Daily Archives: July 8, 2009

‘The Age of Wonder’ by Richard Holmes


The front cover of Richard Holmes’ book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science shows the beautiful painting ‘A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun‘ by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1766.   Quite apart from the impact of the lighting, the expressions on the faces and the spread of generations depicted, the title of the painting is important- a philosopher– and in Richard Holmes’ book we explore the shift from ‘philosopher’ to ‘scientist’ in the nineteenth century.  The term ‘scientist’ itself is of fairly recent origin, coined as part of this transition between 1830-1834, and initially rejected because of its analogy with ‘atheist’ but rapidly taken up in common usage.

Holmes argues that the bifurcation between science and romanticism took place only  in the mid 19th century, and was preceded by a period in which what we now call ‘science’ was part of a broader fascination with theology, poetry, painting and literature.   In this multiple biography, not unlike Jenny Uglow’s  The Lunar Men (which I’m also looking forward to reading), Holmes uses Sir Joseph Banks as a type of bookend to encapsulate a number of other interwoven biographies.  The book opens with Joseph Banks in the South Seas, the young, libertine ethnographer who literally ‘goes native’  during his voyage of exploration.  It closes with Banks’ death in London, where he is the bedrock of the Royal Society and a one-man communication hub between the  ‘philosophers’  he championed and mentored across the globe.   Between these bookends are other biographies: particularly those of William and Caroline Hershel the astronomers and Humphrey Davy the chemist and inventor, who each have two distinct chapters, as if Holmes himself is orbiting them.  Mungo Park the African explorer is here too, reaching into the darkness and emptiness of Africa as it was known then;  as are the balloonists in England and France who had the first glimpse of the earth from on high, just as momentous and re-orienting as the photographs of the earth taken from space 150 years later.  This is not just a ‘great man’ approach: there is also the more troubling diversion into the experiments into galvanism (news of which travelled all the way to Port Phillip) and attempts to create life itself as displayed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

These ‘philosophers’ were not set apart from artists and poets: instead they were friends with them, and in many cases were themselves poets and writers- especially Humphrey Davy who, for me, is the luminous presence of the book.  Holmes’  incorporation of women philosopher/scientists – Caroline Hershel, the indefatigable assistant to her brother and astronomer in her own right, Mary Shelley and Mary Somerville – does not feel forced, while acknowledging the societal structures that privileged their male colleagues.

Holmes is a wonderful biographer.  His footnotes at the end of the book are spare but painstaking, reflecting the depth of archival research he has undertaken.  They are supplemented by the occasional note at the bottom of the page, denoted by a trefoil, that provides glimpses of the biographer at work and in thought.  His note, for example, attached to a glancing reference to a ribbon that Davy enclosed in a letter:

In 1795 Pitt had levied a tax on hair powder, to help raise funds for military campaigns abroad.  The ribbon fell out of Beddoe’s letter as I unfolded it in the Truro archive, and I let out a republican whoop! that almost led to my ejection. (p. 252)

This is not just a series of scientific biographies: it is an argument about Romanticism and science, and the nature of human intellect and endeavour.  It is a deeply rewarding read.