsystematic, else impractical, else naively theoretical – and exemplified, at least in its antipathy to symbols, a ‘plain style’. Brunel was concerned that accounts of actual works should wait until projects were complete, they should be made by reliable witnesses, and there should be no confidence-sapping scepticism printed up and disseminated by the Institution of Civil Engineers. Paradoxically, engineers would learn their craft

Copyright

Introduction

15

from narratives of actual failure; fact books preserved useful knowledge in accessible form, yet printed codes and regulations of good practice were impediments to progress in engineering knowledge, not safeguards. O’Connor’s chapter attacks the view that what counts is knowledge stabilized and duplicated in printed form: a manuscript poem, circulating among geological enthusiasts, satirized a then recent upsurge in radical science-writing prompted by Byron’s notoriously ‘satanic’ verse-drama Cain. Although written for private use and in a comic style, it had a serious function among Buckland’s clerical and scientific colleagues in shoring up the self-image of a controversial new science and ensuring that science’s claims remained credible. There is an echo of Buckland’s poetic production and consumption in the collective, informal, musical culture of the ‘Botanists’ Song’ to which Secord briefly alludes. But more trenchant is the way in which, symmetrically with O’Connor’s case, she shows how Gaskell deployed but also in some aspects expurgated natural history to emphasize its positive functions. This observational, empirical, knowledge practice indicated the virtues of education for the working classes, represented by Legh. Nature-historical ‘witnessing’ by domestic missionaries and their reports, multiplied and achieving consensus in the ‘virtual witnessing’ of middle-class readers, showed that even the deserving and morally upright poor needed help to prosper. By allowing the rich to see the poor anew, harmonious class relations might be effected. Hunt’s knowledge-makers were, in Panthea, characters in a novel, able to critique other knowledge-making practices through the classical means, and form, of ‘dialogue’ (which centuries earlier Galileo had used to devastating effect). Hunt viewed the devotees of Nature and Nature herself as singularly ‘active’. The devotees were engaged, really or virtually, through their readings, in observing and experimenting upon natural phenomena; Hunt’s Nature, viewed as animated and unified by forces and sprites, challenged the agendas of midcentury practitioners increasingly wedded to specialist disciplines (like White’s professional physiologists, abandoning holistic or teleological approaches and keen to separate the observer and the observed). Both White’s and Smith’s chapters return, in different ways, to issues of witnessing and visualization through printed means. White’s chapter develops and inverts Zola’s famous claims for the ‘experimental novel’, where the author acts as experimenter, analogous to the laboratory practitioner, investigating the inner movements associated with affections and expressions in animals. Here, authorship and experimental practice, as a route to scientific knowledge, are thoroughly entwined. The novelist, like the physiologist, is an investigator and manipulator of the passions in readers. Symmetrically, the experimenter, like the writer, creates emotions in the laboratory, the classroom and the text. Both, however, are concerned to create and multiply virtual witnesses, whether for broad (public) or narrow (specialist) communities. Smith’s chapter addresses

Copyright

16

Uncommon Contexts

Copyright
Characters Figured Out

what may be witnessed and what should, not in the confines of the scientific laboratory but in the technological arena of the sea, considered as part of the field. In his reading, Conrad’s story Typhoon (1901) extends Shapin’s notion of witnessing to illustrate the limitations of human technological control, amidst a storm, and also the poverty of human knowledge – all at sea. Smith sees in Conrad a critique of the impoverished knowledge of navigators (and, by implication, natural philosophers) who opted for mathematical theory, unwilling to experience for themselves, through common sense, without dogmatic intervening authority. For his characters, like the religiously and intellectually voluntarist Captain modelled on the Scottish navigators and marine engineers Conrad had worked beside while at sea (1878–93), the divine could and should not be constrained, and the outcome of any storm took more than the falsely determinist mathematical book learning of the navigator. Conrad is concerned with what can be known – but also what cannot. Hutchison’s chapter can be read as a reflection on James’s commentary, parallel to that of Pearson, about the limitations of knowledge – illustrated by the indirect and encoded signals transmitted through telegraphy and telephony to at best partially knowing subjects. By the turn of the twentieth century cultural commentators pointed less to those earlier utopian promises about the annihilation of space, time, cultural difference and political conflict by telegraphy and instead to isolated disillusionment. Scientific and psychological inquiry elevated principles of subjectivity and the relativity of knowledge, while linguistics and literary criticism stressed the insular nature of experience and the difficulty of communicating with other consciousnesses. Pearson’s The Grammar of Science and James’s In the Cage use the telephone and telegraph exchange as a metaphor for the isolation of the conscious mind, and for the mediation and encoding of external stimuli. Hutchison’s chapter explores the implications of this metaphor, as scientific and literary practices intersected in the 1890s, arguing that new communications technologies helped to expose the perceptual isolation of the individual and the inadequacy of language to carry meaning. Much of the story takes place, if not in the mind of its imaginative protagonist the ‘girl’, then physically in a telegraph booth within a shop. Messages are coded, confused and cryptic. The ‘girl’ especially, in leisure drowning in the noise of the mediated literary productions of others and at work transmitting partial signs and symbols, seems painfully unable to experience the world directly.

