QUESTIONING NATURE: BRITISH WOMEN'S SCIENTIFIC WRITING AND LITERARY ORIGINALITY, 1750-1830 by Melissa Bailes, Reviewed by Philipp Erchinger
 


QUESTIONING NATURE: BRITISH WOMEN'S SCIENTIFIC WRITING AND LITERARY ORIGINALITY, 1750-1830
By Melissa Bailes
(Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2017) vii + 263 pp.
Reviewed by Philipp Erchinger on 2019-12-12.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.
>

It seems fair to say that for quite some time, the work of women writers such as Anna Letitia Barbauld and Charlotte Smith has been moving toward the center of Romantic studies. But given the now well-established literary / historical significance and influence of many of these writers, why were they ever considered marginal? As Melissa Bailes's solidly researched and richly detailed study suggests, some answers to this question may be found by exploring the relationship between Romantic women's writing and natural history.

To a substantial and-- from today's perspective--quite astonishing degree, this field of early scientific enquiry, which includes botany, zoology, and geology, inspired and informed the work of many female writers of the period. More importantly, Bailes argues, the study of natural history, as conducted through the generically diverse writings of these women, entailed notions of collaborative authorship and intertextual exchange that were often at odds with the emerging discourse of the poet as an inspired visionary, a typically male "solitary genius" (97) working all by himself. Exactly how, Bailes asks, did the scientifically inflected writings of Romantic-era female authors respond to, or participate in, this emerging discourse of poetic creativity and originality? By answering this question, Bailes seeks to show how the work of these women "both shaped the literary canon and led to their exclusion from it" (1).

As Bailes explains in her introduction, female writers of the Romantic period sought to derive new forms and ideas from natural history because, by the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was widely felt that poetry could no longer be made by imitation and emulation of classical sources alone. Instead, poetry now entered a field of uncertainty: the study of nature, where all matters were still subject to investigation and debate. According to Bailes, women writers frequently sought to achieve originality by taking part in these enquiries and debates, by referring to, correcting, or translating the work of other naturalists in their texts. In doing so, they often combined natural philosophy and poetic form as well as prose and verse. At the same time, they repeatedly marked the differences between scientific and poetic modes of literary work.

A case in point is the work of Anna Letitia Barbauld, which is discussed in the first chapter. While appropriating natural history for poetic purposes, Barbauld also clearly separated her educational prose, mainly addressed to children, from her poetic verse, which she designed primarily "to please" (24). In some measure, therefore, she deviated from her younger brother John Aikin, whose Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry (1777) influentially proposed that natural history could be used to reinvigorate poetry. In contrast to Aikin, who even quoted one of her poems to illustrate his argument, Barbauld cautioned that excessive use of novel, unfamiliar, or abstract scientific information in poetry could impede the experience of poetic delight. As Bailes suggests, Barbauld's way of merging poetry and natural history while highlighting their differences represents, last but not least, an attempt to outline a specifically female approach to poetic originality.

Barbauld's "The Caterpillar," for instance, is said to unify the zoologists's interest in the minute particulars of an organism with the poet's commitment to "imaginative pleasure" (42) and "moral sentiment" (44). This poem would probably not strike most modern readers as "scientific," a term that Bailes uses in a very wide sense. Yet according to Bailes, it shows how women could do science on their own terms. While remaining, sometimes quite deliberately, outside of the emerging institutions of scientific education reserved for men, they could still participate in the world of natural history.

By foregrounding specifically female conceptions of scientific writing, Bailes distinguishes her work from previous books on the relation between poetry and natural history in the Romantic period: books such as Noah Heringman's Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology (2004), Robert Mitchell's Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature (2013), Jon Klancher's Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age (2013), and Amanda Jo Goldstein's Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (2017). In contrast with all of these studies, Bailes's book analyzes the originality of what her sub-title calls "women's scientific writing." Above all, it comprehensively surveys a large body of Romantic work in natural history that has been unduly neglected for far too long.

