Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman (eds), Victorian Science and Literature (8 vols)

Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman (eds), Victorian Science and Literature, 8 vols (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011-12). 3408 pp. £700 hb (£350 per 4 volume set). ISBN 978-1848930919 and 978-1848930926.

In their general introduction to their huge and handsome new anthology of Victorian writings about science, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman spell out very clearly their objectives in editing it. The target audience is academic researchers, including postgraduate students, and their aim is to facilitate ‘the kind of detailed attention to social, historical and literary contexts that has characterized much of the best recent scholarship that brings together the insights of the history of science and literature and science studies’ (I: xi). Although they tip their hats respectfully to Gillian Beer and George Levine, their model for this kind of work is James Secord’s study of the Vestiges of Natural History of Creation, Victorian Sensation (2000), which they see as setting the standard for subsequent scholarship in the field, including books by Jonathan Smith and Ralph O’Connor, both of whom are contributing editors to this anthology, as well as by Dawson and Lightman themselves. In order to enable future scholarship in the same vein, the general editors and their team of fourteen contributing editors have gathered together ‘a broad array of carefully chosen and often hard-to-locate raw materials’ (I: xii), framed by introductory essays to each volume, brief introductions to each extract, and generously informative endnotes.

The eight volumes themselves cover different topics. Each volume explores an aspect of the relationship between science and the wider culture, but their approaches differ according to their particular remits. The first two volumes, Negotiating Boundaries, edited by Piers J. Hale and Jonathan Smith, and Victorian Science as Cultural Authority, edited by Suzy Anger and James Paradis, are scene-setters, establishing the perceived definitions and the contested place of ‘science’ as a broad category in Victorian Britain. The third, sixth and eighth volumes—Science, Religion and Natural Theology, edited by Richard England and Jude V. Nixon, Science, Race and Imperialism, edited by Marwa Elshakry and Sujit Sivasundarum, and Marginal and Occult Sciences, edited by Roger Luckhurst and Justin Sausman—each home in on a specific debate or field. The fifth volume, New Audiences for Science: Women, Children, Labourers, edited by Claire Brock, and the seventh volume, Science as Romance, edited by Ralph O’Connor, are concerned primarily with the communication of science, considered in terms of audience in one case and genre in the other. In the fourth volume, The Evolutionary Epic, edited by David Amigoni and James Elwick, these two approaches come together, as a literary genre is mapped onto a particular scientific question or theme.

By including these different approaches in the same anthology, the editors acknowledge just how complex the cultural role and position of Victorian science was. A more monolithic organising principle—by discipline, for instance—would not have done justice nearly so effectively to such an immense topic. There are inevitable overlaps between the remits of the different volumes. The debate over the science of evolution bears on the debate as to the relationship between science and religion, while several of the texts included under the heading of romance are addressed to children. But these intersections are always fertile, allowing readers to explore how the approach of one volume might inform the contents of another in enriching ways, and helping to build up precisely the kind of ‘thick’ description that Dawson and Lightman, borrowing from Clifford Geertz, want to encourage.

Dawson and Lightman have also allowed their team of editors some flexibility in deciding how best to select and represent texts to fit with their own line of enquiry. Their principles of selection imply their own methodologies. The volumes which foreground the literary features of science-writing tend to present discrete sections of books or essays to be read as a whole. This is true also, though less consistently, of the first three volumes, particularly when the editors want the reader to be able to follow an argument closely through. The editors of the volumes on race and empire and marginal and occult sciences show less compunction about taking scissors to their sources. In the process, they imply that, in studying such wide and contentious topics as these, it is the perspective of a given piece that matters, rather than its argument, and that an anthology needs to capture as many individual voices as it reasonably can, rather than holding up a few authorities to extensive scrutiny.

