Ben Marsden, Hazel Hutchison and Ralph O’Connor, eds. Uncommon Contexts: Encounters Between Science and Literature, 1800-1914

Marsden, Ben, Hazel Hutchison and Ralph O’Connor, eds.  Uncommon Contexts: Encounters Between Science and Literature, 1800-1914.  London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013. 256pp £60 HB ISBN 978-1-84893-362-0 

In his introduction, Ben Marsden frames Uncommon Contexts as a rejection of C.P. Snow’s dichotomy between the ‘two cultures’ of literature and science.  Marsden’s objective in this collection is to cut across boundaries between the disciplines of literary criticism and history of science.  While this is a neat introduction to the issue for new readers, this intervention is perhaps a little obvious for readers already familiar with the field of literature and science studies, especially since the field has moved far beyond Snow’s dichotomy.  The essays in this collection are far more sophisticated than this framing suggests.  A significant focus of the collection, evident from Marsden’s introduction, is to elide assumptions about canonicity and expand the definitions of what constitutes literature and science.  Marsden argues that notions of what constituted ‘literature’ and ‘science’ were much broader in the Nineteenth Century when compared to what these categories refer to today.  He characterises ‘literature’ as encompassing non-fiction genres of writing as well, such as historiography, travel writing, familiar science books, et cetera.  The title also reflects that these contexts were quite diverse and disparate.  In that regard, the essays are not a comprehensive survey of literary and scientific writing throughout the period, as if to derive a unifying intellectual frame for all science and literature, but are instead a selective collection of essays that address different genres of writing as well as fields of science in which literary and scientific practices meshed.

The first section of the collection deals with the theme of how the categories of ‘literature’ and ‘science writing’ encompassed a broad range of genres in the Nineteenth Century.  Paul White’s essay examines how publications of the time served as forums for both literary expression and the dissemination of scientific knowledge, as both kinds of content had a common readership.  Scientific and literary ideas were produced within a common intellectual and material culture, and as a result science writing became more ‘literary’ in style in order to educate a general audience.  He compares this to the ‘scientific’ form of fiction in the novels of Emile Zola and Willkie Collins, which he describes as forms of ‘vivisection by storytelling’ (36), arguing that the shared intellectual and material culture meant that both literature and science writing drew from each other.  Similarly, Melanie Keene, in her essay ‘An Active Nature: Robert Hunt and the Genres of Science Writing’, explores how Hunt’s scientific writing drew from a distinctly literary style, using forms such as poetry and the sketch.  Literature of this kind sought to teach the general public about science in a manner that was accessible to non-technical readers.

However, the success of these kinds of books in creating an interface between literature and science was not unqualified.  White notes that scientific practice from the 1860s became more experimental and consequently there was a shift in the mode of disseminating scientific knowledge from purely bookish modes of learning to more practical forms based on public demonstration.  Such a change represents a divergence within the epistemologies of science and literature which pre-empts Snow’s ‘two cultures’ argument.  This theme, however, is not addressed in much depth as White does not offer any particular explanation as to why the shift happens, or what implications it has for the study of literature and science.

Familiar science is not the only genre explored in this collection in which scientific practice and literary writing are intertwined.  In this context, Ralph O’Connor draws attention to occasional poems that are written for friends and acquaintances.  His essay on William Buckland and geological verse explores how poems like William Buckland’s The Professor’s Descent, often circulated amongst friends within learned societies like the Geological Society, were models of commentary within scientific disciplines.  The second section of the collection examines the relationship between literary genres and forms of scientific literature. Marsden’s essay, ‘Re-Reading Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Engineering Literature in the Early Nineteenth Century’ examines the different forms of literary intervention by engineers within debates within the field, particularly through the genre of the pamphlet, in large-scale engineering projects like the Great Western Railway and the Great Eastern steamship.  One challenge to the general direction of this collection is presented by Alice Jenkins in her study of Euclidian geometry and how existing literary modes and prevailing models of literature and science scholarship fail to accommodate geometry within their intellectual domain.  In light of this, she urges the rethinking of these parameters of literature and science.  Each of these essays expands the scope of literature and science studies by considering genres beyond just literary fiction and by considering the limitations of current methods of scholarship.

The essays in the last section explore how the writing of technology in fiction is engaged with broader social and philosophical problems that constitute the shared intellectual context of both literature and science.  These include Anne Secord’s ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’s Social Vision: the Natural Histories of Mary Barton’ and Crosbie Smith’s ‘“I have in mind a Study of a Scotch Seaman”: Witnessing Power in Joseph Conrad’s Early Literature of the Sea’.  One essay that is particularly intriguing is Hazel Hutchison’s chapter on how the telegraph represents the limitation of language in apprehending reality in Henry James’s In the Cage.  Her comparison of James’s novel with the work of the mathematician Karl Pearson is especially revealing.  She argues that Pearson, drawing from his background in linguistics and Kantian metaphysics, anticipates the move towards relativist and constructivist notions of science.  Her account opens up a number of avenues for philosophical investigation of the shift in scientific knowledge.  Pearson is deeply concerned with the ways in which words, concepts and reality do not correspond to each other, a view that anticipates post-structuralist thought influenced by Saussure and Derrida.  Furthermore, his interest in the language and grammar of science also anticipates the work of Rudolf Carnap on the logical syntax of language and scientific theories.

This collection of essays offers an eclectic study of different aspects of literature and science studies, drawing from a diverse range of literary genres and scientific disciplines.  It explores not just the traffic of ideas between the sciences and literature, but looks more broadly at the ways in which this nexus between literature and science gave rise to specific genres of scientific literature during the period.  While at times there seems to be little dialogue between the essays, they are still quite valuable by themselves in the way they address some common themes in the collection while focussing on different genres of writing.  The essays are particularly engaging and they open up many avenues for discussion.

Vivek Santayana (University of Edinburgh)