Barri J. Gold, ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science

Barri J. Gold, ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010) 336 pp. £22.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-262-01372-7

Thermodynamics is the only area of the physical sciences that has received more than occasional attention from studies of Victorian literature and science, where the focus has more commonly been on biology, geology and psychology. In this original and sometimes brilliant book, Barri Gold effectively moves the study of the Victorian culture of thermodynamics forward by a large step. She does so in such an accessible and engaging way that it is to be hoped that her work will encourage explorations of other aspects of the physical sciences.

ThermoPoetics finds affinities of structure and movement between a selection of large-scale Victorian works and the key ideas of thermodynamics, particularly those which were perceived as threatening and discomfiting: the irreversibility of entropy, the resulting dissolution of boundaries and categories, and the heat death of the universe. Gold’s book is interested less in tracing the precise histories of the spread of these ideas through literary culture than in uncovering how they play out in particular texts. Victorian physicists and engineers appear frequently in the argument, and there are numerous clear explanations of the major concepts of energy physics, but Gold emphasises that literature was grappling with these concepts before they were decisively articulated in physics, and indeed that literature played an important part in enabling physics to arrive at those articulations. She uses Bruno Latour’s description of the role that audiences and readers play in making scientific ideas into facts, sending them ‘downstream’ through confirmation and adaptation, or questioning them and sending them back ‘upstream’, to help explain these social processes of formation and reception; but she does not allow this rectilinear model to dominate what she sees as a set of enormous feedback loops between scientific, literary, religious and political writings. As she observes, Victorian thermodynamics ‘transforms easily, providing metaphor or even physical justification for pet theories of all kinds’ (p.113), and it is part of the achievement of this book to suggest the immense and messy fertility of these transformations without at any point allowing its argument to become tangled or confused.

Gold takes the interdisciplinarity of literature and science studies more literally than many. She makes a strong case for believing that interdisciplinarity should require us to reach outside a literary readership as well as outside literary sources, and her book is an experiment in writing for scientists as well as Victorianists. Thus, she focuses fairly tightly on her selected texts, which are mostly canonical; she minimises discussion of other criticism and of the penumbra of related writing which usually surrounds canonical texts in literary criticism. In the interests of being ‘as inclusive as I know how’ (p. 19), she writes explanatory and historical sections in an enjoyably conversational style.

Chapters examine In Memoriam, The Coming Race, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Dorian Gray, Dracula and popularisations and poetry written by Victorian physicists. Compared with some more historicist studies, her readings take big risks, but they are underpinned by close, satisfying and sharp-eyed engagement with textual details. Her analogy between Count Dracula and Maxwell’s Demon (p. 242), for example, is a brilliant imaginative leap, all the more persuasive because of Gold’s deployment of cleverly observed and selected short quotations in lavish quantities. Her account of engines in Bleak House, and Bleak House as engine, is an especially strong example of the flexibility and power of her approach. She offers readings of the manufactured and natural sources of energy that Dickens describes, and of the work they do, but also of characters as energy sources and energy sinks, and of the many closed systems in the novel, including the novel itself. In doing so she re-codes Bleak House’s fascination with activity and stagnation, at once honouring and re-imagining the novel’s moral judgements in terms of thermodynamic flows. Gold conveys such confidence in her critical creativity that she is able to expand her thermodynamic systems beyond the pages of the novel to include even the author and reader, making the intriguing suggestion that they might be understood as energy source and energy sink respectively.

Gold’s readings support her case for the existence of a widespread literary engagement with the key ideas of energy, work, flow and loss, visible at both the large and small scale in texts, so effectively that one might begin to wonder whether there are any limits to the pervasion of Victorian literature by thermodynamic interpretations of these ideas. It would have been fascinating to have had a discussion of a text that does not comply with principles such as the conservation of energy or the irreversibility of entropy, for example. Such a discussion might help to show the distinction between thermopoetic texts and thermopoetic readings. But to wish for this addition to Gold’s work is simply to acknowledge the power and potential scope of her contribution.

Playful, ambitious and enabled by the freshness of its approach and the comparative absence of discussion of other criticism to read Victorian texts as if for the first time, Gold’s book is an illuminating achievement of the critical imagination in literature and science studies.

Alice Jenkins, University of Glasgow