TRANSFORMATIONS OF ELECTRICITY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE AND SCIENCE by Stella Pratt-Smith, Reviewed by Paul Gilmore
 

TRANSFORMATIONS OF ELECTRICITY IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE AND SCIENCE
By Stella Pratt-Smith
(Routledge, 2015) x +176 pp.
Reviewed by Paul Gilmore on 2018-01-05.

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This book illuminates the transition of electricity from a mysterious phenomenon at the beginning of the nineteenth century to its implementation as a major force of modernity by the end of the century. Moving from canonical works of British literature and writings by electrical scientists to more popular and utopian works, Stella Pratt-Smith elaborates metaphorical uses of electricity as well as the development of theories and ideas about its physical nature and practical uses. While charting the transformation of electricity throughout the century, she foregrounds the period between 1831, when Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetism, and 1881, which marked the first public supply of electricity.

In order, her five chapters survey electrical metaphors in novels, poetic uses of electricity and the poetics of scientific writings on it, popularizations of scientific knowledge about it, short stories involving it, and utopian fictions about it. Each of these chapters is both panoramic in its vision and specific in its examples. While covering a wide range of writings, they offer some keen insights into the intersection of science and literature. The book limits its scope by treating only British examples, and it sometimes falls into merely cataloguing the appearance of electricity in literature. Overall, though, this book succeeds as both an introduction to the relationship between electricity and literature in nineteenth-century Britain and a significant addition to the specialized scholarship on literature, science, and technology during this key period.

At its core, Pratt-Smith's analysis emerges from the enigmatic nature of electricity and the questions it raised for scientists and practitioners as well as for writers striving to define its characteristics and potential uses. Sometimes the book merely classifies the various ways in which electricity was represented. But at its best, it deeply examines the problems and possibilities that electricity materialized and shows how they informed both scientific thinking and--more broadly--symbolic and verbal representation.

Chapter 1 begins by treading some familiar ground. "[N] ineteenth-century authors," we are told, "viewed electricity with an unusual combination of fascination, delight and wariness" as electricity became "a signifier of volatility, speed and invisibility," and authors used it metaphorically to represent "the immediacy of emotions such as love and fear, as well as metaphysical connections" (16, 34). In turning to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race, the second half of the chapter breaks some new ground, especially in the provocative claim with which it ends: the literary status of a text was inversely affected by the depth of its technical engagement with electricity. "[N] ovels that foregrounded electricity or wrote about it more directly," Pratt-Smith writes, were "quickly pigeonholed--or even relegated--to the lower genre of 'science fiction'" (34). This claim is worth exploration, but the author does not substantiate it. She scarcely examines the reception of the novels she discusses or shows how their literary status suffered from their involvement with the science and technology of electricity.

In chapter 2, Pratt-Smith more persuasively turns from appearances of electricity in novels to the poetic dimensions of writings by scientists, specifically Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. As an invisible phenomenon, electricity pushed scientific thinkers towards mathematical models. While this kind of abstraction might seem antagonistic to the creativity of poetry, Pratt-Smith disagrees. In both their experimentation and in their theorizing, she argues, scientists such as Faraday and Maxwell demonstrate that "speculation is a vital component that is shared by both mathematics and verbal forms of knowledge-making" (47). Besides formulating the mathematics of electricity, Maxwell actually wrote poetry. While scholars such as Barri Gold in ThermoPoetics (MIT Press, 2010) have touched on this point, Pratt-Smith explains--perhaps more clearly than anyone else so far--how Maxwell's poetry corresponds with his mathematical modelling of electromagnetism. In words that might be taken as the thesis of the book, she writes:

It was electricity's characteristically elusive nature to which both scientists and fiction writers responded. Science struggled to establish and represent its substance, while fiction writers reflected on the ramifications of its allure. Both were essentially literary responses and, as Faraday's experiments and Maxwell's analogies and poems illustrate, they demanded similar techniques. Reading them alongside one another indicates how the fundamental distinctions between the two tended to break down, revealing their intrinsically interrelated nature. (69)

Overall, this seems to me the strongest chapter in the book. But like the other chapters, it misses some opportunities to develop intriguing claims. In particular, I would like to have seen more evidence for and exploration of the idea that "the investigation of electricity was central" to the "unique and profound conceptual transitions" of science in the nineteenth century (37). Pratt-Smith repeats this claim in the next chapter: while the revolutionary nature of electricity, she writes, has been less recognized than the theories of evolution or geology, it nonetheless "caused a radical upheaval of Victorian perceptions about the natural world" (102). But how did it transform those perceptions? How exactly did the exploration of electricity shape the thinking and practices of scientists more broadly? How did it inform the epistemological debates among John Herschel, William Whewell, and John Stuart Mill, or the work of scientists like Charles Lyell, Mary Somerville, or Charles Darwin, or the Bridgewater Treatises written in the wake of Faraday's discovery? Pratt-Smith clearly knows the broad history of nineteenth-century British science quite well, but perhaps because she draws the boundaries of her study too tightly, she does not place electricity within that history as well as she might have.

Turning to Whewell early in the third chapter, Pratt-Smith aims to show how "understanding electricity exemplified the essential relationship between the active mind and scientific progress" (77). But as a whole, the chapter as a whole highlights the "publishing opportunities" furnished by the popularization of "specialist electrical investigations" (71). Here as elsewhere, Pratt-Smith demonstrates that the lines of influence went both ways, for the still indeterminate nature of electricity led popular writers to speculate on its physical properties in ways that sometimes influenced scientific thought and experiments. Non-fiction writers, she says, "used the literary possibilities of the periodical to shape popular awareness of ideas about electricity," and thus helped to shape "contemporary perceptions of electricity and experimentation" (84). Thoughtfully and thoroughly describing four representative pieces, this chapter once again manifests Pratt-Smith's firm grasp of the history of British science and British literature. Nevertheless, the chapter stops short of generating the provocative analyses it might have offered.

The last two chapters examine, respectively, the place of electrical science in popular periodical fiction and in utopian novels. Chapter 4 explains how electricity became a fruitful topic of romances and how short popular fiction--unlike scientific discourse--often stressed the dangers of electricity. But Pratt-Smith doesn't adequately explain why or how such developments came to characterize these genres.

The last chapter, the shortest one in the book, provides the longest sustained treatment of any one text, Benjamin Lumley's Another World (1873). Set on a planet called Montalluyah, this novel seems to offer "an extravagant fantasy about electricity as a perfect route to technological advancement and social progress" (146). Detailing Lumley's earlier popularization of scientific and electrical advances in the press and examining critical and popular responses to his novel, Pratt-Smith argues that it actually treats electricity with ambivalence--as a force that both epitomizes and undermines the natural order. In thus exemplifying the diverse nineteenth-century responses to the technological and imaginative potential of electricity, Lumley's novel aptly serves as a conclusion to this study.

This book demonstrates what Pratt-Smith claims in chapter 4: that "electricity was in no way distinct from other spheres of Victorian experience, imagination, and culture; rather than belonging to a solely scientific sphere, electricity was inextricably linked to numerous other, sometimes unexpected, aspects of contemporary life" (133). Giving most of her attention to non-canonical and seldom-read works, she shows how such writings had more "substantial influence on contemporary society than canonical works" (163). Although I would like to have seen further development of her more speculative and ambitious claims, she produces a thorough and important overview of electricity in nineteenth-century British culture and literature, and thus makes an important contribution to our understanding of the relation between the literature and the science of that period.

Paul Gilmore is Administrative Dean of the Honors College, Rutgers University-New Brunswick.


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