Victoria Carroll, Science and Eccentricity

Victoria Carroll, Science and Eccentricity: Collecting, Writing and Performing Science for Early Nineteenth-Century Audiences (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008). 254 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 1851969403.

Victoria Carroll’s Science and Eccentricity: Collecting, Writing and Performing Science for Early Nineteenth-Century Audiences explores an astounding range of material from anecdotes about alligator wrestling to pastoral idylls about the discovery of fossil skeletons. Carroll’s subject is fascinating and it is enhanced by her eclectic assemblage of eccentric figures as objects of study as well as her wide-ranging selection of different disciplinary methods to study them. The first chapter presents a survey of historical and contemporary prose and poetry about “eccentricity,” which reveals the term’s scientific origins in astronomy where it was used to describe the supposedly erratic paths of comets. Following this early usage of the term, a particularly rich period for theorizing the eccentric in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in the adoption of the idea of the eccentric as an enduring component of scientific and entertainment culture. Eccentrics became associated with prophecy; they might be men whose personalities captured the spirit of a previous or future age; they also challenged notions of class, profession and sometimes gender. Also in this time period, a new genre of writing—eccentric biography—was created to categorize and taxonomize this supposedly most English of social types. The rest of Carroll’s book is divided into case studies of selected eccentrics, a structure that is reminiscent of the collective biographies of eccentrics that are one of Carroll’s objects of study in the first chapter.

The subject of Carroll’s second chapter is William Martin, natural philosopher, poet, self-styled prophet and inventor of a perpetual motion travelling machine called the Northumberland Eagle Mail. In this chapter, Carroll uses the research methods of historians of theatre and performance as well as literary critics. She has collected extremely obscure data from ephemeral materials such as local periodicals, handbills and pamphlets with a view to recovering the events of Martin’s lecture performances. Carroll has also drawn on Bakhtinian theory, using this framework to think about the forms and functions of responses to Martin, which were “grounded in carnival culture” (74). Although this combination of subject and theory is very original, its application is not entirely convincing. Little is said to account for the time differences between Bakhtin’s time period and subject (medieval and early modern carnival) and Carroll’s time period and subject (Martin’s early nineteenth-century lectures). Martin’s lectures were not delivered during a carnival period and he deliberately helped create their carnivalesque atmosphere; this was not a simple case of discourse from below emptying power structures of their strength. The paths of delivery, satire and response seem to be more complicated and indicative of more than Carroll argues in this chapter. The other major goal of this chapter is to judge just how eccentric Martin was in the context of contemporary scientific and religious movements, and somewhat confusingly, Carroll finds that there was much precedent for Martin’s beliefs, which at times leaves the reader wondering if Martin really was an eccentric or not. The strength of this chapter therefore lies in its painstaking empirical research, rather than the arguments made about the public reaction to Martin’s eccentric science and religion.

The arguments made in chapter 3, however, which takes the work of the fossil collector Thomas Hawkins as its subject, are much more successful. Carroll traces the career of this scientific writer who shocked and confused reviewers with his creative combinations of scientific and literary styles. She provides an analysis of the many elements of print culture involved in the production of his published accounts of his fossil collections, such as titles, title pages, subscriber lists, illustrations and the forms of writing employed or alluded to in Hawkins’s major works. Carroll’s argument is most impressive on these issues when her careful, close reading is apparent. At one point, she describes the way in which the sentence structure and the absence of figurative language in the anatomical style of writing result in the erasure of the author or the achievement of “writing at the zero degree” as described by Roland Barthes (Barthes, qtd. in Carroll 104). Hawkins’s style of writing was particularly problematic at the time because it was inconsistent: he alternated between the anatomical style, which was authorless, and a more authoritative style, which failed to differentiate between accepted fact and authorial conjecture as was expected in scientific writing. Carroll’s reading successfully fuses literary critical analysis with investigation of the historical context and the result is truly, and impressively, interdisciplinary. Her other arguments in this chapter, about Hawkins’s interspersing of pastoral idyll throughout his work or his participation in the early nineteenth-century fascination with enthusiasm, for example, are equally impressive.

The subject of Carroll’s final substantial chapter is Charles Waterton, a naturalist, author of exploration narratives and proprietor of a collection of his own taxidermic creations. Waterton’s most well-known exploit was a wrestling match with a cayman, which he desperately wanted to acquire without any damage to its skin so that it might become a centre piece in his famous collection. As in the other chapters, Carroll’s reading here is particularly strong when dealing with detail and close reading. This is especially visible when she discusses Waterton’s unusual taxidermic methods, explaining his theory about “attitude,” which was dependent on the naturalist’s intricate knowledge of the living specimen’s habits in the wild (142). Her painstaking empirical research is also apparent here, especially in terms of the many first-person accounts of visiting Walton Hall, Waterton’s estate, and of meeting Waterton. However, as in chapter 2, Carroll’s account of all the ways in which Waterton both met and deliberately sought to defy conventions of country house visiting, taxidermy, the writing of exploration narrative and other social practices does not come to the most satisfying conclusion. As in the chapter on William Martin, the discussion of Waterton’s position as eccentric becomes somewhat confusing, which seems to be symptomatic of an underlying problem with the approach to the material.

Carroll claims that her study will deal with eccentricity not in “terms of belonging,” which she designates as the more common way of dealing with the subject, but in “terms of not belonging” (42). She sets out to focus on eccentricity as a “challenge” to “hegemonic classificatory discourses” (42). This trend is certainly apparent in her case studies, but as Carroll’s close analysis reveals, it is impossibly to study “not belonging” without also defining the terms of “belonging.” The two terms in fact come to represent the same conception of simultaneously “belonging” and “not belonging,” rather than a set of oppositional concepts, which is why Carrol’s extended discussions about Martin’s, Hawkins’s and Waterton’s positions as eccentrics seem to warrant larger, more forceful conclusions. If the focus of Carrol’s arguments was slightly shifted—from the individual scientific figure to the larger trends of nineteenth-century scientific and entertainment culture—her conclusions would have more depth and impact. The introduction indeed promises that the book will “explore the significance of marginality within (and without) early nineteenth-century scientific culture” (4). I would have liked to have seen more attention devoted to this goal. Nonetheless, Science and Eccentricity is a lavishly illustrated, well-written book on a fascinating topic, and it is an impressively researched.

Laurie Garrison, University of Lincoln