Judy Hayden, Travel Narratives, The New Science, and Literary Discourse, 1569-1750

Judy A. Hayden (ed.), Travel Narratives, The New Science, and Literary Discourse, 1569-1750 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). 244 pp. £55 hb. ISBN: 9781409420422

This volume examines interconnections between science, technique and art. The lines which we now draw between these general fields of knowledge were not established in the early modern period, and the introductory chapter sets out the collection’s stall by arguing that the period in which this separation was beginning to emerge was replete with productive overlaps. The collection aims to locate a literary coalescence of epistemology, discourse, and travel in the sixteenth century, suggesting that the extension of travel in the period brought to the fore issues of witnessing and testimony which were a vital part of a literary shift. As the introduction makes clear, these issues were only discussed so widely in the period due to an increasingly open discussion of technical and scientific knowledge, which encouraged the productive coalescence of various genres of work related to travel writing. Later chapters then demonstrate the changing nature of this coalescence and the forms of literature it produced through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century, through an analysis of primarily well-known texts.

While the volume is the work of literary scholars, all of the contributors draw upon an extensive range of history of science and intellectual history in their discussion of issues of testimony and the representation of nature. In particular, the social history of science is well-represented throughout. However, there are alternative strands of recent history of science (particularly historical epistemology) which could potentially also draw from the collection, and discussion of which would have strengthened the argument of several chapters. As each chapter can also be read as a stand-alone essay this review will briefly, and inevitably inadequately, summarise their contents before some final reflections on the volume as a whole.

Chapter two by Daniel Carey focuses upon the question of how early modern travellers knew what to observe and record on their journeys. Carey situates this as part of a goal of disciplining travel, making the observed world useful and coherent to allow its efficient exploitation- both commercial and intellectual. His argument stresses the importance of Ramus, and later Bacon, in shaping the investigation of new spaces, mediated by Spanish colonial bureaucrats, Humanist discourses on travel, and in particular the literary technology of tables.

Julia Schleck’s chapter, in common with many of the others, integrates social history of science as written by Shapin and Schaffer with literary criticism. Schleck argues that travel and personal credit were highly interlinked in the sixteenth century, especially as regards courtier-travellers and the patronage networks in which they were enmeshed. It was the shift to corporate-reporting which displaced the importance of individual credibility, Schleck argues, with it being replaced by the ‘company standing behind the trustworthiness of their relations’ (68). This shift, perhaps more speculatively, is seen to discourage the discussion of the credibility of facts themselves - to debate the truth of facts was to debate the honesty of such giants as the East India Company.

Jason H. Pearl’s chapter four argues that the Royal Society’s description for travellers provided a mode of description which both empowered and disciplined those wanting to describe their travels. This mode of description provided what we might term a grid, though less developed or prescriptive than the later grids of Linneaus, into which information could be fit. This standardisation of knowledge came alongside a literary shift from travel as romance to travel as natural history, and a decreasing emphasis given to the character of indigenous peoples’ experiences and cultures.

In chapter five, the first of Part 2 ('New Science, New Worlds'), Geraldine Barnes’ takes the example of Dampier’s New Holland in the book’s first sustained engagement with the extra-European world. Barnes argues that despite the reputation of Dampier as an empiricist, he extensively relied on medieval traditions of monstrous and imaginative geography. In particular, Barnes accomplishes this through a comparison of the manuscript and printed works: the printed version was more disparaging as regards native inhabitants, and seemingly more credulous as regards earlier myths regarding the continent. The chapter displays an admirable political stance, crediting Dampier (if that is the word) with a strong influence on the terrible treatment of Australian Aborigines over the following centuries. However, Barnes’ attempts to place Dampier on ‘the medieval-modern divide’ would perhaps have benefitted from further engagement with recent cultural history of science which has questioned the existence of such a divide.

The chapter by Holly Faith Nelson and Sharon Alker moves to the openly fictional through the example of Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing New World (1666). Nelson and Alker focus particularly on the place of the hybrid species in the story, represented as in some ways superior to humans, yet drawn into the fallen human world. The Empress is concerned by the hybrid species, not due to their actions, but due to her past: even utopian societies and their various inhabitants are debased by interaction with and rule by the English. Underpinning the article is a sense that science fiction should be considered alongside travel writing: this reader, for one, is convinced.

Chapter seven, by Hayden, discusses the overlap between travel and science through the types of ‘fact’ expressed in Aphra Behn’s fictional Oroonoko, arguing that the focus on plain facts so popular in scientific discourse through the seventeenth century had by the 1690s been carried over into the literary. Hayden argues that Behn questions who should be given credibility by establishing Oroonoko as an African slave whose testimony is therefore worthless; but he is also an educated man, who in his home country was a warrior and a prince, whose testimony should therefore be believed.

Marcia Nichols’s chapter argues for a new reading of the imperial fantasy of Merryland, an erotic work which continued the familiar trope expressing the interchangeability of land and women, mocking and satirising both natural history and the state of knowledge regarding the female body. Nichols argues that Merryland cannot be read as a rape fantasy, discussing the description of topics such as contraception and the extensive discussion of female pleasure. The personae used in the work are crafted around issues of scientific credibility - for instance through their links to the Royal Society, making the Society itself the butt of the joke.

Marchitello’s chapter, opening the third part of the collection ('Charting knowledge, mapping encounters'), focuses upon a subset of the literary responses to Galileo: the ‘new’, more scientific, works of literature discussing voyages to the moon. Issues of credibility are again paramount: Galileo and those using his telescopes were, after all, the only ones who could ‘see’ the facts he reported. But above all this chapter is about meaning-making, with Marchitello making most explicit the argument which runs through the whole book that it was in works of literature that the meaning of scientific developments played out and, indeed, was discovered.

Edwards, in chapter ten, takes Daniel Defoe’s Tour as an attempt at revisionist geography, while questioning the stance which Defoe takes on the issue at its heart: trade and commerce. Defoe, Edwards argues, attacked the mythical map of Britain by exposing wonders as nothing more than triflingly hidden secrets of nature. Indeed, the only wonder he leaves is the efficiency of the market which allows a sheer size of transfer and transaction which astounds, leaving Defoe unable to give a concrete number in many cases.

Benedict, in the final and concluding chapter to the volume, argues for the interconnection of European travel and British collection of natural and cultural artefacts, a form of collection and display which allowed spectators to see 'science' (disembodied particulars), and having the potential to imitate or mock the virtuoso. The changing relationship between symbolic and physical value is expressed as the ambiguity of materiality.

The focus on materiality in Benedict’s chapter enters into one area in which this collection could be expanded through further research and cross-disciplinary effort: material (as well as visual) culture. The techniques of literary representation and witnessing discussed, particularly by Hayden, Schleck and Marchitello, were strongly interlinked with artistic and material cultures which would have given an even more rounded picture of the discourses surrounding travel.

Overall, the essays in the volume offer a fascinating balance between literature which focuses on England, that which focuses on 'the world', and that which focuses on imaginary places. All of which will be of interest to both literary scholars and historians of science. In addition, I could have noted other areas of overlap, such as the relationship between nation and empire which is brought to the fore especially by Carey and Barnes; or issues of gender and witnessing as noted in the chapters by Nelson and Alker, Hayden and Nichols. The number of productive interconnections between the volume and cultural history of science, historical epistemology, and the history of visual and material culture is, to my mind, indicative of the strength of the research topic, which should continue to attract a wide variety of attention from literary scholars and historians alike.

David Beck (University of Warwick)