Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science

Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2017) £119.00 EPUB, PDF, £149.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-46778-2

Some ‘dyed in the wool’ scientists and literary researchers might balk at the idea of merging their disciplines. This highly informative book of specially commissioned essays, however, will help convert the nervous who are persuaded that ‘never the twain shall meet’.

In their cogent introduction, the editors robustly contest the idea that literary and scientific advances represent two completely distinct trajectories. In this introduction, the reader is immediately presented with irrefutable evidence that Galileo (the so –called ‘father of modern science’) had a complex relationship with poetry (as described by Crystal Hall in her Galileo’s Reading) where it provided him with ‘a model for thinking through philosophical problems' (xxix). Although the introduction overemphasizes this topic a little, the point seems to be that if it’s good enough for Galileo then it should be more than good enough for the rest of us.

The editors point out that science has, of late, been thought to depend on ‘the relentless (and accumulative) production of a rigorously rational and explicable catalog of solid truths’ (xxiii). However, ultimately scientific research consists of acts of storytelling: one develops a hypothesis and then tries to prove or disprove it by storytelling which may contradict previously held ‘facts’. So these two disciplines are not so divergent. It is both literature and science that depend on the ‘unfettered work of the human imagination’ (xxiii).

The essays in this book are divided into four distinct sections (containing between four to seven essays each), followed by an Afterword: these are 'Theorizing Early Modern Science and Literature' (Part I), 'Reading Matter' (Part II), 'Pre-Disciplinary Knowledge' (Part III), and 'Modalities' (Part IV). This does not seem a particularly helpful division for scholars who are interested in distinct areas of study. However, as the editors acknowledge, the boundaries between these sections are ‘fluid’ and writers ‘weave in and out across sections’ (xxxii). The book is, therefore, a bold model in itself of boundary crossing, with the introduction helpfully giving summarising commentary on each essay.

It was refreshing to see that women’s writing was fairly recognised as uniting literature and science. It is particularly noteworthy that the first essay of the book, by Liza Blake, concerns the work of a woman with bold ideas, Margaret Cavendish. Part I is particularly interesting as it considers the theoretical relationship between literature and science in early modern times. Cavendish is thought to be the only woman who attended a meeting of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century and she rebelled against the Royal Society's distinction between poetry and natural philosophy.  Blake writes that Cavendish ‘is interested in particular in the creature not as a defined body with clear boundaries, but as a set of associations’ (15). For Cavendish, knowledge ‘must be itself a creature, homogenous in its pattern of action, freely associating..’(16). Interestingly, Blake finishes her excellent essay with a comment that Cavendish’s metaphor is a fine model for interdisciplinary study for our age, which could leave her ‘more regarded’ than she was in her own time (17). Cavendish emerges again in Part IV in the final two essays in the book. Her mischievous scepticism over the usefulness of Hooke’s microscope is examined in Ian Lawson’s essay ‘Hybrid Philosophers: Cavendish’s Reading of Hooke’s Micrographia’, and Frederique Ait-Touati’s essay, ‘Making Worlds and Fiction in Bacon and Cavendish’, shows how she audaciously ‘built a newly defined notion of literary invention… [and].. re-enforced the position of the author as the only judge and master of his/her invented realm’ privileging ‘the creative imagination over investigative exploration’ (499), something which can be read as ‘the beginning of [literature’s and science’s] division into separate domains of inquiry’ (xli).

Part II stands out as rather different from the rest of the book as it looks primarily at the early modern reader and strategies for reading. Galileo’s engagement with the dialogue form is explored in overwhelming detail by Crystal Hall in ‘Crafting Early Modern Readers: Galileo and His Interlocutors’. His dialogue is said to guide readers ‘out of the sea of competing voices in print and led to a single mathematical text on the motion of physical objects’ (154).

Part III represents the least successful section, although it clearly illustrates how ‘literature and science could be seen as densely entangled rather than mutually suspicious’ (xxxvii). Jaqueline Wernimont’s superb essay in this section , however, is of particular interest. It addresses The Ladies Diary first published in 1703-4 especially for women readers. As a conventional almanac it contained mathematics useful for the maintenance of financial accounts of households (346) and even as a form of entertainment for the reader (347). Therefore, the Diary can be seen as ‘a forum for mathematical innovation [which] challenges the long history of gendering mathematical knowledge and practice as masculine’ (347).

Part IV takes another approach by exploring engagements between science and literature in early modern times, that is, in literature appropriating scientific knowledge of the day. For example, Kaara L Peterson’s intriguingly titled essay ‘Medical Discourses of Virginity and the Bed-Trick in Shakespearean Drama’ draws on early modern theatre’s application of ideas about virginity and female sexuality. In addition, Mary Floyd- Wilson examines the ubiquitous discourses on the plague in Romeo and Juliet.

In UK’s new era of secondary education reforms, teachers know that more energy needs to be invested in encouraging students to think creatively. Whilst in tertiary education, the melding of science and literature is not new, this book heralds the ways in which educators can develop overlapping interfaces between science and literature ‘allow[ing] for greater insight into the functioning between literature and science in a reciprocal way’ (xxv). But as Peter Dear mordantly acknowledges in the Afterword, ‘distinct disciplinarities are at stake here, the intermeshing of which may generate either new intellectual practice or noisily stripped gears’ (507). Nonetheless, this book is a welcome addition in helping to acknowledge that ‘both science and literature are mutually informing and sustaining’ (xxiv), and emphasizing that science, as well as literature, needs to be seen ‘as a profoundly imaginative and creative discourse’ (xxiv). These notions would make fine starting points ‘dedicated to the production of knowledge’ (xxv) for students and teachers alike.

Elizabeth Askey, Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys