Clare Brant, Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-1786

Clare Brant, Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-1786 (Mantlesham: Boydell and Brewer 2017) 366 pp. £25.00 HB. ISBN: 9781783272532

Clare Brant’s Balloon Madness covers the years 1783-1786, when Britain became fascinated with aeronautical balloons. The ‘balloon madness’ spread through all levels of society and, seemingly, almost every sphere of British culture. Brant’s book covers this with an abundance of detail, in chapters that cover fashion, literature, nationalism, war, and the sublime, as well as more chronological accounts of the spread of the craze and development of new ballooning technologies. Balloon Madness offers fascinating anecdotes drawn from archival research – sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic – such as the former French army captain, Millin Labrosse, who unsuccessfully asked his local Revolutionary Party for a twenty-four hour stay of execution in order to explain his proposed design for a new aerostat, complete with cardboard model (257-58). Another describes an event of July 1785 at Vauxhall Gardens where an Italian ‘intended to waft to earth from a parachute while flowingly playing the violin’ before an expectant crowd (254). Alas, he got nervous during his ascent (he was supposed to ascent to forty-five feet but launched his parachute early), ‘expanded his parachute […] and ignominiously fell ten feet without scraping a note’, before crawling away while the crowd demolished his machinery (254). The eight colour plates and twenty-five figures, too, make for a rewarding read, allowing readers to see what balloons and balloon-inspired items might have looked like (the images of balloon-inspired clothing are particularly wonderful).

This book is history written in a story-telling mode, interested primarily in accurately accounting for its three-year period using a wealth of historical detail: Brant traces, in the chapter on fashion for instance, ‘the story of fashion’ (110). But to say that this is a story-telling mode of history is not to detract from its rigour and intellectual precision. On that same page, Brant is concerned about ‘precision in fixing the chronology of cultural change’ and displays an attuned awareness of historical and textual nuances. The story-telling ethos of the book is evident elsewhere – the chapters, for instance, are organised into four parts with somewhat whimsical (and slightly opaque) headings: ‘Ascending’, ‘The Craze Spreads’, ‘Levity’, and ‘Gravity’. Brant explains her approach in the opening chapter. First, Brant is writing against a backdrop of a ‘masculinist story’ which places balloons in a context of ‘science penetrating nature’s secrets’ (9). Brant writes that to ‘lock balloons into a history of science, even of imaginative science, means losing their history in imagination’ (9). Brant’s solution is to present a history of balloons in imagination, of ‘how balloons came to reside in imagination’, and this is what connects the various parts of her book (10). The result, then, is a varied but fascinating and historically rich account of the period which will likely suggest new avenues and insights for scholars working on a range of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century topics – including historians of aeronautical science who will find much to admire here. In her chapter on ‘aeronationalism’, for example, Brant explores how ‘balloons and the development of air travel challenged conventional configurations of nation’, contextualising this within broader scholarly theories of nationalism (222). Such moments are not always given prolonged examination in relation to current historical thinking, but Brant’s work is likely to be integral to more theoretical and argumentative work developed elsewhere – indeed, a more prolonged examination with closer engagement with current scholarship would probably amount to a diversionary digression from Brant’s broader purpose.

There are, however, places where the descriptive detail becomes disorientating. Personally, I would have liked more discussion of how these three years fit within the longer history of ballooning, but there is little sustained effort to contextualise the late-eighteenth-century craze alongside earlier or later developments. The final chapter, ‘Ascending Again’, focuses on the cultural position of balloons in the ensuring centuries – mostly the twentieth and twenty-first – presumably as part of Brant’s proposal of a ‘continuity in the way balloons imagine kind of possibility for us – initially, the possibility of flight, but also imagination’ (10). This is an interesting approach, but the resulting movements of the text are sometimes dizzying. One paragraph, for instance, begins by comparing the shape of ‘cluster balloons’ in the Disney Pixar film Up (2009) with the shape of eighteenth-century balloons, before moving quickly on to Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love (1997) (the link to Up being the shared use of an imaginative balloon journey), which then segues into Odilon Redon’s lithograph L’Oeil comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l’infini (1882) (it featured on the cover of one edition of McEwan’s novel) which is then briefly linked to Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire (275-276). The paragraph concludes: ‘balloons in art sustain their symbolic power for us’ (276). That’s a lot of ground for seven sentences to cover and beyond the fact that balloons continue to inspire artists, the deluge of disparate evidence does not seem to have a strong interlinking purpose. Not all the writing flits around so quickly – the very next paragraph after this example, it should be noted, gives an interesting and coherent account of the nineteenth-century development of aerial photography – but there were places where I was left wishing for a more explicit line of argument. In her opening chapter, Brant writes: ‘Histories of ballooning describe developments with the logic of chronology. The story of ballooning isn’t so linear. Like a balloon track, it circles and loops, it passes and pauses’ (14). The breadth and depth of the historical sources is impressive in the story Brant writes, but, as a reader, I was sometimes left wishing for more of Brant’s expertise in interpreting it. This is, however, a minor gripe about a book which moves confidently across an impressive array of material and contexts.

Overall, this is an excellent book that will enrich the work of anyone working on the period or on areas relating to ballooning. Although Brant pointedly does not take a history of science approach, her work will be of great interest to those who do. Brant weaves her ‘story of ballooning’ (14) with an assured rigour and clarity.

Jonathan Potter, Coventry University