By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

12. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 325-361

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Dr Frankenstein and the Soul, 4-7; Davy and the Lamp, 1-3
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was "the most singular literary response to the Vitalism debate." She had heard Davy lecture on chemistry in 1812, when she was only fourteen, and when she came to write her novel she would draw on the published version of Davy's "Introductory Discourse" in the part where the young medical student Victor Frankenstein hears Prof. Waldman lecture. Percy Shelley, with whom she  eloped to France and Switzerland in 1814, was fascinated by the question of creating artificial life, and during their stay at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in 1816, they discussed Aldini's galvanic experiments with Byron and Polidori. It was then that they set each other a challenge to write a tale of horror. The others dashed off their responses, but Mary took her time -- fourteen months. In August 1817, she sent the manuscript of Frankenstein to the publisher three weeks before she gave birth to a daughter, Clara.

The character of Victor Frankenstein evokes many of the age's scientists: Joseph Priestley, Henry Cavendish, Humphry Davy, "the sinister Aldini and the glamorous, iconoclastic William Lawrence may all have contributed something to the portrait." The best-known German physiologist of the day was Johann William Ritter, who was "known for certain undefined 'galvanic' experiments with animals, which were the talk of the Royal Society, although amidst a certain amount of head-shaking." Ritter became the target of the Prussian government for his experiments and moved to Munich, but "he died penniless and insane in 1810, aged thirty-three. In other circumstances his Memoirs might have been those of young Victor Frankenstein."

In developing the character of the Creature in her novel, Mary was forced to speculate on what ways it might be considered human: "Would it have language, would it have a moral conscience, would it have human feelings and sympathies, would it have a soul?" It's possible that Mary accompanied her husband to his consultations with Lawrence in spring 1817, and that the three of them discussed such questions, because "Mary Shelley's idea of the mind was, like Lawrence's, based on the notion of the strictly physical evolution of the brain." In his lectures in 1817, Lawrence directly addressed the question of "mind":
Where is the 'mind' of the foetus? Where is that of a child just born? Do we not see it actually built up before our eyes by the actions of the five external senses, and of the gradually developed internal faculties? Do we not trace it advancing by a slow progress from infancy and childhood to the perfect expansion of its faculties in the adult.
The Creature in the novel has the body of a fully developed man, but his mind is that of an infant. He has to acquire memories, language, a conscience. "Although galvanised into life by a voltaic spark, the Creature has no 'divine spark' from Heaven. Yet perhaps his life cold be called, in a phrase of the medical student John Keats, a 'vale of soul-making.'" (Note: Keats's image of life as a process of soul-construction persisted into the twentieth century in the poems of W.B. Yeats; see e.g. "Beggar to Beggar Cried," "Sailing to Byzantium," and especially the great valedictory of "The Tower.") Escaping from the laboratory, the Creature begins his process of awareness with a sighting of the moon. His mind, he tells us, "received, every day, additional ideas." Holmes notes that "Mary's account [of the Creature's evolution "through all the primitive stages of man"] is almost anthropological, reminiscent of Banks's account of the Tahitians."

It is solitude that proves the undoing of the Creature and turns him into a killer. He pleads with Frankenstein to create a mate for him, "offering to go westwards to South America or the Pacific, and to return to that primitive Edenic state glimpsed by Cook and Banks." But Frankenstein, in the midst of creating the mate for the Creature, is attacked by fears that they would propagate "a race of devils," so he destroys the half-finished female Creature. Frankenstein is pursued by the Creature to the North Pole, "the antithesis of the warm, Pacific paradise," where "both see themselves as fallen angels, doomed to eternal solitude and destruction."

The first publication of the novel was a failure, selling fewer than 500 copies. But it became famous in the 1820s through stage adaptations, of which there were at least five, starting with Presumption: or The Fate of Frankenstein in London in 1823. "Over the next four years there were fourteen separate productions, mounted in London, Bristol, Paris and New York." Mary Shelley made no money from the plays, which she didn't authorize, but "when she herself went to see the play in September 1823 she loved it." The actor T.P. Cooke became famous in the role of the Creature, just as Boris Karloff would in the 1931 film version. But the dramatizations turned Victor Frankenstein from "a romantic and idealistic figure, obsessive rather than evil, and determined to benefit mankind" into "the archetypal mad and evil scientist." And the Creature, which eventually became "The Monster," "is deprived of all words, whereas in the novel he is superbly and tragically articulate."

