- Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783–1786 by Clare Brant
Clare Brant's book, Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783–1786, lands amid a flurry of recent studies examining the rise, and sometimes spectacular falls, associated with the invention of hot air and hydrogen balloons. In the last ten years scholars have approached this topic from a variety of viewpoints. These include Mi Gyung Kim's The Imagined Empire: Balloon Enlightenments in Revolutionary Europe (2016), Marie Thébaud-Sorger's L'aérostation au temps des Lumières (2009), the "balloonomania" chapter in Paul Keen's Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity (2012), and Richard Holmes' Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (2013) among other books and articles on the subject, some of which appeared in the pages of Eighteenth-Century Studies. The first question one must ask, then, is whether or not another balloon book is necessary.
Brant approaches her book acutely aware of the morass of current balloon scholarship awaiting her as well as the older literature dominated by L.T.C. Rolt, J.E. Hodgson, and, of course, C.C. Gillispie. As such, Brant seeks to carve out her niche with appropriate assiduity. As suggested in her title, Brant claims she will focus on Britain and only on the first three years. These years are, arguably, the period in which balloon enthusiasm erupted most strongly although they certainly were not the only stage in which balloons played a significant role in public and private events. Brant seeks to explore, in broad terms, how people appropriated balloons within the social and cultural imagination including, but not limited to, the literary world. Brant eschews the approach taken by historians of science, who in her characterization focus largely on ballooning as an experiment or on the experiments conducted during balloon launches. Brant, instead, wants to grapple with the balloon imagination beyond such experimentation and throughout the landscape of Britain. The only limits Brant places on herself are geographical and chronological, although she breaks those limits when the occasion calls for it. [End Page 368]
Brant organizes the book into four large categories, each comprised of between two and five chapters. A final two chapters trace the story from the eighteenth century to the present. The first section, "Ascending," includes an introduction along with the first two substantive chapters. Brant lays out her argument, and provides an overview of the structure of the book, in the Introduction titled, appropriately enough, "Beginnings." From here, Brant takes the reader on a tour of aeronautical anxieties and anticipations, in Chapters 1 and 2, describing just how fervently people engaged with balloons. These chapters argue for a medical and psychological assault on the senses causing people to suffer from "balloon madness," albeit often willingly and with great enthusiasm. The first chapter provides a general overview of the rage for balloons linking developing medical notions of madness with the myriad descriptions of people's behavior toward the new invention. The second chapter takes us into mind of William Windham who recorded in his diary an obsession with aeronautics. Brant argues that the impact of balloons on Windham reveals he underwent something of a transformative experience. Taken in general terms, balloons could alter people's behavior, as they did with Windham.
Brant labels the second main section, comprising two chapters, "The Craze Spreads." The third chapter, "People and Places," offers a narrative in which Brant takes the reader on something of a whirlwind tour of the British Isles stopping just long enough in each location to provide a thumbnail sketch of whoever the local balloonist might have been along with the success or failure of their launches. All the major players and usual suspects appear here including, among others, James Tytler in Edinburgh, Richard Crosbie in Dublin, Thomas Baldwin in Chester, Vincenzo Lundardi across the North of England, James Sadler in Oxford, and Jean-Pierre Blanchard in London. Less well known balloonists also get...