Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Collins, 2008), pp. xxi + 554. £25. ISBN 978-0-00-714952-0

The best feature of this fascinating survey of Romantic science is Richard Holmes’s skill in bringing to utterly believable life the domestic circumstances in which scientific discovery was made. A considerable biographer with much-praised lives of Shelley and Coleridge to his name, Holmes has a talent for illuminating, with a quiet, tolerant humour, the fears, foibles and quirks of writers and experimentalists, showing how their work was made possible by stimulating milieux in which the emotional support of sisters and wives and brother and father-figures was quite as important as membership of institutions and formal training. The result of this approach is his best book yet, a unique presentation of Romantic science for a popular readership that takes the form of a series of interlinked biographies of a cast of central characters including Joseph Banks the explorer—President of the Royal Society and patron of others’ work; William Herschel and his sister Caroline—watchers of the skies so obsessive that they made their own lenses to see them better; Humphry Davy—the country lad from the Cornish coast who revolutionized chemistry; Mungo Park—the Scottish gardener who walked deep into Africa; Faraday and Babbage—young intellectuals whose careers were shaped by Banks and Davy. The supporting cast includes the balloonists Montgolfier, Lunardi and Jeffries, the surgeons William Lawrence and John Abernethy, the poet Coleridge, the novelist Mary Shelley and the ‘fat democrat’ chemist Thomas Beddoes.

There are weaknesses as well as strengths: ‘wonder’ is a rather general and vague concept with which to define an age; it is also scarcely cognate. And although the book is comprehensive, it cannot cover all the discoveries of the era: among those whose omission I regretted was geology. Mathematical science does not appear and little is said about the astonishing developments in technology (wonder-inducing if anything was). It is also apparent that Holmes’s forte is not the detailed explication of intellectual influence or the philosophical theory that guided scientific experiment.

Nevertheless, the weaknesses are relatively unimportant, for the book is unified by the multiple personal connections between its characters—all actual or would-be protégés of Banks—and such is the verve with which the social and biographical context of discovery is related that the reader is carried along fascinated. Holmes, in short, has succeeded superbly in synthesising the specialist research of historians of science, literature and culture to produce a work that, if not original, is unsurpassed in its combination of general survey and biographical insight.

For this reviewer the best chapters are those devoted to single figures. That on Banks recounts with exhilarating vividness his voyage around the world with Captain Cook. Holmes dwells on Banks’s readiness to enquire into indigenous cultures and gives graphic accounts of his romantic encounters with Tahitian women. But he also emphasizes the seriousness of Banks’s commitment to natural history and botany: his collections on the voyage increased the number of plant species known to European science by 25%. After his return he had the collections catalogued and displayed at his house, along with an unsurpassed natural history library. Gradually, it became the centre to which explorers, botanists and natural historians flocked from all over Europe and America, before embarking on their own collecting expeditions. Banks, meanwhile, became a man of influence with the admiralty, ministry and monarch—adviser on exploratory voyages, instigator of the colonisation of Australia, de facto director of Kew Gardens. As President of the Royal Society for forty years, he presided over an expansion of experimentation and discovery that embraced Jenner, Davy, Volta, Cavendish and Blumenbach as well as Herschel and Mungo Park. As such he is rightly the figure with whom Holmes opens his story, for the other featured discoverers benefited from his work and under his patronage.

From Banks, Holmes turns to balloons and details the era’s amazed fascination with the first ascents.  Both the French and English flights are discussed, and Holmes enjoys recounting the pratfalls, as when Mrs Sage, England’s ‘first female aeronaut’ was seen ‘on all fours in the open entrance of the gondola. The crowd assumed that she had fainted, and was perhaps receiving some kind of intimate first-aid from Mr Biggin’ (p. 142). One Ralph Heron, by contrast, suffered a tragic fall, dropping over 100 feet from a guy rope: ‘the impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out onto the ground’ (p. 143).

After the fleshy interlude of the ballooning chapter, Holmes turns to the second of his heroes, the modest Hanoverian musician who, in conjunction with his sister Caroline, constructed a telescope through which he discovered a new planet. William Herschel’s career is presented in great detail: the originality of his theories about nebulae and the staggering extent of his observations are memorably revealed. Yet what makes the account so compelling is Holmes’s reconstruction of the intense collaborative relationship between the siblings. Night after night for year after year William observed and Caroline recorded, continuing even in freezing weather and, on one occasion, when Caroline impaled herself on the telescope gantry and sustained a serious leg wound. As productive as the relationship between William and Dorothy Wordsworth, it was riven by William’s marriage. Holmes is especially engaging when he teases out the signs of resentment hidden within Caroline’s dedication and he is wise enough to see that the Herschels’ achievements, depending as they did on painstaking long-term observation, could not have occurred without the spur of rivalry.

Holmes’s portrait of Davy also features collaboration. Here the story is more familiar: other writers have explored the Pneumatic Institution run by Thomas Beddoes, where Davy administered nitrous oxide to a brilliant circle of young intellectuals including Coleridge, Southey and Roget. Nevertheless Holmes re-creates the excited sense of possibility shared by this circle and shows how their identification of Davy as a genius was adopted by him, directing his later self-disciplined and self-promoting experimentation at the Royal Institution and carrying him all the way to the Presidency of the Royal Society. By 1820 Davy was tired and disillusioned, the stimulating circle of his Bristol days replaced by a tense and unhappy marriage from which he sought escapes. Davy, Holmes implies, came to represent the burnt-out embers of the once-brilliant fire of Romantic discovery. Incapable of generosity towards the brilliant young assistant Faraday, he also seemed an obstruction to the younger Turks of the Royal Society, men such as John Herschel and Charles Babbage who would take science in a more specialised and mathematical direction in the Victorian era.

That it ends by registering disillusion as well as wonder is a sign of the subtlety with which Holmes delineates the age. This is a more complex book than its title suggests, but a book that makes enjoyable and arresting sense out of complexity. Holmes’s canvas is vast, crowded with people, ideas and facts, yet it is never blurred or dull. The Age of Wonder is one of the best books ever written about Romantic-era science and an example to all of us who study the connections between literature and science.

Tim Fulford, Nottingham Trent University