That said, Bailes's argument leaves a number of questions unresolved. To begin with, she concedes that "the autonomous poet" is at best a "trope," a figure of speech that does not adequately represent any "reality" of Romantic-era authorship, whether male or female (116). Yet this putative autonomy is what the women writers of her study are supposed to have opposed, creating "intertextual modes of originality that competed with now-conventional ideas of solitary Romantic genius" (1). By assuming, moreover, that the poetic genius has typically been conceived as male, Bailes posits a simple opposition: female composition is collaborative, empiricist, and focused on multiple particulars; male creation is single-minded, idealist, and bound to imaginative wholes.

At the end of the first chapter, for example, Bailes compares Barbauld's conception of natural history with Wordsworth's account of the relation between poetry and science in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. According to Bailes, Wordsworth's distinction between the sensation-based stance of the poet and the detached attitude of the "Man of Science" tends "to de-legitimize women's versifications of natural history, consciously reclaiming poetry as a more strictly imaginative, masculine vocation" (45). As she herself points out, however, the science that Wordsworth opposes to poetry is the disciplined, increasingly compartmentalised and narrow-minded science of "the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist" (qtd. 45). By contrast, the natural history conceived by Aikin and Barbauld constitutes a wide and open field that could easily accommodate aesthetic practices such as painting and poetry. In short, Wordsworth and Barbauld seem to argue from different notions of "science," one narrow and the other broad. Is it right, then, to say that Barbauld merely "qualifies" the use of science "in verse" whereas Wordsworth "precludes" it (46)? Frankly, I am not so sure.

The problem here, it seems to me, is that Bailes's key terms are indeterminate. While applying a very broad, fluid, and heteregeneous concept of "women's scientific writing," she nevertheless implies that it can be clearly distinguished from both male science and male poetry. To make this claim persuasive, she would need to clarify the meaning of terms such as "science," "poetry," and "literature." Even if Wordsworth sought "to masculinize both poetry and pleasure" (44) by locating its source in states of mind and imagination, rather than in the detailed empirical study of the natural world (Barbauld's domain), we may still wonder if the same applies to poets such as John Clare and Robert Burns.

Aside from these questions, however, Bailes's readings are mostly convincing. In chapter 2, for example, we learn that Maria Riddell, in her Voyages to the Madeira, and Leeward Caribbean Isles (1792), pays special attention to seemingly hybrid or transitional forms of organic life as well as to the modification of animals and plants by human intervention. This interest in biological hybridity corresponds, Bailes argues, with Riddell's use of an equally varied and flexible form of writing which, in the spirit and tradition of the British georgic with which it engages, mingles not only verse and prose but also personal report and detached observation.

While Riddell translated natural or artificial hybridity into literary originality, Anna Seward espoused a quite different version of "literary naturalism" (74). A staunch believer in divine design as well as the author of a critical biography of Erasmus Darwin, Seward considered hybrids to be monstrous deviations from God's original plan. Likewise judging the original poet an "instinctive genius" (84), she condemned any form of conscious borrowing or imitation as degenerate art. In her letters and biographical writings, Bailes explains, Seward presents herself as a literary naturalist in the manner of Carl Linnaeus, promulgating a taxonomy of distinct poetical kinds. Like an observer of the natural world, she "obsessively" scrutinizes the quality and constitution of literary works, dividing them into species and classes, "ordering and ranking not only individual poems but the poets themselves" (76).

