- Recreating Newton: Newtonian Biography and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science
Since the 1980s historians such as Patricia Fara, Simon Schaffer, Larry Stewart, and Richard Yeo have demonstrated the divergent uses to which Isaac Newton's seemingly unquestionable authority was put in scientific and wider cultural enterprises, and shown the corresponding need to be sensitive to the complexities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Newtonianism. Rebekah Higgitt's meticulously researched Recreating Newton explores an aspect of nineteenth-century Newtonianism that will reward scholars of Victorian science, historiography, biography, and literature. What distinguishes it from the existing literature on Victorian Newtonianism is its painstaking examination of key biographies of Newton that, with a few exceptions, have been overlooked by historians, but like all biographies, tell us as much about the preoccupations of the biographers as their subject. The later biographies also help Higgitt demonstrate that "scientific" history-"history derived inductively from archival 'facts'" (189)-was being consciously developed by British natural philosophers keen to probe, question, and defend the work and character of the "archetypal scientific hero" in a period earlier than scholars have supposed British historians began to adopt the methods of Leopold von Ranke and other German scholars (100).
Three of the biographies analysed here-the first English translation of Jean Baptiste Biot's entry on Newton for the Biographie Universelle (1822), David Brewster's hugely popular Life of Sir Isaac Newton (1831), and Francis Baily's Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed (1835)-are not, strictly speaking, Victorian works, but later editions of Brewster's text were printed well into the 1870s, and all the biographies helped define the terms of the Victorian debates on Newton's moral and scientific characteristics. Many readers will share my disappointment that there are only passing references to William Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) which was a monumental contribution to the ongoing Victorian debate about the form and uses of the history of science and what it meant to be Newtonian. While Recreating Newton defers to and complements the excellent secondary literature on Whewell's Newton, its arguments would have been strengthened by closer comparative analysis of this influential Newton with those covered in the book.
Higgitt's analysis shows in more detail than hitherto achieved how Newton was recreated to serve the rival interests of his biographers. Thus the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge's "translation" of Biot's text rendered him more suitable for their intended artisanal audiences by downplaying the image of Newton as a Romantic genius and making the corresponding suggestion that the great philosopher's mental breakdown owed more to overwork than to inspiration. Brewster's rival [End Page 168] portrayal of Newton as an inspired genius countered this utilitarian philosophy and enacted his own experiences of a nation neglecting a scientific worthy and constituted another contribution to the intense early-nineteenth-century debate over the "decline of science." One of the first and most comprehensively documented critiques of Brewster's heroic Newton was Baily's sympathetic biography of Newton's contemporary and adversary, the first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed. For Baily, a wealthy stockbroker-turned-astronomer and vigorous campaigner for the reform of the Royal Society, Flamsteed's dispute with Newton reflected contemporary fights between, on the one hand, bourgeois mathematical practitioners (Flamsteed/Baily) promoting an empirical, painstaking, and collective approach to knowledge, and on the other, autocratic and devious Royal Society presidents (Newton/Joseph Banks) who exploited the labours and thwarted the ambitions of others.
The second half of Recreating Newton will be especially rewarding to Victorianists because this is where Higgitt links changes in approaches to Newton biography to broader shifts in historiography, although this section would have been more effective if framed by a more detailed engagement with recent secondary literature on Victorian biography and history. Following Baily's example, writers such as Stephen Rigaud, Joseph Edleston, and Augustus De Morgan rejected Whewellian grand narratives and Brewsterian hagiography. They instead presented...