Mary Fairclough, Literature, Electricity and Politics 1740-1840: ‘Electrick Communication Every Where’

Mary Fairclough, Literature, Electricity and Politics 1740-1840: ‘Electrick Communication Every Where’ (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2017) 264 + ix pp. £63.99 PDF & EPUB, £79.99 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-59314-6

Throughout history, perhaps few phenomena have seemed as strange or as spectacular as electricity –observable and demonstrated long before it was understood. Mary Fairclough’s Literature, Electricity and Politics 1740-1840 takes a long-eighteenth-century view of electricity and its various and changing cultural and political manifestations, in what amounts to a study of ‘the textual life of electricity’ (6). Electricity will not be a familiar subject to all readers of eighteenth-century studies, but Fairclough guides us through the key developments in its history in a nuanced and wide-ranging introduction: from the Leyden jar in the 1740s, through the revolutionary decades (and practical and metaphorical uses of electrical science), up to the work of Michael Faraday in the 1830s and ‘the quantification of electrical action’ (20) that forever altered uses and understanding of electricity.

Throughout this study, electricity transcends boundaries: ‘both science and spectacle, the subject of legitimate investigation and illegitimate display’ (1). The book’s subtitle, taken from Edmund Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796), refers to the sense in which electricity became, in Burke’s text, ‘an almost mystical, universal force, one which is apparently universal and intangible, but which has material, cultural and political effects’ (4). As these quotations will suggest, from the outset of this study, Fairclough is never writing about electricity in isolation but rather about the wider sets of connections that it reveals or opens up. Key to her method is a sense that electricity is not just a metaphor, but a deeper cultural problem or challenge, and opportunity. ‘The occurrence of [electrical] language in literary and political writings’, Fairclough explains, ‘is not a matter of mere borrowing, but rather a symptom of electricity’s resistance to definition’ (2). Stressing the productive obscurity, as well as pervasiveness, of electrical language, Fairclough’s account constructs a kind of ecosystem of electricity in a broad selection of fictional and non-fictional creative forms, including poetry, periodical literature, pamphlets, scientific treatises, and advertisements.

Building on earlier work on electricity, such as Sharon Ruston’s, Fairclough traces the ways that electricity trickles into ‘other forms of social and cultural expression’ (175). Chapter Two (the first chapter proper) sets out a kind of pre-history of electricity. Writing around mid-century of electricity as ‘aether’ or ‘mysterious fluid’, the electrical demonstrator Benjamin Martin showcased both the spectacular side of electricity and its unexplained and uncontainable nature – ‘its resistance to analysis, and the difficulty of assigning it any practical use’ (8-9). This tendency to describe electricity as eluding any rational explanation develops into discussions of electricity as either occult or divinely inspired: evidence of God’s ‘active presence in the natural world’ (34). Explaining these positions, Fairclough travels through electrical thinking from Isaac Newton to Christopher Smart (who believed that electricity was ‘the direct agent of God’ [39]), to underline the obscurity that typically characterised contemporary perceptions of it. Benjamin Franklin, however, stands out for his very different focus on the material and secular properties of electricity, as well as for his consequent search for an alternative, much more ordinary, form of electrical language.

That gap between Enlightenment rationality and something much more mystical and mysterious, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, opens up in Chapter Three into a study of electricity and medicine. Beginning with William Stukeley (better known for his antiquarian writings) and his development of an ‘electrical theory of fertility and sexual intercourse’ (81) in the 1750s, this section notably complicates the picture where James Graham is concerned. Graham is commonly dismissed as a quack doctor, but Fairclough reinstates him in a wider history of electricity and (sexual) health, including a strand of erotica (sometimes satirical) that generates new kinds of electrical language (100). She then shows how in the 1780s and 1790s writers such as Robert Merry and Mary Robinson drew on elements of this language (its life- and health-giving qualities) for a particularly communicative form of political poetry that made ‘electricity a figure of revolutionary, salutary fellow feeling’ (79).

Fairclough’s argument gathers increasing force in Chapter Four, which considers the visibility of electrical language in the political discord of the 1790s. Fairclough traces the ‘high stakes’ of Erasmus Darwin’s intervention in debates around electricity, in which he ‘adapted philosophical investigations of electric vitality in order to make a case for political reform in Britain’ (122). This chapter’s addition of questions of literary form to perceptions of electricity is a welcome development, presenting poetry not just as a reflection or descriptor of electrical thinking but, via its capacity for ambiguity, suggestion or speculation, a mode of enquiry in itself. ‘Poetry enables the investigation of […] figurative connections, in a way that philosophical treatises cannot’ (125). However, as Fairclough points out throughout the book, investigations drawing on electricity are not the preserve of any one ideological position; the counterrevolutionary pamphlet forms a key example on the conservative side. Electrical science and contemporary events in the 1790s share, she argues, the characteristic of being poorly understood, and therefore available for a range of interpretations by commentators from Burke to Wollstonecraft to John Thelwall.

Chapter Five surveys debates around electricity after 1800, which were characterised in part by the emergence of new scientific periodicals that enabled discussions in print to happen quickly, across short spaces of time (days or weeks), and to reach increasingly wide audiences. Despite scientific debate opening up in this way, a practitioner such as Humphry Davy still grappled, Fairclough argues, with electricity’s associations with incomprehensibility and the occult – a point that left ‘a conceptual gap at the heart of his experimental practice’ (183). Competing definitions of, and varied conceptual applications for, electricity are a notable feature of this chapter, which also nuances the role of Davy in the scientific background to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. An Epilogue, focusing on the 1820s and beyond, draws this study of the ‘productive incoherence’ (223) of electricity and electrical language to a close with the demystifying work of Michael Faraday.

The closing stages of the period surveyed in this book mark ‘a loss; the wild and varied figurative life of electricity [… seems to die away, and with it the sense that electrical language can represent the mysterious, unprecedented or opaque aspects of cultural life’ (5). Fairclough’s conclusion notably presents the story of electricity as a gradual process of change, stressing ‘the continuities between Faraday’s work and the earlier accounts of electricity that he is assumed to have '"disposed of”’ (229). In some ways this is not an easy book: keeping track of the various different uses of electrical language across the period is demanding, but necessary in order to build up that fine-grained picture of gradual change. Fairclough acknowledges early on in the book some of the methodological challenges of studying manifestations of electricity, noting that restricting her analysis to Anglophone texts (including translations) ‘cannot do justice to all of the cosmopolitan alliances between electricians across Europe and America’ (3). That said, she has assembled a huge volume of evidence in order to track the many shifts in uses of electricity. The result is an often bold and elemental work, illustrating the surprising omnipresence of electrical language in this period. Its conclusion gestures towards the epic scale of quite what’s at stake in electrical language closely observed; Faraday’s warnings to researchers (and readers) not to ‘collapse together the figurative and real […] keeps in mind the limits of human knowledge’ (232).

Liz Edwards, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, National Library of Wales