Famously, Seward even publically accused her contemporary Charlotte Smith of plagiarism. According to Bailes, however, Smith drew on the work of others only to engender forms of "collective originality" (94). More specifically, Bailes argues that Smith's texts couple the spirit of the naturalist collector, who assembles and arranges what already exists, with the spirit of the poetic inventor seeking to create something altogether new. In this way, they combine the "collaborative mindset" required for the study of natural history with the individualist manner that, in the Romantic period, was increasingly associated with the poet (97). Again, this distinction was perhaps not as straightforward in practice as it was said to be in theory. Poets often worked collaboratively too, after all, and there was nothing to prevent a naturalist from pursuing her or his studies alone. Yet it is certainly true, as Bailes persuasively shows in one of the most engaging parts of her book, that Smith, like other Romantic writers, often used the example of birds to represent these two ways of being creative, associating herself both with the solitary nightingale and the more sociable swan.

From collective creation Bailes turns to the concept of "revolution," which could be geological as well as political. These two usages were combined by the cosmopolitan thinker Helen Maria Williams, who lived in France for most of her life and wrote a series of eyewitness accounts of the revolutionary years. Williams often described her political views in terms of what she learned about geographical and geological theories by translating the travel reports of Alexander von Humboldt as well as works by French naturalists such as Louis-François Ramond de Carbonnière. By contrast, Mary Shelley is said to have mined geological debates, especially those about species extinction, not so much for political as for psychological ends. In The Last Man, for example, Shelley confounds macroscopic and microscopic scales by transferring the catastrophist theories of George Cuvier and William Buckland to the "universe" of the individual mind (165).

The book concludes with a brief chapter on Felicia Hemans. In comparing Hemans's published and unpublished poetry from the 1820s and 1830s, Bailes finds that a shift towards forms of female propriety began to limit the opportunities for women to participate in scientific activities and consequently forced them to refashion their creative roles.

One of this book's key arguments is that women's writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century opposed the emergence of autonomy in literature and fine art: opposed a process of specialization and differentiation which, at least in theory, raised the source of literary originality to a sphere of imagination above the empirical world of natural historical pursuits. Because women's writing sought to define poetic novelty through and with natural history, rather than in opposition to it, Bailes argues that the rise of autonomy tended to exclude women from the literary canon. Yet she also stresses that the work of women writers helped to form the very canon that left them behind. While she does not fully explain this second claim, her book as a whole suggests that it can be construed in two ways. It can mean that female writers shaped the canon negatively, by defining "scientific literature" (202) as an alternative to "high poetry" (201). Or it can mean that women's natural history writings influenced the work of other authors positively, by opening up a new field of inspiration. Made up of scientific methods, concepts and themes, this field nurtured male poets of the second Romantic generation such as Percy B. Shelley, John Keats, and John Clare.

Read either way, the argument that women's scientific writing in the Romantic era notably helped to shape the "current literary canon" is undoubtedly a compelling reason to give that writing "a more prominent place" in it (203), as Bailes recommends. Indeed, the greatest merit of her book is that it strongly argues for the importance of rediscovering the work of women writers who were deeply involved in the empirical study of the natural world.

Bailes herself, however, often seems to work like a naturalist collector: wandering around among a large variety of materials, gathering multiple observations from the texts she studies but hardly ever dwelling on any one of them at great length. In the chapter on Shelley, for example, the visit to an Italian cavern mentioned in the introduction to The Last Man prompts Bailes to take a geological excursion of her own, leading from Cuvier's Ossemens Fossiles through Byron's Cain to the cave theory of William Buckland. Before returning to Shelley's introduction, she stops to note that one of Buckland's Oxford friends, William Daniel Conybeare, drew a cartoon of his fellow geologist, accompanied by a poem, that depicts Buckland, among "four antediluvian hyenas" (159) in one of his caves. While this accumulation of materials exemplifies the intertextual structure of The Last Man, Bailes's excursion makes us follow her through a dense composition of details and by-ways, patiently waiting for the larger picture to emerge. At least occasionally, she could have examined individual texts more closely and extensively instead of adding yet another literary historical reference to the mix. Nevertheless, those who follow her wandering footsteps will be amply rewarded in the end.

Philipp Erchinger is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern English Literature at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany.


Leave a comment on Philipp Erchinger's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments: