- Novel Science: Fiction and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Geology by Adelene Buckland
In the 1980s, Gillian Beer and George Levine pioneered a new approach to the study of nineteenth-century literature and science. They treated literature and science as forming one culture, not two, with two-way traffic taking place between literary and scientific intellectuals. Scientists were seen to be literary strategists in their own right, while scientific theories were found underpinning the structures of novels. Since 2000, a new generation of critics, following the lead of the cultural historians of science, James Secord and Bernard Lightman, has built up a more complex model of the interaction between literature and science, predicated less on culture than on multiple cultures and cultural arenas and emphasizing the specific character of different if overlapping social networks, institutions, and readerships. Adelene Buckland’s Novel Science makes an excellent contribution to this new school of historicist literature and science criticism. Although Buckland is skeptical of the theoretical framework built up in the 1980s, her own work succeeds by the lights of Beer and Levine as much as those of Secord, Lightman and their followers. Where some recent critics have turned away from conventional literary texts almost entirely to concentrate instead on science as literature or on print culture at large, Buckland retains an even balance between science writing and fiction. Indeed, although Buckland herself rejects the term ‘two-way traffic’, Novel Science stands alongside Sally Shuttleworth’s The Mind of the Child (2010) as a rare recent example of a thoroughly compelling case for such traffic between literature and science in the nineteenth century, with each discourse shaping the other. At the same time, Buckland’s book joins Ralph O’Connor’s The Earth on Show (2008) as a rigorous and thorough contribution to the history of geology and of the cultures in which it flourished.
Novel Science paints a rich picture of the cultural community of professional geology in the first half of the nineteenth century. Buckland uses letters, memoirs, and institutional archives to demonstrate the shaping influence that the novel in general and Walter Scott in particular had on how geologists conceived of their own project. Taking this argument further, she makes a strong case for seeing writing as a crucial component of science, as scientists inscribe their competing conceptions of their own disciplines through different prose styles and genres. The first half of Novel Science is a compelling exposition of this process of inscription. Buckland teases out the different literary strategies of John Playfair, Adam Sedgwick, Charles Lyell, and others as they seek modes of writing that downplay the narrative drive of the novel while paradoxically looking to Scott’s fiction for a stylistic model and point of reference.
In the second half, Buckland turns to fiction. One of the reasons for her skepticism toward 1980s criticism is that she sees it as founded on a [End Page 251] misconception of geological debate in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The familiar opposition between uniformitarianism and catastrophism was not, as literary critics have presumed, a dispute over competing plots for the history of the earth, one gradualist and secular, the other tumultuous and providential. Rather, as Buckland makes clear, it was a disagreement over scientific method between two groups equally committed to a Baconian descriptive science that ruled all such plots out of bounds. For Buckland, the significance of geology within Victorian fiction is not therefore as a source of plots but as a counterweight to them, a means of writing into a novel a world-view that exceeds all plots, diminishing their importance in order to build up a realism more true to reality in the long term than any contrived plot could hope to be. While the last two chapters, on George Eliot and Charles Dickens, are short and a little inconclusive, Buckland’s thesis is amply born out in a long and compelling discussion of Charles Kingsley, the Victorian novelist with the best hands-on knowledge of...