The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, by Anna Henchman

Advice from an astronomer would have benefited this exploration of connections between two subjects, says Virginia Trimble

April 10, 2014

What does Victorian mean? An attitude that exalted heroes while denigrating women and “lesser breeds without the law”? Sixty-four years that saw the spread of railroads across Britain; Darwin’s On the Origin of Species come, be seen and conquer; and astronomy be revolutionised twice over by the advent of photography and spectroscopy? A flowering of novels and narrative poetry that many of us feel we should have read more of? All of these, clearly, but Anna Henchman focuses here on the literature and the astronomy, although very little on the latter’s progress, from 1837 to 1901.

Her featured authors are Thomas de Quincey (for “Systems of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse’s Telescopes”), Tennyson (mostly In Memoriam, on the death of Arthur Hallam), Thomas Hardy (particularly Two on a Tower, but also The Dynasts and others) and George Eliot (Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch). Dickens and Tolstoy get a look-in, but not Mark Twain, even though Huckleberry Finn had something to say about star formation. Her goal is to “show that the visual discrepancies that dominate astronomy make the science an invaluable resource for philosophers and literary writers”.

The discrepancies Henchman has in mind are between what we seem to see – an Earth-centred cosmos, with all the stars at the same distance, and changeless apart from planets, comets and the occasional guest star, and what research had revealed. By 1837 it was, of course, known that the Earth orbits the Sun, and the stars move (although too slowly to see easily) and are at many different distances from us. These were measured with difficulty from 1835 onwards, although William Herschel (1738-1822, the discoverer of Uranus) and Isaac Newton (1642-17) before him had a fair idea of the distances, based on the assumption that the stars are suns and look faint only because they are far away.

The aspect of literature most affected by all these is called “point of view”, which can shift size scale, timescale and identity of explicit or implicit narrators many times in a novel or extended poem. Henchman could, I think, have made the analogy even clearer by pointing out that the constellations we see are (apart from a few star clusters like the Pleiades) entirely an artefact of where we are in the Milky Way galaxy and where the stars were tens and tens of thousands of years ago, when the light we saw left them.

The Starry Sky Within is not very easy going for non-experts, whether literary or scientific. The “hoohee?” question arises often. Is that the famous Adam Smith? Probably. Is that the chemical Humphry Davy? I’m not sure. Are Gwendolyn Harleth and Alexander Bain characters or authors? One of each, it appears. The most difficult part for an astronomer is Henchman’s frequent use of a sort of historic present tense, which might easily lead one to suppose that it still takes centuries of data to measure the motion of stars, rather than a 10-minute spectroscopic exposure for speed along the line of sight, or a couple of years with the Hipparcos satellite, for velocity across the plane of the sky. Some items are just wrong. Herschel did not discover that the solar system is in motion around some unknown centre in the Milky Way. Indeed, he put it at the centre. Nor did he place most of the stars in clusters with large voids between. My list of some 50 items marked “no”, “not quite”, “missing persons”, “nonsense” and so forth suggests that a consulting astronomer or historian of science might have been useful. I spotted one among the roughly 140 folks acknowledged, but he is mentioned for a class the author took, not for reading any stage of the project from PhD thesis to the present volume.

Yes, there are words here that will reach everyone, for instance the description of Tennyson imagining that he simultaneously sees the coffin of his friend, Hallam, arrive by ship and the friend himself come down the gangplank to console him on his loss. (Like many of us, I suspect, I can supply an equivalent story of my own upon request.)

Victorian authors are still a part of our world. Biographies of Tennyson and Hardy were reviewed in periodicals that I read within a week of receiving The Starry Sky Within for review, and Henchman’s point of view is clearly a fresh one. You can read an entire encyclopedia article on Tennyson without encountering his interest in astronomy – indeed, out of curiosity, I just did. But the author seems to think that astronomers should be distressed by the disconnect between sensory impressions (yes, most of us do look at the night sky) and research results. But, speaking from inside the community, I find us a fairly cheerful crew (apart from when we are writing proposals or reading referees’ reports), wandering fascinated through the cosmos we study. Perhaps an analogue can be found in the different attitudes towards a cathedral on the part of the occasional communicant, a bit lost and not quite sure what to do, and the clergyman whose place of daily work it is. David, as II Samuel vi, 14 tells us, “danced before the Lord”. The Starry Sky Within leaves the impression that Henchman has not danced before either the stars or her authors.

The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature

By Anna Henchman
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £60.00
ISBN 9780199686964
Published 16 January 2014

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