Holmes, John and Sharon Ruston (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science

John Holmes and Sharon Ruston (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science (London: Routledge 2017) 465 pp. £27.99 eBook, £165.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781472429872

Given that the Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science brings together the ‘usual suspects’ from the period’s shifting fields of science (Darwin, Davy, Huxley, Tyndall) and literature (Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Tennyson), it is surprising to what extent the volume smacks less of the annual Christmas family argument than of a compelling exploration of new routes of conversation around the topic. Editors John Holmes and Sharon Ruston assembled an impressive group of established scholars of the intersections between nineteenth-century literature and science to preside over the encounter. In spite of the sheer amount of research that followed the critical success of Gillian Beer’s and George Levine’s pioneering ‘two-way traffic’ and ‘one culture’ models, almost each of the twenty-seven chapters makes a strong case for considering hitherto neglected connections between the intricately affiliated literary and scientific discourses of the time. While some of the essays subtly revise the approaches that were themselves designed as correctives to C P Snow’s ‘two cultures’ thesis, the central claims made by Beer and Levine in the 1980s still resound in the overall tenor of the collection. As Jonathan Smith remarks in his excellent chapter on ‘Scientific Prose’, by reworking the notion of a unified intellectual context, critics such as Adelene Buckland (who contributes an excursion into geology to the volume) have recently brought forward more nuanced and realistic appraisals of the complex ‘array of relationships’ (151) between literature and science in the long nineteenth century. This verdict holds true for the collection at large. Holmes’s and Ruston’s carefully compiled research companion not only takes its cue from and lends weight to this critical endeavour, but it provides a rich and wide-ranging overview of (the current state of research into) scientific disciplines, literary genres, and the often overlapping modes, methods, and protagonists of scientific and literary production and dissemination.

The volume is structured into four parts: (I) Contexts, (II) Genres, (III) Mathematical and Physical Sciences, (IV) Biological and Human Sciences. Although this division seems to some extent arbitrary, it serves reasonably well to organise the broad range of materials into concise sections in a way that allows for dialogue between individual contributions without creating too many overlaps. The first four chapters establish the wider cultural contexts in which interactions between science and literature took place. They elucidate imperial infrastructures of knowledge transfer (Sadiah Qureshi), the role of the burgeoning scientific institutions in the production of public knowledge (Martin Willis), the often overlooked alliances between clergymen and scientists (Paul White), and how the use of specific genres as interpretative tools enabled women to comment on and contribute to science (Michelle Boswell). Together, these four essays serve as a useful introduction to the field. While they offer a valuable if largely familiar challenge to narrow understandings of male, white, elite, and secular scientific knowledge production, Qureshi’s critique of Eurocentric historiographies that gloss over the appropriation of indigenous knowledge sheds light on an aporia in the field with which the Routledge Research Companion, regrettably, does not fully engage in the contributions that follow.

The second and largest section of the volume offers a rigorous study of the myriad ways in which literary genres were mobilised as testing grounds and laboratories for, but also as counterweight to, scientific thought. The ten chapters demonstrate how the interaction between scientific and literary writing – and the range of hybrid forms in between – not only mediated but crucially enacted cultural and intellectual debates on objectivity, the occult, materialism, empiricism, liberalism versus utilitarianism etc. What emerges across the analysis of diverse Romantic and Victorian genres, from the more familiar discussion of the novel’s relation to observation and experimentation to the less frequently examined modes of scientific literary criticism and (auto)biography, is the close confluence of literary and scientific thought throughout the nineteenth century. By and large, the chapters provide a firm repudiation of Snow’s ‘two cultures’ thesis. They tease out the Gothic sensibility of nineteenth-century science (Adam Roberts), the potential of literature to enhance or undermine science’s claim to cultural authority (David Amigoni), the use of poetry as evidence and of scientific approaches in poetry (Gregory Tate), and the literariness of popular science writing (Ralph O’Connor). In methodological terms, Gowan Dawson’s chapter on ‘Science in the Periodical Press’ is particularly worthy of note. In two case studies, Dawson elegantly demonstrates the pitfalls of formalist approaches by showing how, through careful restoration of the original periodical context, ‘literature becomes tangibly more scientific and science more literary’ (175).

Each chapter in the final two parts positions a particular scientific discipline in the wider literary and cultural landscape. The discussion of those sciences that have inspired a host of scholarly works, such as medicine, astronomy, geology, and evolution, is complemented by convincing accounts of the sociocultural relevance of less accessible disciplines, such as mathematics and thermodynamics. In surveying the latter field, Barri J Gold surmises that its lack of ‘an Ur-text or central figure’ (287) might have deterred literary scholars from studying it more closely. Indeed, it bears commenting that – in spite of Holmes’s and Ruston’s stated goal to continue exploding the ‘received canons’ and the ‘near-monopoly’ of Darwin (3) – the volume as a whole reinforces the centrality of a number of key texts and figures. That said, the contributors’ recourse to the canon might be instrumental in making the discussion of scientific developments more lucid, especially for literary scholars who are new to the field. Ruston, for instance, neatly illustrates the resonances between Davy’s evocation of the transformative quality of chemistry and texts such as Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Julia Reid relies on Eliot’s and Hardy’s work to excavate literary traces of the anthropological and proto-ethnographic gaze. In view of the rapid growth of the medical humanities, the one chapter on ‘Medical Research’ can provide a mere glimpse of the recently uncovered multidimensionality of connections between nineteenth-century medical and literary technologies and discourses. The volume closes with three chapters that unanimously affirm the validity of the two-way traffic model while giving prominence to rejected forms of knowledge. The final chapter on ‘Occult Sciences’ aptly concludes with Christine Ferguson’s definition of occult and professional science as ‘uneasy analogues’ (434) – a term that encapsulates the close, if fraught, correspondence between literary and scientific developments of which the volume as a whole draws a clearer picture.

With its remarkably comprehensive overview and assessment of relevant primary and secondary sources as well as its showcasing of state-of-the-art approaches in the history of science and literary criticism, the Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science will serve as a reliable companion to anyone embarking on or well steeped in the study of science and literature, science as literature, or science in literature. What makes it a particularly practical resource is the inclusion of extensive bibliographies and suggestions for further reading that conclude each chapter in addition to the thorough index at the end. The volume is all the more attractive for researchers in the field as it manages to cover a vast terrain without being fully exhaustive. Beyond pointing to literary and scientific texts, figures, disciplines, and genres that have been neglected by existing scholarship, its particular merit lies in staking out methodological avenues that are likely to shape the direction of future scholarship.

Ariane de Waal, University of Innsbruck