It used to be a common practice in literary history to figure out the past individuals or ‘types’ upon which fictional characters were assumed to have been ‘based’. More recent and more sophisticated approaches consider in a less deterministic

Introduction

17

manner the derivation of characters, or the literary-strategic purposes they flesh out. George Eliot’s physician Lydgate in Middlemarch is a well-documented example, emblematic of Eliot’s character construction ‘not as one-to-one renderings of people whom she knew, but as composites’, or ‘extremely elaborate assemblages’: a single character might have many originals.55 Reciprocally, sensitive contextual biographical work shows how historical individuals have been variously understood, caricatured, parodied or ridiculed with reference to well-known literary characters or types – including the ‘author’ and the ‘reader’. If we look for agency here, we find it in readers’ consumption, in the creative work of the author, in associated and diffused authorial practices by editors, critics and reviewers and, indeed, in the role played by individuals in their own representation. Thus we may ally the processes of literary characterization with those of ‘self-fashioning’, a practice familiar to historians of science, thanks, especially, to the work of Mario Biagioli on Galileo but also evident in studies of figures working out how to perform new identities (like that of the ‘experimental natural philosopher’), comparative studies of ‘different’ nineteenth-century scientific lives and ‘composite portraits’ of single individuals like the polymath William Whewell.56 The current volume contains numerous examples of these complex processes of characterization, including self-characterization. Brunel worried in early diaries about how he came across to others, tried to make himself an ‘example’ for future engineers and supplied newspaper editors with material from which they could fashion him as ‘hero’ or national treasure. He could do nothing when detractors made him out as a new Don Quixote. In a geological context, Buckland transformed the mythological characters of the original verse he parodied into himself versus the Devil for pointed comedic effect. Elsewhere we see authors achieving entirely different effects in the characters they have created and used. We might not look first in physics textbooks for characters but Hunt found good work for the allegorical characters of Panthea to do. Whereas Hunt’s characters, not to mention Brunel, echoed those in classical and other literatures, Crosbie Smith finds his cryptic Captain MacWhirr to be that desired-for ‘study of a Scotch seaman’: a faithful echo of individuals Conrad had encountered around the Clyde shipyards, he was nevertheless rigged to satisfy complex fictional strategies. It is Secord who is most directly engaged in the question of literary characterization, yet she shows how the historical type or individual upon which a fictional character might be based, with a particular human referent and one or more ‘factual’ printed sources, could be further transformed in the writing, with a view to Gaskell’s more immediate social task. The philanthropic context in which the accounts of artisan naturalists were produced, necessitated the concealment of the ways in which these workingmen actually practised their science; thus Gaskell created one of the most misleading images of the Victorian working-class naturalist.57 Legh was best left out of the pub and best made, as

Copyright

18

Uncommon Contexts

Copyright

it were, non-cooperative, if the argument was to be made for a milder middleclass treatment of the working classes. While some of the contributors to this collection argue that fictional characters correspond, or in some sense appropriate, features of historical individuals or social types, Secord’s study argues that authors might tailor characters as literary means to achieve grander purposes. White also suggests that the key character of Collins’s novel Heart and Science is a deliberate misfire: presented as solitary, his behaviour unconstrained by others’ observation, he looks back to earlier types (including Frankenstein) and conveniently, for the narrative, fails to echo the more common, social, laboratory figure. White’s physiologist may be an emotional vivisector, but, whether to meet audience expectations or to facilitate other aspects of Collins’s writing, he is not the routine-bound worker implied by the new physiological handbooks. In both cases, we see authors’ work sensitively aligned to audiences that are not merely passive consumers. Two chapters show how reading novels or the act of being read to can influence the perceptions and actions of those readers depicted within works of fiction. In Collins’s Heart and Science, a low-status female is toyed with, her reactions conditioned, did she but know it, by being read to by the sinister protagonist. In White’s multi-layered discussion of physiological writing, being read to is itself, very neatly, part of the ‘experiment’. We read in Collins about a woman particularly susceptible to the emotional, even physiological changes, brought about by reading. There is a parallel with James’s In the Cage, where facets of a novel about telegraphic communication echoes facets of its reader’s, the unnamed girl’s, material situation while also, we sense, conditioning her perceptions and representations of the relationships she imagines with other characters. The ‘girl’ appears also to stand for the ‘ordinary reader’ written about, in agonized manner, by literary critic Saintsbury, worried at the increasing inability, or unwillingness, of modern readers to experience the world directly. She is duped into what is at worst a false understanding, and certainly a mediated and partial understanding, of relationships and external realities. These examples taken together indicate that a traditional preoccupation among literary scholars may yet have some new life breathed into it by combining it with newer approaches. As well as claiming that it works better when done in a properly historicist manner, we suggest that it can be a useful tool for the historian of science and is not the preserve of literary coteries. Our nineteenthcentury authors construct and presumably discriminate between a wide variety of types, aware of broader literary contexts as they do so, and, unsurprisingly, play with those types creatively. Literature is not, then, merely a source to be mined by the historian of science in search of accurate contemporary perceptions of ‘the doctor’, ‘the engineer’ or ‘the scientist’. As our case studies begin to show, a representation in fiction of a man of science in a way that initially surprises historians

Introduction

19

is hardly to be taken as inaccuracy or error in the author’s work. Rather it is a reflection of the disparate purposes of creative authors – and an indication of the texture and complexity of that nineteenth-century literary landscape. To conclude: in the volume read as a whole, we have endeavoured to extend the range of contexts against which literature, including scientific literature, may be profitably read, following reading and writing practices of the long nineteenth century. We explore a wide variety of literatures, diverse audiences and multiple genres deployed by our authors. We re-examine the making and representation of knowledge in literary contexts. And we reconsider the construction, including self-construction, and deployment of characters. Our hope is that in each case, historicist literary-critical approaches and perspectives have been articulated with techniques common in the cultural history of science, not least in recognizing the agency of authors and readers, individually or collectively, as intelligent producers and omnivorous consumers in a complex literary-scientific marketplace.58

Copyright

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful