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18 June 2010 @ 09:16 am
The Age of Wonder  
[personal profile] ladyofastolat recommended Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I think this was when I was talking about The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow. They are very similar books in lots of ways. They are both group biographies of the scientists and technologists of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. I think Age of Wonder is definitely the stronger of the two.

The central theme of the book is an exploration of the idea of science as a romantic pursuit (in the sense of the 19th century romantic movement). It therefore has a particular interest in the links between the scientific establishment and the romantic poets, the ways in which science was inspiring poetry, shaping idealism and seen, in general, as a vehicle for wonder and spectacle. This does create some oddities. The section on the explorer, Mungo Park, seems out of place since his journeys didn't not appear to have much of a scientific impulse behind them despite being, if not the origin, at least fuel, for many victorian romantic tropes of the lonely, tragic explorer, the noble savage and the exotic, yet dangerous, African interior. The much earlier section on Joseph Banks' scientific journey to Tahiti, seemed much stronger both in its relevance to the book as a whole and in the way Holmes dissected Banks' interactions with the Tahitians and what they tell us of the societal mores of the time and of the subtle ways a dominant/technically advanced culture interacts with a less technically advanced one.

In fact the book, as a whole, succeeds very well examining both the people and the society within which they operate. It never feels like it is being harsh or unfair, but nor does it seek to gloss over flaws. It certainly discusses the inherent sexism, when it discusses the career of the astronomer Caroline Herschel, and the racism in the voyages of exploration and the works they inspired. It doesn't turn much of an eye on classism, in particular on the painful fight that characterised the beginnings of workers' rights that was taking place during this period. However, given that the book's focus was on scientists rather than technologists and factory owners, this is more forgivable than it was in The Lunar Men.

It also succeeds, where I felt The Lunar Men failed, in making all the scientists it discusses clear and distinct. I never had the problem of coming across some name and thinking `who is that again?'. That may simply be the mark of a stronger writer, but I got a much greater sense that the author had mastery of his subject matter.

All that said, I'm not sure how well this book works as an argument that science is not diametrically opposed to, I guess, artistic sensibility. In fact, I'm not sure the book is even attempting that argument beyond pointing to a period and saying `look! it wasn't always thus.'

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and would highly recommend it. It is a fascinating look at a time when the divide between science and art was only in its infancy and the idea that they could be seen as rivals was only just blooming. It vividly captures the ways in which poetry, prose, spectacle and science interacted in this period as well as providing clear and gripping accounts of some of the key British scientists of the time and their work.


This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/8432.html.