Although C18 Romanticism grew as a reaction to the cold rationality of the Enlightenment, which reached the depths of brutality in the excesses of the French Revolution, Richard Holmes challenges the view that the subjectivity of Romanticism was consistently opposed to the objectivity of scientific advances. He explores what he defines as the “Age of Wonder”, the fertile and inspiring period involving discovery of the natural world through exploration, overseas and vertically into the heavens, and inventions in the use of energy, such as gas or electricity. This period is bounded by two famous voyages: Captain Cook’s expedition to Tahiti aboard the Endeavour starting in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s to the Galapagos Islands on the Beagle in 1831.
This fascinating and very readable book, which sets science in an intriguing social context and makes it accessible to a reader with little prior knowledge, is like a series of mini-biographies. It begins with Joseph Banks, who as an energetic and charismatic young self-taught botanist not only collected an impressive range of plants, but demonstrated broad-minded skill in living with the native Tahitians on equal terms, negotiating the crew’s way out of awkward situations with his flexibility – the lack of this no doubt led to Cook’s brutal murder on a subsequent voyage without Banks.
The next subject is William Herschel, again self-taught, who developed astronomy with his mapping of the heavens, and discoveries of the planet Uranus and numerous nebulae, assisted by his long-suffering and underestimated sister Caroline, “the tough little German” who painstakingly recorded his observations as he “kept his eye clear” by gazing without interruption into the telescopes he had constructed himself. Holmes shows us how Herschel’s work inspired Romantic poets like Shelley, Byron and Coleridge to include references to the moon and boundless universe in their work.
The development of balloons, starting with the Montgolfier, improbably made from paper and named after the wealthy manufacturer of that product, led to a mania for this type of transport which often ended in tragedy, and justified Joseph Banks’ reservations about its usefulness, in his important role in as President of the Royal Society, a talent-spotter and promoter of worthwhile scientific projects.
Humphrey Davy is also a major player, risking his life experimenting with nitrous oxide, the laughing gas which, seeming like the C18 equivalent of smoking pot, made Davy for a while the butt of mockery in the scurrilous press, although his discovery of the miner’s safety lamp was much admired.
Holmes ranges widely: the frequent rivalry between what were at first vaguely called “natural philosophers”, only recognised after heated debate as “scientists” from 1833; the attempts to interpret and popularise science for the public by writers including the mathematician Mary Somerville, at a time when women were only allowed to selected meetings of the “Literary and Philosophical” societies springing up round the country; the tendency to skirt round the issue that ongoing discoveries of astronomical “deep space” and geological “deep time” tended to threaten “safe religious belief” with “dangerous secular materialism” – for the “Age of Wonder” preceded the bombshell of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, not published until 1859.