Graeme Gooday, Domesticating Electricity

Graeme Gooday, Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880-1914 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008).  292 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 978 1 85196 580 9.

Scholars of the history of technology will be justifiably pleased by this informative survey of the slow but steady progression of electricity from an uncertain and luxurious alternative to generating power in the home to the preferred anthropomorphic agent of modernity’s transformative power. Traditionally enshrined within the masculine purview of nineteenth-century technological development, electricity has been well documented in terms of its historical significance for social, economic and scientific advancement, but this study evocatively brings to light a more nuanced interdisciplinary consideration, namely, how gender asserts a prominent role in “domesticating” electricity for everyday household use and thereby influences a modern revisioning of the domestic dividing line between how the sexes allocate labor in the home and consumer spending in the economy.

As the sixth study published as part of the series of books on Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Bernard Lightman, this work masterfully articulates an aspect of modern everyday culture that has been surprisingly overlooked from an interdisciplinary perspective. While the field of nineteenth-century studies is becoming well-padded with cultural surveys seeking to define and/or (re-)situate the role of women in ushering in scientific aspects of social change—consider the recent publication of such studies as The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1890–1910 (2008), (Re)Creating Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2007) and Repositioning Victorian Sciences: Shifting Centres in Nineteenth-Century Thinking (2006)—Graeme Gooday seeks to enlighten his readers regarding the “hidden” history of “female expertise” behind the successful transformation of “a mere technological possibility into an actual household experience” (5). The covert influence of women upon the domestication of electricity is defined by the author as essentially two-fold: first, “the gender-specific nature of authority in Victorian Britain” located nearly all things domestic within the sphere of “the angel of the house” (to reference Coventry Patmore’s mid-Victorian coinage), and second, the spousal role of engineers’ wives in “showing how well electricity could be domesticated” promoted the adoption of this technology at the highest levels of society, in effect initiating and popularizing ongoing middle-class cultural emulation of all technology deemed refined by the aristocratic doyenne. 

Situating his argument within the milieu of recent techno-cultural scholarship that seeks to articulate how technology became assimilated within the home, Graeme Gooday inventively treats domestication as both a material and a symbolic process that in the nineteenth century was centered on placing scientific innovation within the context of “the household economy of values” (3). By treating domestication at a metaphorical level, the author goes beyond customary historiographic approaches to the broader topic of culture and technology. Indeed, Gooday asserts that the “selective take up of electricity” was a choice aligned more with romantic and even atavistic cultural issues than with the more dispassionate aspects of scientific modernity (2). Fear, technocratic management of household hazards, utopian visions of electricity as a key factor within future cultural harmony, and important aesthetic considerations are all outlined as specific issues that needed to be addressed by technology’s earlier entrepreneurs in order to achieve even a modicum of success with placing electricity within the domestic domain. In this regard, Gooday’s argument touches upon certain key issues that will particularly resonate with scholars of nineteenth-century literature: the mysterious agency attributed to the immaterial nature of electricity and the ethereal uncertainty associated with the fluid life-sustaining power of electrical processes.

Although electrical domestication is not specifically addressed from a literary perspective, Gooday’s study does focus interesting scientific support and relevant historical documentation upon the popular fascination with the quasi-omnipotent power of electricity among fiction writers throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. From the enormous popularity of Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth-century novel Frankenstein, which posits the notion of electricity as the fluid “spark” that brings the monster to life, to Marie Corelli’s 1886 cult classic A Romance of Two Worlds, which equates the materiality of electricity with the soul’s transport to mystical realms beyond the known universe, the iconographic significance of electricity as a mysterious, magical medium incongruously presages its later ascendancy as a means of transmitting productive energy and its associated economic power in modern society. Thus, this study does more than just contribute to an understanding of science and culture in the nineteenth century. It also provides a worthy interdisciplinary link between the humanities and the sciences by highlighting the important interpretive function served by “the burgeoning ‘Romance’ literature that emphasized the almost supernatural wonder associated with electricity” (58).

Colleen Marie Pauza, University of California, Davis

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