Adelene Buckland, Novel Science

Adelene Buckland, Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). 400pp. £31.50 Hb. ISBN 9780226079684.

Geology took on huge popularity in nineteenth-century Britain. Men and women of many backgrounds – miners and middle-class ladies as well as more gentlemanly scientific types – ventured out with hammers to find geological specimens. Periodicals, newspapers and novels parodied the more obsessional enthusiasts, such as Professor Dingo, the practical geologist depicted in Dickens’s novel Bleak House (1852-1853), who chipped away with his hammer at his friends’ mantlepieces and his servants’ faces. In Novel Science, Adelene Buckland makes clear, however, that the geologist is not simply represented in literature: ‘one of the principal practices of the geologist was, itself, literary’ (13). It was in part the ability of many geologists to make percipient use of literary form which helped geology hold people's attention.

In the process of becoming a modern, professional scientific discipline, geology was at times set against the literary in attempts to promote it as objective, as uncorrupted by imagination, but historians and critics have also observed their continuing connections over the course of the nineteenth century. Ralph O’Connor, for example, in The Earth on Show (2007), has revealed how geological writing could be as sensational and appealing as other forms of imaginative literature, contributing to the success of this emerging field. ‘If science was literature in the nineteenth century’, comments Buckland, ‘it is the premise of this book that literature was science too’ (15). Writing was more than a means of publicizing geology; it was itself a form of scientific method and practice. Writing a series of lectures, for example, could bring evidence into sharper focus. Geologists were very much aware of the importance of choosing the best literary forms for their newly developing science, while being wary of powerful narratives which could seduce readers, thirsty for the latest literary sensation, into believing too-simple stories.

The new science came into being through a variety of forms – literary, visual, material, and cultural (such as maps, mineral collections, and gentlemen’s club debates) – which made the natural world comprehensible. Buckland’s focus in this context is on the literary, and on a growing resistance among geologists, like novelists, to such forms of narrative as ‘romance’ and the ‘epic’, as they sought to gain cultural authority for their own practices. Part 1 of Novel Science argues that geologists were key protagonists in ‘a major cultural transition in attitudes toward how to tell the truth in narrative’, a transition that spanned ‘novel writing, literary criticism, poetry, and science’ (19). The first two chapters focus on how Walter Scott’s fictions chimed with geologists’ need to distance their narratives from the romantic and epic traditions, and the third on Charles Lyell’s turn to ‘mock-epic’ as a form to shake off traditional stories of earth history. Buckland shows how, by exploiting narrative form, ‘geologists invented and reformed their science, its values, and its methods, ironically distancing themselves from the pleasures of plot’ (19). The final chapter of part 1 considers how the turn from plot was fundamentally realized in the form of the geological map, helping to immerse readers in the structures rather than the story of a particular location.

The book takes issue with ‘literature and science’ studies which preserve literature and science as discrete fields, whether literature is seen to reproduce or contest scientific ideas or a ‘two-way’ relationship is seen to operate between them. Following, in particular, Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983), many critics have suggested that the geological plot of evolution provided an authoritative pattern for fiction, while this book, instead, considers the widespread interrogation – by novelists, geologists and other writers – of the limitations of plot as a mode of accurately apprehending the world. Geologists participated in the turn in literary culture (which includes scientific writing) to ‘realist’ form, a form that focused on the everyday and the particular, on local details rather than all-encompassing narratives. Buckland is thereby careful to distinguish her argument from the legacy of deconstructionist criticism of science as text. She considers how geologists were fully aware of the problems of narrative, of the threat of fictionalization, rather than allowing their literary imaginations to fit geological evidence to a preconceived narrative. Indeed, geologists took satisfaction in the breakdown of plot, and such breakdown becomes the focus of the three chapters in part 2, each of which explore the work of nineteenth-century novelists: Charles Kingsley, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. Kingsley’s geologist-protagonists immerse themselves in geological detail and disregard theorizing while the plot structures of their novels unravel; Eliot uses geological fragmentation as a site of meaning; and Dickens ‘stages urban chaos and fragmentation as geological spectacle’ (27). Rather than providing an authoritative plot pattern, geology offered a form for narrative breakdown that could secure authenticity for its narratives.

Studies of the relations between literature and science of course have their own narratives. In making its argument Novel Science itself resists too-simple ideas about the relations between these two fields. Its argument that geologists and novelists questioned plot, that narrative had a more ambiguous and complex role for these writers than has previously been assumed, itself resists a strand of narrative or a kind of plot structure in criticism which argues that novelists took up the geological plot of evolution. It is because Novel Science is so convincing that many readers are likely to become aware of its own mode of telling a story, of its conformity to our narrative conventions as literary and cultural critics and historians in our attempts to write authoritatively. It does what we would expect a strong contribution to this field to do: it locates itself in the wider field of literature and science and Victorian studies, for example, showing us clearly how it develops, and diverges from, previous works. It is also very well-written and a pleasure to read. Chapters tend to draw the reader in by witholding, in the opening paragraph, a key piece of information, building up a degree of intrigue much as creative writers are advised to do. Chapter 3, for example, begins by referring to a young ‘aspiring poet’ who ‘sent his father his latest literary effort from his undergraduate lodgings’ at Oxford. The paragraph ends, eight sentences later, by revealing who this poet is: ‘the geologist Charles Lyell’ (95). Novel Science tells its own story, in other words, and it is careful to acknowledge the limitations as well as the intellectual usefulness of such a thing. ‘There are other stories of nineteenth-century geology’, writes Buckland, ‘that have been told, and will be told, which overlap with mine in different ways’ (275-6). Much the same could be said, perhaps, of a book review. As a form of summary it is necessarily highly selective in its retelling, and its limitations are perhaps intensified in a review of such a rich and revealing book as this: other readers will find other stories in Novel Science, and I can only recommend reading it in full.

Shelley Trower (Roehampton University)