These differences in editorial practice are legitimate and justified, though inevitably they lead to compromises and some disappointments. In the second volume, G. H. Lewes’s essay ‘On the Dread and Dislike of Science’ appears in full, but William Whewell’s review of John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse is chopped up and served as seven discontinuous excerpts, making it rather harder to follow. In the fourth volume we can settle into a long chapter of Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man, listen to an entire lecture by Hugh Miller or read almost all of E. Ray Lankester’s Degeneration, but if we want to read Robert Dale Owen’s Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World in volume eight we must make do with pages 17 to 20, 24 to 26, three short paragraphs from pages 33, 44-45 and 54-55, and pages 57 to 59 with yet another cut in the middle. These omissions or others like them are a fact of life with anthologies—if you want to include a good range you have to do violence of one kind or another to the texts you include. But they also determine and constrain the use that scholars can make of the anthology as a whole. The more a given text is presented through gobbets rather than continuous prose, the sooner the reader will have to put down the anthology itself and go back to the original source, not because that source necessarily needs to be read in full, but because no scholar can depend upon the editor having made precisely the right selection for his or her needs.

That said, any anthology is inevitably only a first port of call. Dawson and Lightman hope that in discovering the ‘nuggets unearthed by the editors’ readers will be given ‘a spur to further prospecting’ (I: xvii). There is not a volume in the series that does not achieve this end admirably. At the same time, these nuggets have not just happened to turn up. In selecting their texts, the editors of Victorian Science and Literature aim to give a certain shape the field. In the process, they make two decisive choices. In line with the practices of history of science as a discipline, as well as the prevailing tendency in literary studies over the last thirty years, the anthology is resolutely anti-canonical. This is both an intellectual and a practical choice. Intellectually, the editors rightly reject any concentration on a few well-known scientists and authors as misrepresenting Victorian culture as a whole. Practically, their main aim is to make unfamiliar material available. One paradox that emerges here is that, the more successful the editors are in bringing readers to this unfamiliar material, the more their choice of it will become a canon in its own right, as the texts they have selected will recur more than others as the defining points of reference for future scholarship. Short of abandoning the project as a whole, this is just something editors have to live with, like it (and they may well) or not.

But their editorial practice gives rise to a further paradox, too. The introductions to the first two volumes are excellent surveys of the debates around the definition, reach and cultural influence of science. The selections in both volumes are excellent too, but they do not match up with the introductions because of the exclusion of well-known texts such as John Tyndall’s Belfast Address and T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold’s debate over the relationship between science and culture. It is easy to see why the editors of the fourth volume would not feel the need to reprint Darwin yet again, but even so his absence leaves a distorted picture of evolutionary writing in the period. Charles Lyell is taken as read too, as is Vestiges, which is particularly problematic as it is claimed as the foundational text of the genre of evolutionary epic itself. All these texts are of course available elsewhere, and they are rehearsed in the introductions to these volumes, but their absence still compromises the usefulness of these selections. It leaves these eight massive volumes oddly compromised too, as in spite of their editors they become a supplement to a pre-established canon of texts, rather than subsuming those texts alongside others in an anti-canonical drive as hoped.

The second choice facing the editors is how to interpret ‘literature’ and the literary within their anthology. Here too their impulse is anti-canonical. Few of the Victorian novelists and poets well-known for their responses to science are represented. Hardy, Hopkins and Swinburne each put in a cameo appearance, but Tennyson, Eliot and Wells are missing. Dickens is in, but for a review, not a piece of fiction. In keeping with the spirit of anthology, women writers who in the process of being reintegrated into the canon are better represented, including the poets May Kendall and Constance Naden and the essayists Harriet Martineau and Vernon Lee. Even so, all eight volumes between them include only three short stories, extracts from three novels, one dramatic sketch and few than two dozen poems, while half the volumes include no such conventionally ‘literary’ texts at all. This exclusion is implicitly justified by Dawson and Lightman in their general introduction, partly on the historical grounds that the term ‘literature’ was itself more inclusive in the period covered by the anthology, and partly on the methodological grounds that science should be viewed as literature rather than as one half of a binary with it. This is defensible, but it severely limits the breadth of the ‘broad array’ of texts on offer in generic terms, as the vast majority take the form of non-fictional prose of one kind or another. It imposes another limit too, in that, while it makes the anthology an unrivalled starting point for examining the rhetorical and imaginative strategies of science writers, including essayists, journalists, lecturers, educators, controversialists and so on, it offers no more than the occasional taster of how poets and fiction writers, let alone dramatists, engaged with science. Given how rich that engagement was throughout the Victorian period, this significantly undermines the claim these eight volumes make to representing Victorian science and literature as their title promises. Only volumes two and three properly make good on this promise. Volume two offers a range of lampoons on the cultural authority of science alongside short stories by Grant Allen, Arthur Conan Doyle and Israel Zangwill, a poem by Coventry Patmore and a chapter from Hardy’s Two on a Tower. Volume three too takes poetry seriously as a mode of reflection capable of working through the implications of science for faith, putting forward a rich selection of mostly unfamiliar poems by Hopkins, John Henry Newman and George Romanes among others.

