Charlotte Sleigh, Literature and Science

Charlotte Sleigh, Literature and Science, Outlining Literature Series (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). 232 pp. £16.99 pb. ISBN: 9780230218178.

Charlotte Sleigh’s book Literature and Science, published in Palgrave Macmillan’s Outlining Literature Series, offers a valuable new take on the history of the mutually responsive relationship between scientific and literary cultures in the last three hundred years. It covers topics and themes as diverse as the birth of late seventeenth-century empiricism and the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the postmodern and contemporary novel. Written as an introductory guide to the study of the interdiscipline literature and science, and aimed predominantly at an undergraduate readership, the book traces in very broad strokes synchronies in the development of both knowledge systems. As Sleigh notes in the preface of the book, the “central claim of this study is that just as new norms for judging claims in science (or natural philosophy) were established, so too were norms in reading, a reciprocal process that has continued to develop throughout the past three hundred years” (x). Throughout the study, prose literature and science are shown to share a lot of conceptual ground, while Sleigh’s attempt to offer a “historicised treatment” of the changes in novelistic form adopted by the literary texts dealing with scientific matters (xi) generates insights that may be of interest too to established scholars working in the field.

To assist students new to the interdisciplinary study of literature and science, the material covered in this book is, for the most part, organised in the usual chronological manner. From the simultaneous development of empiricism as new epistemology and the birth of the novel in the late seventeenth century, readers are guided, by Sleigh’s competent albeit at times schematic and descriptive analysis through key moments in the history of literature and science. As is often the case with introductory guides and survey studies on literature and science, the nineteenth century is given a lot of critical attention. Chapters on “epistolarity and the democratic ideal” and “idealism and the inhuman” as well as on “realism in literature and the laboratory” illustrate the centrality of nineteenth-century intellectual debates and scientific innovations for the study of literature and science’s shared history. The scientific and sociological theories of such important nineteenth-century thinkers as Jeremy Bentham, William Whewell, Claude Bernard and, of course, the indispensable Charles Darwin are productively employed to paint a rich analytical canvas that illustrates Sleigh’s sustaining thesis on the historical co-existence of emerging scientific ideas and developing literary forms. Especially commendable in this section of Sleigh’s survey is the inclusion of non-British literary examples. The analytical focus on British novelists such as Eliot, Wells and Huxley in the chapter on “scientists, moral realism and the new world order” is therefore juxtaposed, in the preceding one, with a discussion of continental writers such as Zola, Ibsen and Goethe.

The very useful inclusion of the annotated “further reading” and “further research” sections that conclude each of the chapters in Sleigh’s study will also be of particular interest for future generations of scholars with research interests in the relationship between literature and science. In some cases, I felt that more effort could have been made when suggesting themes for further research. At times, references to literary texts hardly moved beyond hinting towards conventional examples and suggested well-trodden critical avenues—for instance when readers are advised to investigate fin-de-siècle and modernist literature’s prioritising of interiority and its reliance on new psychological theories by studying Stevenson, Poe, Hogg, Kafka or Jack London. Puzzlingly, students are also directed, in the same section, to titles such as Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales, published in 1996, or Will Self’s Great Apes from 1997. Here, it seems, Sleigh is undermining her own otherwise well-developed hypothesis on the mutually responsive relationship between literary forms and scientific innovations particular to a specific historical period. However, these small limitations aside, Literature and Science is still a most welcome addition to the developing canon of critical surveys on the relationship between literature and science. Students will find a lot to learn from this well-organised, accessible and very readable study that was, with good reason, short-listed for the 2010 British Society for Literature and Science book prize. Indeed, in one of the book’s positive endorsements Carol Colatrella, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, succinctly states that she will “look forward to including it as a foundational text in my university course.” So will I.

Vike Plock, University of Exeter