Stella Pratt-Smith, Transformations of Electricity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Science

Stella Pratt-Smith, Transformations of Electricity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Science (Farnham: Ashgate, 2016) 176 pp. 9 B&W illustrations. £125.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781472419408

This book considers the literary representations and potential applications of electricity, as explored in British canonical, popular, and scientific works of the nineteenth century. Stella Pratt-Smith analyses the development of various theoretical and conceptual approaches to the intangible phenomenon of electricity and its transformative effects on scientific and technological modernity. She also evaluates the ways in which investigative responses to electricity were expressed as “amalgamations of scientific, literary, and cultural concerns” at a time when understandings of electricity were still being developed (1). Her book is comprised of five chapters that map the intersections of science and literature across a range of mainstream novels, poems, short stories, and scientific writing, which speculated on and portrayed the literal and figurative properties of electrical phenomena.

Pratt-Smith examines the period from 1830–1880, during which time journalists, novelists, poets, and short-story instructional writers influenced both public and scientific perceptions of electricity, as well as its futuristic applications. In chapter one, she goes on to historicize the work of Michael Faraday (1791–1867) whose discovery of electromagnetic induction, later known as Faraday’s law, enabled a wide-range of uses for energy transfer that forever altered human experience. Through fiction and non-fiction, writers “interpreted, transformed and created new associations with electricity” and made it “inseparable from literary, social, and material contexts” (4). Electricity demanded new conceptual forms of ‘spatial imagination’” that encouraged new figurative and narrative models (5). Pratt-Smith argues that mainstream novelists, such as Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, and George Eliot, represented electricity’s “role as a signifier of volatility, speed and invisibility, and . . . exploited this to convey the immediacy of emotions such as love and fear, as well as metaphysical connections" (34).

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, novelists began to use electricity as a subject of literary forms and, in so doing, made it “commercially viable as a source of popular literary sensation” (23). In the remainder of the chapter, Pratt-Smith deploys Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race to exemplify her argument that "novels [which] foregrounded electricity or wrote about it more directly . . ." were either "quickly pigeonholed—or even relegated—to the lower genre of 'science fiction'" (34). Her claim is interesting but, unfortunately, not fully substantiated before the chapter is concluded. She could have evidenced more clearly how specific literary works were devalued because of their thematic connection to electricity.

The second chapter considers nineteenth-century literary responses to the work of electrical pioneers Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879). In “Magnetic Curves” (1989), David Gooding suggests that metaphorical representations “can be articulated as instrumentally useful concepts before they are incorporated into a theoretical framework . . . [and] they shape the theories developed to interpret and explain the phenomena they describe [Gooding’s emphasis] (qtd. in Pratt-Smith 38). Pratt-Smith builds upon such thinking to examine how writings about electricity also stimulated speculation about “the nature of corporeality, perception, and interpretation” (39). Faraday, for example, employed verbal and visual representational models, rather than mathematical ones, to improve the public’s understanding of electricity. Analogous to Faraday, Maxwell used poetry as an “alternate form” for theorizing about electricity beyond “previously inconceivable realms of abstraction” (56). As Pratt-Smith notes, Maxwell’s poetry established the relation between “mathematical and verbal imagery and presents them as equally valid” methods of representing electricity’s transformative power (61, 60). Maxwell assumed a reductive stance by suggesting science and literature were equal, because they are interrelated and depend on similar figurative, narrative, and interpretive methods for understanding the present and conceptualizing the future.

Chapters three and four provide examples from popular non-fiction books and periodicals of the nineteenth century to illustrate how writing and editing practices affected non-specialists’ reading patterns and shaped public awareness of electricity. In so doing, they connoted the “interconnected nature of social, economic, and public cultures” of the nineteenth century (74). In chapter three, Pratt-Smith considers the ways in which William Whewell, founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, contributed to the investigation of electricity, “[which] exemplified the essential relationship between the active mind and scientific progress" (77). She also evaluates how the representative work of various writers informed collective understandings of electricity. Pratt-Smith argues that non-fiction writers "used the literary possibilities of the periodical to shape popular awareness of ideas about electricity” (84).Chapter four historicizes the emergence of the cheap periodical as a “regular venue” for introducing “short-fiction responses to electricity” from 1838–1884, a period during which time “ideas about electricity were at their least stable” (107, 111). “Unlike non-fiction writings,” as Pratt-Smith suggests, short fiction was created to “entertain, rather than disseminate accurate information” about electricity and technologies that were defining the future (113). Through examples of “comic ephemera” and “tales of the supernatural,” she contends that “electrical science and experimentation simultaneously emerged [from] and reflected contemporary interests and anxieties” (114), particularly in depicting how the mysterious and destructive qualities of electricity might “prey on man’s vulnerable sensibilities” (136). Pratt-Smith does not fully trace the consequential effects of these concerns on the selected genres or their readers. Without sufficient historical evidence of readers’ opinions, she cannot adequately assess how they “reflected on” (111) the value of short fiction.

She suggests that short fiction established metaphorical links between electricity, epilepsy, mental illness, and the supernatural. She locates these associations in Benjamin Lumley’s (1811–1875) portrayal of an extra-terrestrial world in which nature served as the “source of all electricity” (153). Lumley’s Another World: Fragments from the Star City of Montalluyah (1873) is the focus of Pratt-Smith’s last chapter. She describes the novel as "an extravagant fantasy about electricity [and] as a perfect route to technological advancement and social progress" (146). Pratt-Smith underscores Lumley’s certainty in exploring the “greater imaginative possibilities” of electricity, especially as a tool for improving medical practices. However, she is not able to determine how fictional works like Lumley’s directly influenced scientific developments and technological innovations, some of which appeared around the same time as his novel. Pratt-Smith concludes her study with Lumley, who critiqued the frivolous uses of electricity (e.g., using electricity to produce metal flowers) in an ideal world in which electricity dominated and transformed the natural world and its inhabitants. The similarities between Montalluyah and our own technological society are apparent, but Pratt-Smith does not emphasize this correlation.

Pratt-Smith provides a thoughtful and well-documented study for readers seeking an overview of how nineteenth-century British literature and science produced either parallel, conflicting, or hybrid responses to electricity. By examining a range of various sources, she carefully unpacks the complexities of electrical phenomena and evidences its transformative influences upon Victorian conceptions of the human self and the physical world.

Prof John C Murray, Curry College