If these two volumes effectively present science and literature as paired discourses participating in a shared debate, volumes four and seven take up most thoroughly the challenge of examining science as literature. O’Connor’s introduction to volume seven deftly deconstructs the supposed distinction between imaginative and factual literature. He shows how the tropes of romance were self-consciously employed by science writers across a wide range of forms which blend into one another as they move from imaginative romances and fables such as Robert Hunt’s Panthea and R. H. Horne’s The Poor Artist, to science told as fairy tale, and on to didactic expositions breathing wonder and couched as accounts of the fairy-land of science or a boy’s dream of geology. Where O’Connor is thoroughly persuasive, Amigoni and Elwick are less convincing in the claims they advance for reading the prose of evolution as a form of epic. They are partly hampered by their remit. Volume four has to do justice to both evolution as a theme and this supposed literary form. While some of the texts could be seen to lay implicit claim to the status of epic, such as Edward Clodd’s The Story of Creation, others such as Richard Owen’s Palaeontology or Herbert Spencer’s essay ‘The Development Hypothesis’ make no such claim at all. Even those texts that might have epic pretensions only rarely make any bid to realise them in their rhetoric. For the most part the prose here is dry, and when it is not its power lies more in the rhetoric of argument than in the literary tropes of epic. To sustain their thesis, the editors construct a very loose definition of epic, allowing analogies to be drawn for instance between the Victorian evolutionists’ personification of Nature and the Homeric gods, for all that the two manifest themselves differently, behave in wholly different ways and are not written about in the same way either. In claiming that ‘a phenomenon, be it nebular condensation or a phylogenetic order’ (IV: xiv) can become the equivalent of an epic hero such as Aeneas, they lose sight of the literary properties of both epic and evolutionary prose, collapsing them into a false likeness. At the same time, by omitting poems such as James Montgomery’s Pelican Island (1827—a little early, but earlier works are excerpted elsewhere in the anthology) and Mathilde Blind’s The Ascent of Man (1889), which do adopt epic forms to retell and extrapolate on the history of evolution, they deny themselves and their readers a crucial yardstick for judging whether a text actually is epic in any meaningful way or not.

When all is said, none of these criticisms undermine the careful and copious editorial labour that has gone into this anthology, nor its potential value. Together these eight volumes are an immense treasure trove for explorers in the field of Victorian literature and science to delight in and exploit. The introductions are independent, informative and frequently incisive, advancing suggestive theses which readers will accept or critique as they see fit. With the selections themselves, they will certainly ‘contribute to the proliferation’ of research following the ‘new direction in literature and science studies’ (I: xii) charted by Secord and the editors themselves, as Dawson and Lightman hope they will. The only danger is that readers may be beguiled by the title and the very compendiousness of the project itself into believing that this is a map of the field as a whole, to the neglect of the engagements with science to be found in Victorian poetry, fiction and drama, which may be more elusive, but are at least as rich, subtle and sophisticated.

John Holmes, University of Reading

 

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