The Age Of Wonder

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland on Sunday


The Age Of Wonder
Richard Holmes
Harper £25

Everyone knows that the Hollywood version of Frankenstein is very different from Mary Shelley’s original creation. Far less well known is that the reinvention was not done by Hollwood: it happened during Mary’s own lifetime, in stage versions that she saw herself. The age of Romanticism, as Richard Holmes reveals in this magnificent historical survey, was an age of wonder and fear, as people woke up to the sudden advances in science.

Holmes is best known as a biographer of English Romantic poets, and this interest ties with surprising ease into the science of the period. Keats wrote that on reading Homer he felt like “some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken”, and any reader in 1817 could immediately recognise this as a reference to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus twenty six years previously. Richard Dawkins has written of Keats’s supposed antipathy to science in Unweaving the Rainbow, but for Holmes the picture is far more subtle than a battle between two cultures.

Herschel is a key figure in this book, his career exemplifying the fluid nature of Romantic art and science. He started out as a composer in Hannover, then moved (like Handel) to England to further his musical career. Instead he found himself taking up astronomy, and with the help of his sister Caroline went on to discover not only Uranus, but also thousands of nebulae which he rightly took to be “island universes” – galaxies beyond our own – presumably hosting intelligent life. He inferred there was nothing special about Earth or humanity – an idea that made the young Percy Bysshe Shelley become an atheist.

Holmes structures his book through the lives of Herschel and other leading players, starting with Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook to Tahiti and went on to serve as President of the Royal Society for four decades. There is also the ill-fated Scottish explorer Mungo Park, and the chemist Humphry Davy, famous in his lifetime not only for the safety lamp, but also for Royal Institution lectures that made him a public figure akin to Dawkins or Hawking in our own age.

Something that links these disparate personalities is the idea of solitary exploration. Banks’s expedition was a collaborative effort, but he gladly sponsored the “natural loner” Park, whose Travels In The Interior of Africa established him, Holmes writes, as “the essential Romantic explorer”. Herschel, too, valued solitude, to the point of obsession, though he could not have worked without the assistance of his long-suffering sister, as Holmes touchingly describes. And Davy did much of his work alone – or else left his lab and his wife to go fly-fishing. According to Holmes, Davy’s last book, Consolations in Travel, is “one of the most extraordinary books of the late Romantic period”, belonging to the same genre as Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria or De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

The image of the lone explorer was what Mary Shelley fictionalised in Frankenstein – even taking the scientist and his creation to the icy wastes of the Alps. In the book, there is none of the life-giving electrical apparatus we know from film – these were inspired by reanimation experiments done in the 1820s. Mary was never consulted about the changes made in the stage versions, but nor did she object.

The focus on lives and personalities makes this a lively and engrossing read, though some of the themes can feel a little forced, such as a digression on the craze for ballooning. This is also very much an Anglo-centric account, in which major European figures such as Rousseau, Schiller or Goethe appear only marginally. Holmes does, though, make the fascinating suggestion that a model for Victor Frankenstein may have been Johann Ritter, a German physicist whose possible influence on the music of Robert Schumann was noted in Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation.

What Holmes does convey, quite brilliantly, is the interconnectedness of intellectual life at the time. Humphrey Davy was related through marriage to Walter Scott, who knew Mungo Park. Visitors to Herschel’s observatory included Joseph Haydn (who went on to compose The Creation) and Byron. When Herschel died in 1822, the long obituary in the Gentlemen’s Magazine was immediately followed by a short notice on the drowned Percy Shelley. If a single unifying thesis does not emerge from this book, perhaps it is because there cannot be one. Instead we have a splendid joining together of numerous parts to form a vivid picture of the times.