06 July 2017

Review: Novel Science by Adelene Buckland

Hardcover, 377 pages
Published 2013
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2016
Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology
by Adelene Buckland

This fits comfortably into the "x and literature" model of Victorian literary criticism, where x is a scientific discipline: geology, in this case. Buckland explores how geology itself is a narrative, arguing, "there can be no meaningful distinction between science and literature, since writing can be (though it is not restricted to being) a mode of scientific practice" (26). I think that's overstating the case a bit, but Buckland's mission is, in my view, to show how literary narratives appear in geology, and how geological narratives appear in literature.

It's not the easiest read, even for literary criticism it's dense and obscure. I liked Buckland's discussions of the influence of Sir Walter Scott on nineteenth-century geology, and I really appreciated her clear delineation of what Charles Lyell and his colleagues actually believed (she argues the "catastrophist"/"uniformitarian" divide was exaggerated).

In these kind of books, I'm always much more interested in the literature than the science, and I much appreciated a thorough discussion of Charles Kingsley, moreso than I can remember seeing anywhere else. Everyone loves to talk about The Water-Babies, but (like me) Buckland recognizes his other writing has a lot to offer those interested in science, and provides extended readings of Glaucus, Alton Locke, Yeast, and Two Years Ago. I'm very familiar with the last of those; now I must get around to the first three. I'm also very curious about the scientist romance Wooers and Winners by Isabella Banks that she discusses.

I found her interpretations of Charlotte Brontë and Dickens less interesting, because I think the novels she discusses are less obviously about geology than the ones by Kingsley, and thus she's more doing the "but novel y is secretly about science x!" move that I'm a bit skeptical of. She kind of admits that, though, when she says Dickens knew science through its showmen: thus his science was visual, not textual.

A decent book if you like this kind of approach to literature and science.

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