Alice Jenkins, Space and the ‘March of Mind’: Literature and the Physical Sciences in Britain, 1815-1850

Alice Jenkins, Space and the ‘March of Mind’: Literature and the Physical Sciences in Britain, 1815-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 268 pp. £69.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-19-920992-7.

Alice Jenkins’ ambitious study of British literary and scientific culture in the nineteenth century breaks new ground in at least two respects. The influential work of Gillian Beer and George Levine has inspired many scholars to turn their attention to the relationship between literature and evolution primarily in the second half of the century. But in contrast with previous scholarship, Jenkins chooses to explore the connections of literature with physics, chemistry, and mathematics, rather than with the life sciences, and to concentrate on the first half of the nineteenth century instead of examining the later period. Second, Jenkins elects to take the ‘geographic turn’ by emphasizing the role of space and place in the production and reception of texts. But, unlike previous work on the geography of science, with its stress on the lived spaces of social geography, she is interested the development of a new spatial imagination that formed in the physical sciences, in literature and in the emergent public sphere during the age between Waterloo and the Great Exhibition.

The book is divided into two parts. In part one, titled ‘Thinking with Spaces’, Jenkins deals with the spatial metaphors, tropes and models used in early nineteenth-century writing about new knowledges and the new conditions of knowledge. She begins with an insightful analysis of landscape metaphors and how writers used them to discuss access to the world of learning. According to Jenkins, ‘Landscape was the most fundamental and frequently occurring spatial trope in early nineteenth-century writing about knowledge’ (p. 30). Landscape metaphors were useful in the debate about who owned, regulated and policed the boundaries of knowledge. This was crucial in a period when literacy rates were rising rapidly and there were fears that the radical press would give readers the wrong idea about the social and religious significance of science. Jenkins follows this up with a perceptive discussion of how knowledge was laid out into two spatial patterns, hub-and-ray and aerial. In the hub-and-ray pattern, adopted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria, the observer is placed at the centre of a series of radical lines each formed by items of knowledge. In the aerial view, an example of which is in William Wordsworth’s Guide through the Lakes, the observer is located high above an array of information. Each model constructs a different power relationship between the observer and the knowledge spread around or below them.

In part one Jenkins also explores the uses of spatial metaphor in coming to terms with the problems created by the growth of  knowledge. At a time when increasing specialization threatened the unity of the physical sciences, the spatial metaphor of nature as a homogeneous field was used by William Whewell and others to counter the notion that science could be carved up into artificial disciplinary areas. The separation of the physical sciences into discrete disciplines also presented challenges for those, like Mary Somerville, who wanted to keep the educated general reader informed about new developments in science. Somerville, Jenkins argues, promoted the conception of an organic, holistic science without internal boundaries in her On the Connection of the Physical Sciences, which provided her with a means for making the relationship between scientific concepts in different fields more comprehensible.

In part two, ‘Thinking about Space,’ Jenkins investigates the conflicting meanings that ‘space’ had for the educated general reader. Here she looks at geometry and the concept of abstract space, the pure space of emptiness in physics, and representations of chaotic space in epic poetry. Geometry was a highly privileged form of discourse in the early nineteenth century. The ability of humans to use their powers of reasoning to obtain absolute truth gave geometry its special status. Intellectuals, such as Coleridge and Whewell, saw geometry as offering access to a world of abstract space beyond the human and material world. But at the same time new theories about the relationship between matter and force led to a redefinition of physical space. Jenkins discusses how traditional beliefs about matter having extension and solidity were replaced in Michael Faraday’s work with a concept of physical, but not exactly material, lines of force. Space was filled with forces interacting in complex patterns rather than with solid material bodies. Jenkins argues that field theory had a significant impact on literature, using Hopkins’s poetry and Eliot’s Middlemarch as examples. Jenkins then shifts her focus from space as reliable, ordered and ideal to space as random, unstable and chaotic, concentrating on one literary genre. Here Jenkins explores Biblical epic poems, a virtually neglected aspect of early nineteenth-century literature. She analyses Creation epics and their renderings of the space existing before the Creation of the earth. Was Chaos an unregulated, unharmonious mixture of qualities, as Milton had pictured it, or was it a radical emptiness, in accordance with new scientific theories? Biblical epic was an important site for working out the implications of controlling the flood of new information demanded by the new reading public (p. 26).

Jenkins’s book raises a number of interesting big questions about the nineteenth century as a whole that call out for further investigation. First, what role did developments in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s play in the way literature and science interacted in the latter half of the century? In her afterword she contends that the relationship between science and literature in the earlier period was made excitable and urgent by ‘the sense that control was being lost: that the pace of change, in both the content and the nature of the disciplines, was becoming too rapid for the existing structures of dissemination and assimilation of knowledge to cope with’ (p. 233). Around 1860, she claims, the attempt to cope had been given up and literature and science settled into considering one another as different systems of knowledge that could not be mastered by a single individual. By framing the situation in this way, Jenkins has given great weight to the impact of increasing specialization. But her book generally demonstrates that the boundaries between science and literature in the second quarter of the nineteenth century were quite permeable. How did the development of new concepts of space contribute specifically to the specialization process? If they didn’t, then what drove increasing specialization? It seems too simple to say that the increase of knowledge was the only driving force.

Second, Jenkins declares that mid-nineteenth-century field theories, and their concept of how bodies affect other bodies in space, could provide a useful means of describing the interrelations between elements in the complex systems of novels in the latter half of the century. Middlemarch, she asserts, was the first great artistic expression of a sensibility influenced by field theory. She suggests that as well as reading Middlemarch as portraying society as an organic web we can also read it as depicting a field made up of lines of force produced by wealth and sexual desirability. Hopefully scholars will take up her challenge to examine other realist novels in light of field theory.

There are some problems with the book, mostly minor. It is unclear why a book about concepts of space contains no illustrations. In her interesting discussion of Wordsworth’s aerial view (p. 76), there is an opportunity to draw a comparison between it and the spatial concept behind panoramas. I missed an in depth discussion of developments in visual culture that also point towards changing notions of spatiality. Finally, in the section of the book containing the consideration of geometry and abstract space an important point is missing. Whewell and other Christian intellectuals are attracted to Euclidean geometry because the certainty it seems to deliver is a confirmation of the power of human reason to understand absolute truth. This bolsters the claims by Christian theologians that we can have knowledge of God and that we can prove His existence. So the religious dimensions of the issue could have been explored further. As Jenkins mentions (p. 160), non-Euclidean geometry doesn’t penetrate into Britain until the 1870s.  But she does not mention how the evolutionary naturalist W. K. Clifford used non-Euclidean geometry to undermine the privileged status of Euclidean geometry in order to question the claims of Christian theologians to possess absolute truth. Despite these quibbles, Jenkins’s book is well worth reading. She moves effortlessly between science and literature. An erudite study with many fresh insights, Space and the ‘March of Mind’ is an important addition to the scholarship on nineteenth-century science and literature.

Bernard Lightman, York University