“CONTINUAL FOOD FOR DISCOVERY AND WONDER”: SCIENCE AND THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH LITERARY IMAGINATION FROM ERASMUS DARWIN TO H.G. WELLS
Document Type Article
A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Major: English. Under the Supervision of Professor Stephen C. Behrendt
Lincoln, Nebraska: April, 2008
Copyright (c) 2008 Michael Page
When Erasmus Darwin declared that he would “enlist the imagination under the banner of science,” imaginative writers in Britain confronted the burgeoning expansion of scientific knowledge that was radically redefining human understanding and experience of the natural world, of human societies, and of the self. The literature of the Romantic Period is a literature of change – itself a basic definition of “science” fiction – and is consistent with, and influential in the molding of, scientific and cultural perspectives shaped by evolutionary ideas. The poets Wordsworth and Shelley engaged questions raised by contemporary science in poetry and prose, and, in turn, their influential perspectives contributed to the cultures and practices of science. Imaginatively synthesizing both the developments and future possibilities of the new science and the new perspectives explored by the Romantic poets, Mary Shelley expressed both enthusiastic vindication and cautious trepidation for the unfolding prospects of Modernity in her now mythic novel Frankenstein and the mythically-charged apocalyptic novel The Last Man. Nineteenth-century science reached its apex in 1859 with Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and soon after novelists began to explore the implications of evolutionary theory and its social impact. Charles Kingsley, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Samuel Butler, Richard Jefferies, and W.H. Hudson wrote fantasies which used evolutionary metaphors to imagine future societies and to raise questions about the human condition. Such evolutionary fantasies reached the pinnacle of synthesis between evolutionary science and the imagination at the close of the nineteenth century in the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. With Wells, the intersection between literary imagination and science reached full maturity.
This dissertation traces the arc of the conversation between science and literature in Britain from Erasmus Darwin to Wells. Linking recent Romantic ecological critical perspectives with foundational science fiction criticism, I build a connective arc between those two contemporary critical conversations that extends through the Victorian era to suggest how both fields of inquiry benefit from critical synthesis.