Melissa Bailes, Questioning Nature. British Women’s Scientific Writing & Literary Originality 1750-1830, (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press 2017) 272 pp. $45.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780813939766
Melissa Bailes’s Questioning Nature explores prominent female authors’ scientific production in the long eighteenth century in light of the contemporary cultural debate on authorship, plagiarism and copyright laws, which eventually paved the way to the professionalization of the figure of the scientist as well as that of the 'man of letters'. In a period in which there was no opposition between 'hard' and 'soft' sciences, Bailes offers a detailed and insightful account of how female intellectuals took active participation in science related issues, by writing and discussing about natural history in diverse literary forms ranging from verses to long narratives. Notably their works reveal a non-casual knowledge of disciplines such as botany, zoology, chemistry and geology, just to name the most prominent ones. Challenging gender conventions, according to which science and poetry were first and foremost male domains, not only did these women compete with well-established authors such as Erasmus Darwin or Thomas Pennant, they also employed their own stylistic tools; for instance, in the case of English Georgic verse, which had been considered the 'masculine poetic form' par excellence (for its associations with agrarian labor and technical science), authors such as Maria Riddell, Anne Seward and Charlotte Smith reframed and transformed it in such a way that it soon became a hallmark of their (female) poetic writing.
In discussing these authors’ literary achievements and scientific interrogations of major biological and geological issues, Bailes calls for a reassessment of the literary canon, in which their fruitful merging of literature and science, which so strongly shaped contemporary cultural context, should be given greater consideration. To further substantiate her claim, Bailes introduces the intriguing category of 'collective originality', hence drawing attention to the peculiar interplay between originality and plagiarism characteristic of these women’s writings. In this regard, it should be noted that the notion of plagiarism did not (or at least didn't always) refer to a fraudulent attempt to appropriate another author’s material as if it were one’s own, indeed plagiarism could also be regarded as a desirable imitation or repetition of nature’s order of things, which other authors had previously revealed. Such a perspective was consistent with the general belief in biological immutability as evidence of God’s perfect design (and consequently as a model for the perfect society), according to which any deviation from the original should be distrusted. Although Bailes employs the notion of 'collective originality' primarily to review Anna Seward’s works and the terms of her poetic rivalry with Charlotte Smith, the concept could be also applied to all the authors discussed in the book: their works tend, through their echoic nature, to 'incorporate other poet’s verses while emphasizing [their] own autogeneity' (94).
Such an intertwining of originality and plagiarism threw into question the conventional idea of the Romantic genius, especially of the poet, usually represented as a solitary figure, whose act of creation ex nihilo became the essential condition for a work of art to be regarded as such. In a time of classifications, which provided the framework for every single aspect of human life – from domestic sphere to politics (remarkably Carl Linnaeus was one of the most quoted scientist of the century) – these female authors engaged with a hybrid literary genre in which scientific insights (original or derived from others), presented according to specific taxonomies, became the object of poetic speculations.
The three sections into which the book is divided are chronologically arranged and consistent with the three major scientific fields of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: botany, zoology and geology. Each chapter presents a woman author whose works and scientific theories proved to be instrumental for the advancement of that specific field. Hence Bailes discusses Anna Barbauld’s and Mary Riddell’s approach to botany through gender and nationalism, Anne Seward’s and Charlotte’s Smith antithetical reflections on zoology through the notions of plagiarism, originality and hybridity already mentioned, and finally in the last and most engaging session of her study the author offers an ingenious reading of geological sciences through Helen Maria Williams’s peculiar scientific translations, through the psychologization of geological catastrophe in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), and through Felicia Herman’s 'domestic' geological poems.
Bailes’s 'geological' reading of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is particularly engaging. Her in-depth analysis of the possible interconnections between George Cuvier’s catastrophic theories and the text reveals Shelley’s extraordinary scientific knowledge and fascination with the theme of the 'past species extinction'. By contrast, the intertextual references to Byron’s closet drama Cain: A Mystery (1821) and P B Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) draw attention to a more literary and psychological treatment of the subject. The plague that eventually leads humanity to extinction becomes the most effective metaphor for recounting Shelley’s personal losses. It also provides the way to reconcile the sphere of domesticity with that of public life, which was one of the major preoccupations of the male Romantics, in their role of solitary wanderer and poetic genius. Shelley’s approach effaces the differences between (female) imaginative writing and (male) serious scientific literature, paving the way to a significant reassessment of the future standards for women’s scientific literature.
In conclusion, Bailes’s competent and detailed account of women’s controversial participation in the scientific debate between 1750 and 1830 offers a very original perspective from which to reconsider the issues of originality, gender and natural history, and, in a more general way, it also signals the necessity of a reconfiguration of the interrelation between literature and science in light of women’s strong contribution to the field.
Annalisa Volpone, University of Perugia