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  • Questioning Nature: British Women's Scientific Writing and Literary Originality, 1750-1830 by Melissa Bailes
  • Lauren Cameron
QUESTIONING NATURE: BRITISH WOMEN'S SCIENTIFIC WRITING AND LITERARY ORIGINALITY, 1750-1830, by Melissa Bailes. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017. 272 pp. $45.00 cloth; $45.00 ebook.

Melissa Bailes's much-needed study of the originality of Romantic women's scientific verse, Questioning Nature: British Women's Scientific Writing and Literary Originality, 1750-1830, fills a gap in existing scholarship on the era, women's writing of the time, and the dynamic hybridity of literary-scientific productions. Beginning with a tightly argued introduction, which establishes dominant male discourses and histories as well as often-overlooked counternarratives emphasizing the role of men and women alike in constructing a complicated and innovative intertextual culture, Bailes clearly articulates the sociological and literary implications of naturalists' methods and conclusions during the Romantic era. She often eschews easy and familiar references, such as to Erasmus Darwin's botanical poetry or Anglican clergymen's natural historical pursuits, for the sake of developing a more focused and distinctive intellectual history of influence and debates. She returns to Darwin at a later point in her argument, when she can situate his work in a more distinct context and develop her ideas about his relevance in greater depth. Bailes consistently [End Page 201] demonstrates the ways in which imaginative (as opposed to scientific) women writers adopted scientific models, terms, and topics as both naturalists and creative writers struggled with issues of originality during the Romantic era. Romantic originality, she argues, often arose from women's direct intertextual engagement with scientific writings more than from men turning to scientific sources to address their concerns about poetry's place in the modern world.

The structure of the book is striking in its thoughtful construction: two chapters focus on the work of Anna Barbauld and Maria Riddell, exploring the rise of Romantic women writers' use of natural history to achieve and interrogate literary originality; two chapters examine this literary trend at its height through the work of Anna Seward and Charlotte Smith; and two chapters consider the end of this historical moment and its possibilities through the work of Helen Maria Williams and Mary Shelley. The conclusion, then, looks forward from the 1820s to the 1880s, tracing the literary and historical trends discussed throughout Bailes's book. The rise and fall traced over the course of the chapters is a welcome change from the tendency of similar scholarship to examine a string of literary case studies in historical order with little more in the way of an organizational principle.

Beginning with the Barbauld chapter and continuing throughout the book, Bailes constructs a richly researched and clearly articulated argument that displays an impressive depth of understanding of each writer's milieu, personal history, and patterns of thinking. She explores both well-established and novel readings of Romantic women's writing that focus on strictly gendered receptions and influences while also breaking down such gendered distinctions where appropriate. Connections to more canonical male writers consistently enhance her study of female writers' literary and scientific productions rather than overshadow them. Bailes's work insightfully identifies and analyzes misogynistic reactions to women writing about science, including a prominent section in the Riddell chapter that should be of particular interest to scholars of eighteenth-century transatlanticism, as Riddell thought carefully about the kind of transatlantic and intertextual exchange that her personal experiences embodied. Women's perspectives on the transatlantic travel of bodies and ideas are too often relegated to a singular study if they are critically examined at all. Bailes does an admirable job of considering Riddell's work in its individual and broader literary and social contexts.

The third chapter presents a persuasive analysis of Seward's critiques of Smith, built on the chapter's focus on Seward's critiques of Darwin, thus bringing a fresh angle to a famous literary and interpersonal feud. Smith, for her part, does not emerge from the conflicts with Seward as spotless as is often the case in studies of their well-known antipathy. Furthermore, Bailes effectively complicates existing critical views on Smith's use of [End Page 202...


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