In this rich and varied study, Mary Fairclough presents the ‘productive obscurities’ (p. 176) of electrical science and figuration in scientific, satirical, moral and political writings, where electricity is used to explore or contest other unexplained forces such as sexual attraction, the principle of life, or the spread of radical ideas. Fairclough argues convincingly that ‘the language of electricity is never confined to natural philosophy in this period’ (p. 2) and that this language is both descriptive and productive (p. 2). An impressive array of materials is garnered to demonstrate the remarkably fruitful ‘textual life’ (p. 7) of electricity—from Benjamin Martin’s early electrical demonstrations in the 1740s up to the eventual demystification and taxonomizing of electrical phenomena by Michael Faraday in the 1830s—as a subject demanding imaginative engagement and representing ‘the mysterious, unprecedented or opaque aspects of cultural and political life’ (p. 5). After establishing the status of electricity as an inexplicable phenomenon that resists rational explanations, the first chapter sets out the fashion for electrical science in Benjamin Martin’s early experiments in the manipulation of static electricity. Fairclough shows how the treatment of electricity as an ‘imponderable fluid’, alongside heat, light and magnetism, occasions both public wonder and scientific embarrassment. The second chapter investigates the debate between matter and spirit in the eighteenth century and Fairclough counters J. L. Heilbron’s claims for the secularizing of eighteenth-century physics to argue convincingly for the presence of divine references in electrical literature (p. 34). Although this is by no means a novel interpretation, it allows for a comprehensive reading of natural philosophy in the broadest terms. Isaac Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia (1713) and the Opticks (1704), in which Newton develops his theories from the operation of a ‘subtle spirit’ to the understanding of electricity as the visible effects of the spiritual aether, are identified as key sources for the understanding of electrical aether. Noting the ‘theological flexibility of the language of electrical aethers’ (p. 43), Fairclough surveys a range of discussions about aether as a material form in its relationship to electricity, moving from Benjamin Martin’s endorsement of the experimental method, to George Berkeley’s anima mundi as an alternative figuration of electricity, to Benjamin Franklin’s recognition of ‘electrical fire’ as a ‘material phaenomena for which a quotidian language must be found’ (p. 53). This chapter therefore alerts readers to the ‘peculiar status’ of electricity as explanations oscillate between material and spiritual terms (p. 69). A swift sleight of hand is employed in the transition to this monograph’s second key topic of politics. The experimental approach of Joseph Priestley and his successor Adam Walker is introduced to exemplify key developments in the understanding of matter and spirit in the 1760s, and Fairclough sees wider implications in ‘[t]heir assertion of an inherent active force in matter itself ’ as ‘anticipating later claims for electricity as a “vital” property of a democratic, inclusive politics’ (p. 69). This crucial turning point is also the place at which the diversity of material threatens to destabilize the clarity of the argument. However, engagement with the recent upsurge in studies of metaphor and analogy enables Fairclough to make a specific case for the ‘self-consciousness’ of electrical references as a unique feature of the porosity between categories of knowledge in the period (p. 27). Fairclough is at pains to establish common ground between conventional literary material such as poems and novels and a broad range of philosophical writings, political polemic and ephemera. Whilst this is fully consonant with an eighteenth-century reader’s concept of ‘letters’, the transition between different textual forms is occasionally under-advertised. Fairclough’s case is most compelling where she applies the analysis of slippery metaphors to the interplay between scientific and popularly consumed forms such as satirical pamphlets and the best-selling works of Erasmus Darwin and Mary Shelley. In this respect this book also provides a welcome intervention on the relationship between science and politics, given that the latter is routinely neglected in histories of science in this period. The third chapter accesses the idea of electrical contagion through a lively discussion of the somatic basis of electrical theories. Fairclough shows how the body electric spans a whole range of genres, breaking down any sense of formal boundaries between schools of thought that are affected by electricity. Fairclough identifies the link between health, sex and electricity as a basis for the use of electricity as a figure for erotic attraction in texts such as Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748) and this identification gives way to a survey of satirical and scientific material from William Stukeley’s unpublished notebooks of 1754 to James Graham’s electrical fertility therapies in his so-called ‘celestial bed’. Fairclough redeems Graham’s reputation through detailed accounts of the scientific basis of his work, whilst also exploring the satirical exploitation of electric erotica in pamphlets and poems. A discussion of Della Cruscan poets’ manipulation of electrical imagery, reveals electricity’s status as a distinctive resource for expressing ‘felt emotions and sensations’ (p. 107). The fourth chapter opens where other histories of electricity tend to begin: Luigi Galvani’s experiments with animal electricity in the 1780s and 1790s. Fairclough identifies here a key turning point in the development of ‘a full experimental programme and philosophical analysis of an electrical “vital spirit”’ (p. 121). Drawing on Galvani’s Commentary of the Effects of Electricity on Muscular Motion (1791), Fairclough explores the connections between nervous movements and obscure sensations with incisive readings of Erasmus Darwin’s poetry and science. The focus is more explicitly political in the description of radical and conservative accounts of the spread of revolutionary fervour in the works of, inter alios, John Courtney, Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Thelwall. Fairclough shows how, even in the 1790s, the instability of electricity is key: ‘through their embrace of figurative play these writers can exploit, rather than distrust, electricity’s indeterminacy’ (p. 163). The fifth chapter moves to Humphry Davy’s electrochemistry and Alessandro Volta’s creation of the ‘galvanic pile’ that—finally—enabled the production of a sustained electrical current. We see, then, ‘a new era in electrical research’, though Fairclough claims that ‘this is not necessarily a new era of clarity and specialisation’ (p. 175). Fairclough develops Sharon Ruston’s work on the connections between Davy’s inorganic chemistry, conflicting ideas about vitalism and even Shelley’s exploration of vitality in Frankenstein, to underline the ‘productive obscurities’ of the debate. Faraday’s definition of electricity as ‘an abstract “power” that might be subject to rules and even calculations’ marks the end point of this experimental and imaginative engagement (p. 224). The epilogue of this illuminating study emphasizes the significance of a century of ‘insights, errors and play’ in the construction of electrical knowledge (p. 232). Fairclough’s readable, lively, and often entertaining study demonstrates a fruitful engagement with ‘Electrick communication’ as a source of textual, somatic, and chemical enquiry in the period that challenges disciplinary boundaries and is important reading for literary scholars of the long eighteenth century, students of the period’s popular culture, and historians of science. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 6, 2017
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