Literary Studies

Well-Read Scientists, Well-Schooled Writers

Interview with Alice Jenkins, professor of Victorian literature in Glasgow

22. 1. 2013 | How did scientific research and literature interact in the 19th century? Alice Jenkins has pursued this question for years, with some astonishing results.
AcademiaNet: How did you first become interested in Victorian literature?

Alice Jenkins
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Alice Jenkins
Alice Jenkins: I did my first degree in English at Churchill College in Cambridge, where the student body is 70 percent scientists. I spent a lot of my time with scientists, hearing about the work that they do and the kind of questions that they ask. Getting to understand a little bit about how they approach problems was very exciting for me. That experience led me to do a PhD in Victorian literature with a particular interest in physics.

Your work looks at the emergence of the knowledge economy in the 19th century. How would you describe the knowledge economy at this time?

One of the really interesting things about the early 19th century is that it's the era of the onset of mass literacy. Putting that together with steam printing, it was a period both of new demand for print and of new means of supplying print. This meant that the knowledge economy had to completely reshape itself. It no longer comprised an elite talking to an elite; it now included a completely new sort of readership that had its own questions and ideas that it wanted to discuss. It was really the first mass moment in the history of the knowledge economy.

How did science and literature fit together during the 19th century?

The great Victorian scientists were also readers of literature. For example, I've done some work on how Michael Faraday used his reading to try to remodel the way he himself wrote, because he was trying to overcome a limited formal education. He deliberately remodelled his writing style on his favourite 18th century essayists, people like Steele and Addison and Johnson, in order to become the kind of writer whose science would be taken seriously.

And it works the other way, of course. There are many, many literary writers in the 19th century who were at the same time following scientific developments, sometimes via popularisations, sometimes in very sophisticated ways. For the Dickens bicentennial in 2012, for example, I was asked to write a piece for Nature about how Dickens writes about science. He was deeply enthusiastic about the potential that science has to open up our imaginations and to allow us to see the world in completely new, and to him enchanting and magical, ways. But he was also suspicious about people who tried to use science in rigid ways that limit the scope of the imagination or the feelings.
Euclidean geometry
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(© Oliver Byrne)

Euclidean geometry | explained by the 19th century engineer, mathematician and author Oliver Byrne, in: "The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid", London, 1847

Did people's understanding of science in the 19th century affect how they read and wrote?

Yes, very much so. One example I've been working on recently is Euclidean geometry. Training in Euclidean geometry was a hugely important part of education during this period, not just for boys and young men of the elite classes, but also, increasingly, for women, working class people, and people in the colonies. For many Victorians, Euclidean geometry stood apart from all other kinds of knowledge because it was completely certain. No other kind of knowledge - except possibly theology – could be as reliable or as guaranteed. So Euclidean geometry became a kind of gold standard for knowledge in the 19th century.

A pillar of wisdom
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A pillar of wisdom
I've recently been working on a project funded by the European Research Council to write a cultural history of Euclidean geometry in the 19th century. What I'm trying to do in this book is investigate how the fact that so many people shared this experience of learning geometry, and shared at least some geometrical knowledge, affected Victorian literary culture. One of the things I'm finding is that the spread of Euclidean references, quotations and allusions goes far, far beyond mathematics: you find them in political writings, in sermons, in poetry and journalism, you find them all over the genres of Victorian popular and elite writing. Geometry turns out to be a lens through which you can see Victorian readers and writers trying to get to grips with what truth and certainty are in their extraordinary new industrial world.

How do you share your ideas with other academics around the world?

One of my favourite ways is via the British Society for Literature and Science, which I cofounded in 2005 and which has grown to become an important forum for scholars all over the world. It's especially an important forum for historicist work on literature and science – people interested in how we can pull together history of science and literary criticism. The BSLS has established an annual conference, a major reviews website, a book prize, a newsletter, and it makes small research awards. The Society wants to develop the support that we're able to offer researchers in literature and science studies across the world.

What comes next for you after you've written your book on Euclidean geometry?

This book is part of a three volume history of Victorian rationality. The first volume is about the unity of knowledge, the Victorian idea that ultimately - it might be round the corner or it might be hundreds of years from now - we will find a way in which all knowledge unifies itself, maybe in a single equation, maybe in a single set of scientific principles. My book on that subject looks at how this belief in the ultimate unity of knowledge was immensely enabling for the Victorian knowledge economy, offering solutions to the problems of living in a world with too much information and creating routes by which knowledge could be integrated into everyday life. The second book is the one that I have described about Euclidean geometry, and the third book is going to be about inductive reasoning. We know a great deal about what the Victorians thought, on all sorts of subjects, but we need to know a lot more about how they thought, and what tools they used to help them think.

Dear Prof Jenkins, thank you very much for this interesting interview.

Interview: Helen Jaques   (© AcademiaNet)

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