Steamy tales of flora and fornication

Literature and Science, 1660-1834, Vols 1-4

January 16, 2004

There has been a lot of popular interest in the achievements of pioneering scientists in the past few years. Biographies and accessibly written accounts of the half-forgotten stories behind the discoveries we take for granted have come thick and fast. This trend was kick-started in the mid-1990s by the success of Dava Sobel's Longitude , and titles such as Deborah Cadbury's The Dinosaur Hunters , Simon Winchester's The Map that Changed the World and Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men have carried it forwards.

Told in the right way, the history of science is full of good stories.

These narratives tap into our longing for less specialised times, when amateurs could push forward the boundaries of knowledge. It is no coincidence that a book that races through these tales, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything , has been doing very well in the bestseller lists.

Given these developments, one is tempted to say that Pickering and Chatto's ambitious project, Literature and Science, 1660-1834 , which will run to eight volumes, is a case of academia catching up with popular trends. The first four volumes contain selections of rare science texts on different topics, reproduced in facsimile, with "literary parallels" listed at the end of each volume. The texts have been chosen to emphasise the close links between literature and science in the 18th century, something that is beginning to re-emerge today. As general editor Judith Hawley points out, literature and science are no longer seen as mutually antagonistic, as C. P. Snow once stressed that they were, but rather as different "aspects of a wider culture". The process of specialisation that characterises today's science scene started during the 18th century, but science was still an important part of literary culture. New discoveries found their way into fiction, while scientists used literary techniques to engage their audiences, both in print and on the lecture scene - just as they do now.

The first volume, Science as Polite Culture , provides an overview of popular literature on science, with emphasis on the rhetorical strategies that were used to woo the audience. The 18th century was a period in which science shows became an intrinsic feature of high society, as Cheryce Kramer stresses in the introduction: "Air-pumps, galvanic piles and pendulum experiments were the stuff of refined soirées amongst privileged members of society. They were to be consumed, like truffles and oranges, as the tokens of a luxurious existence." Several of the texts reflect this scene. There is an extract from John Paris' life of one of the most famous lecturers of the era, Sir Humphry Davy, who, in Paris' words, "brought down Science from those heights which were before accessible only to a few, and placed her within the reach of all". Other popularisers relied on sexual innuendo and flirtatious banter to "sell" science to their audiences, notably Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle in Conversations with a Lady, on the Plurality of Worlds and Francesco Algarotti in Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy Explained .

As they cover a 174-year period, these volumes are best treated as loosely chronological samplers. The intention is not to present a coherent narrative - which would be tricky indeed, but "to prompt an experience" of the era. This experience is nevertheless neatly structured in volume one, where you get a real sense of how institutionalised science emerged. The book opens with an essay by Thomas Sprat from 1667 about the founding of the Royal Society, and closes with the 1834 text by William Whewell in which "scientist" was first used in print. By now, the era of the professional science practitioner was well under way.

Volume two, Sciences of Body and Mind , contains medical texts, most of which were written by practising doctors. Several of these are regimen poems, intended to help the individual achieve wellbeing through moral and physical advice, or works that reflect this tradition (George Cheyne's An Essay on Regimen ; and an extract from Thomas Beddoes' Hygeia ). What changes greatly, though, are the preoccupations at the beginning and end of this period, which started with a shift from humouralism to a more modern understanding of how the body works. While Edward Baynard's Health, a Poem , published in 1740, still recommends moderate blood-letting and worries about the ill effects of drink, Beddoes' Hygeia , from 1802, is more concerned with the evils of consumer goods imported from the emerging empire, such as tea and coffee. To Beddoes, novels were worse still, for by the time he was writing, "nerve medicine" was all the rage and doctors were taking an interest in the mind. Extracts from Thomas Trotter's A View of the Nervous Temperament are included to represent this trend.

Volumes three and four, Earthly Powers and Flora , focus on the sciences of the earth. All the passages in Earthly Powers record attempts to explore grand and baffling natural phenomena, such as glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes, storms and clouds. Paradoxical as it sounds, the surge of interest in nature in the 18th century was partly brought about by industrial advances. The emergence of the mining industry, for example, encouraged a fascination with geology. Mines became tourist attractions; stalactites something you might adorn your home with, as Alexander Pope did his Twickenham grotto. Scientific ambitions often came into conflict with aesthetic concerns, in particular towards the end of this period, when "picturesque" viewing practices became prominent. The last extract, William Scoresby Jr's account of Arctic ice fields, is as much an expression of wonder as an objective report.

In Flora , the focus shifts from nature in the sublime to the intricacies of plants. Far more women writers are represented here than in any of the other volumes. Science was generally a field closed to women at this time, but there was slightly more room for manoeuvre in horticulture. More surprising is the sheer amount of racy, sexual material included. Three of the 11 passages - all written by men - use the model of a botanical text to achieve erotic effects: Thomas Stretser's Arbor Vitæ and The Natural History of the Frutex Vulvaria , and James Perry's Mimosa . Stretser's works are tongue-in-cheek accounts of the penis and vagina; the latter "is a flat low Shrub, which always grows in a moist warm Valley, at the Foot of a little Hill". Erasmus Darwin's influential translations of Linnaeus' work, represented here by "Key of the Sexual System" from The Families of Plants , made it clear that sex was the driving force in the plant world, so why not push this idea to its limits?

The last four volumes will cover fauna, astronomy, natural philosophy and chemistry. If they are as carefully assembled as the volumes at hand, the set should be an invaluable resource for researchers, providing access to a range of rare texts, most of which can be found only in major research libraries. But given the wealth of material in these fields, any such project does little more than scratch the surface. One can only hope that others will take up the cue so we get more initiatives of this kind. The editors suggest that reading these volumes is like "eavesdropping at one of the many gatherings where natural knowledge was produced and disseminated".

It certainly is, and just as with any good conference, one comes away enthused and overwhelmed in equal measure.

Madeleine Minson is a translator and reviewer.

Literature and Science, 1660-1834, Vols 1-4

Editor - Judith Hawley
Publisher - Pickering and Chatto
Pages - 1,728
Price - £350.00
ISBN - 1 85196 737 0

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.