Anna Henchman, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature

Anna Henchman, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014) xviii+294 pp. £60 Hb. ISBN 978-0-19-968696-4

Tennyson and Hardy may have gazed at the heavens with a rare intensity, but astronomy provided an important imaginative resource for many poets, novelists and other writers during the nineteenth century, as Anna Henchman amply illustrates in this rich and engaging study. Throughout The Starry Sky Within, Henchman attends sensitively to literary astronomy in writing by the likes of De Quincey, Dickens, Tolstoy and George Eliot, uncovering the subtle interest shown by these authors in stars, skies, comets, globes, orbits, space, optics, observation, measurement, telescopes, and so on, which she locates in textual imagery, narrative structure and technique, and literary subject matter. Celestial worlds and the cosmic sublime are, and were, heady enough in themselves to resonate with creative minds, but, as Henchman argues, some significant conceptual learning from astronomy went on in poetry and fiction with regard to understanding ‘moving point of view’ (6). While The Starry Sky Within has a firm handle on scientific and intellectual contexts, it is this insight (rather more than its interest in establishing an unconventional history of astronomy) that prompts the book’s most enriching enquiries.

Developments in astronomy at the start of the nineteenth century had challenged a Newtonian picture of a stable and ordered universe, such that the Romantics and Victorians recognised the troubling truth that the cosmos was both restless and inconceivably vast. ‘The idea that the universe was not inherently stable but existed in a state of constant flux was one of the most radical ideas of stellar astronomy’ (20), Henchman notes in an early chapter which sets out the relevant historical background, and its relation to developments in optics, covering the pioneering work of William Herschel and John Herschel in particular. And, Henchman proposes, running astronomy and optics together like this helps to illustrate a problem that vexed and enthralled various poets and novelists (and Victorian culture more widely), namely the clash between empirical and abstract knowledge, or between ‘seeing and theorizing’ (32). In other realms of experience, this conflict – a conflict between how human beings feel the shape of their world and how theoretical and mathematical systems model it – fails to rise to conscious attention, but in the case of astronomy the division surfaces dramatically. Moreover, nineteenth-century astronomy unsettled the presumed centrality and fixity of the spectator’s position, a point which gathered force when 'parallax vision' became a term of scientific reference from around 1830. Henchman’s welcome suggestion of a ‘literary parallax’ builds on Hugh Kenner’s earlier similar idea (exemplified by James Joyce’s manipulation of narrative point of view) through tying it directly to the ideas of nineteenth-century astronomers such as Friedrich Bessel, Friedrich Wilhelm Struve and Thomas Henderson. Literary parallax, in her terms, describes a ‘particular application of point of view that allows the reader to move through radically disparate optical positions and notice the visual results of his own motion through space’ (98).

One of the crucial effects of parallax becomes the realisation that ‘a single subject position can never produce a complete description of the object’ (116), as Henchman finds in the structure and language of In Memoriam, for example, among other texts. In one sense, as she concedes, a similar idea is conveyed by Thomas Nagel’s philosophical repudiation of the view from nowhere, which is to say, the desire to confront all of reality from outside any particular point of view. Nineteenth-century astronomy provided a distinctive set of schemas for such scepticism. Literary writers who were familiar with its language and with ideas such as mobile parallax viewpoints readily used them to understand other experiences of disorientation, such as grief in Tennyson’s elegy. An excellent section of the book demonstrates persuasively how Tennyson, a poet ‘steeped in astronomy’ (111), revised the model of elegy provided by Adonaïs by emulating Shelley’s concern with the ‘inconsistences of the sensory realm’ while rejecting his trust that the ‘universe’s structure is constant’ (113). In De Quincey’s writing, the effort of accepting a universe without any fixed point results in experimental shifts of tone, style and genre, within a single piece of prose, as in his essay ‘System of the Heavens as Seen Through Lord Rosse’s Telescopes’. Henchman turns her attention to fiction in the later chapters, showing that relations of distance and closeness matter pervasively in Hardy’s novels (and in his poem The Dynasts), though not merely as evidence of some vertiginous epistemological crisis: the subtler point is that Hardy cares about the different scales at which life can be grasped, and communicates the feeling of moving between scales and perspectives by making his reader experience such transitions themselves. This heralds ‘productive  perplexity’ rather than symptomizing a ‘breakdown’ of knowledge (157).

In a fine last chapter titled ‘Narratives on a Grand Scale’, Hardy is compared to Dickens and Tolstoy as a writer deeply interested in representing celestial bodies; like Dickens, he was familiar with the new astronomy of John Herschel, William Whewell and Richard Proctor, and all three novelists realised ‘fictional cosmoses, each of which behaves entirely according to a logic of its own’ (196). And here the cosmic and narrative levels are linked by the thought of a God or overseeing divine force shining down from stars and celestial bodies: in a story by Dickens, for example, ‘A Child’s Dream of A Star’, there is an ‘implicit analogy between the observing eye of the narrator and the fiercer eye of the sun’ (207). Sun and stars symbolise inklings of a distant controller, either divine or narratorial, possibly both. While noting that Dickens draws on a less modern understanding of astronomy than that found in Hardy or George Eliot, Henchman finds its literary implications no less complex. Eliot’s conception of the cosmos, which receives extended attention in Chapter Five, is credited with regarding ‘the universe as a system in which any representation or narrative of the external world is fundamentally shaped by the person who observes and describes it’ (169). Daniel Deronda can be read as a narrative concerned with the relationship between physical and mental space, and with constantly shifting spatial relations. This astronomically inflected approach to the novel succeeds in reassessing Eliot’s familiar fascination with how to climb above individual egotism while nurturing a worthy inner life, revealing in fresh terms that epistemology shades into ethics.

Time and again, then, astronomy guides this book into philosophical territory. And one suspects that this is because the deeper theme of The Starry Sky Within is Victorian attitudes to the fraught relationship between empirical and conceptual knowledge, or feeling and thinking – and, accordingly, the shifting relations of knower and known, the problem of how to build a systemic image of an entire structure while inhabiting only a small part of it, how seeing and imagining conspire to produce understanding, and so on. These issues have much in common with what Christopher Herbert calls ‘Victorian relativity’: the growing recognition across various domains of nineteenth-century culture that relations matter to epistemology at least as much as the positive entities they connect. Astronomy supplies a uniquely vivid illustration of such grappling, bringing forth these issues with exceptional force; but as Herbert shows, relativity inflected developments in late nineteenth-century psychology, biology and metaphysics, too, not to mention literary impressionism and Paterian criticism. This book takes things further still, illuminatingly. It is for others to judge how well Henchman has advanced, or revised, what we know about the development of modern astronomy. But, regardless of its aim of making a genuine contribution to intellectual history, the most rewarding parts of her argument concern what the imagination does when it has grasped these astronomical models, and how the Victorians’ starry sky both acquires and asserts its meanings from within the bounds of the literary.

Peter Garratt, Durham University