As for William Lawrence, whose quarrel with Abernethy had sparked so much debate, he renounced his own views and reconciled with Abernethy. He became a member of the conservative Council of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1829 and "finished his career as Surgeon-General to Queen Victoria, and was created a baronet. But perhaps he had lost his own soul."

In the spring of 1811, Humphry Davy met Jane Apreece, a wealthy thirty-one-year-old widow. (Her first husband died in 1809. They had no children.) She was socially prominent and well-connected, and claimed to be the model for the heroine of Madame de Staël's novel Corinne, having met de Staël in Geneva. She had once dined with William Blake and was a cousin of Walter Scott. As their attraction grew, their "friends predicted disaster. She was made for society, he was made for the laboratory." She turned down his proposals twice, but finally accepted after he told her that the Prince Regent had offered him a knighthood -- he would be the first scientist to be knighted since Isaac Newton. He received the honor on April 8, 1812, and three days later they were married.

On June 1 his book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, based on his Royal Institution lectures, "was published with a formal dedication to Lady Jane Davy." Though the rest of the book was too technical for the general reader, its introduction, "An Historical View of the Progress of Chemistry," helped popularize chemistry. "Percy Shelley began to incorporate Davy's ideas into his work, beginning with his visionary materialist poem Queen Mab of 1812, with its long scientific prose notes." But the advances in science increasingly made it difficult for poets to express scientific ideas in verse. "Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1820) was to be arguably the last successful attempt to combine the two in a major English poem." In his essay on the history of chemistry, Davy proclaimed,
The ends of this branch of knowledge are the applications of natural substances to new uses, for increasing the comforts and enjoyments of man; and for the demonstrating of the order, harmony, and intelligent design for of the system of the earth.
Setting aside that still-problematic notion of "intelligent design," Davy had made the case for amateur enthusiasts for chemistry, and the first "chemistry sets" went on the market at about this time.

Davy decided to give up his lectureship and pursue his scientific research independently, which Jane's fortune allowed him to do. He began investigating explosives as part of the British war effort, but in November 1812 he was partly blinded when a test tube exploded and sent glass slivers into his eye. As a celebrity he was subject to gossip, including a rumor that his wound was the result of a fight with Jane. When he returned to the Royal Institution laboratory in London, he found that it had been allowed to degenerate. He fired the laboratory assistant and hired a new one, twenty-one-year old Michael Faraday, who had been working as a bookbinder.

There was some tension between the Davys, mostly centered on the conflict between her socializing and his laboratory work, and his tendency to escape into his hobby of fly-fishing. But he made an effort to participate in her social life, and in 1813 he was introduced to the lion of society, Lord Byron. "Unexpectedly, Byron and Davy hit it off rather well, and later when His Lordship was self-exiled in Italy, Davy remained one of the few Englishmen that he could stand to meet. He would even put him in his poem Don Juan (1819-24)." (Along with, it might be noted, a reference to Mungo Park's travels.)
This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions:
Sir Humphry Davy's lantern, by which coals
Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions,
Tombuctoo travels, voyages to the Poles
Are ways to benefit mankind, as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.

In May 1812, an explosion in the Felling coal mine killed ninety-two men, and after another explosion in the same mine in December 1813 killed twenty-two more, it became apparent that something needed to be done urgently about the problem of "fire-damp," a lethal gas from new coal seams that could be ignited by a single candle flame. The consensus was that Davy should be called on to find a solution to the problem. But the Davys had just embarked on an eighteen-month tour of Europe, accompanied by Michael Faraday, whom Davy had singled out as a promising research assistant. Jane, on the other hand, decided to treat Faraday as a valet, since her husband refused to travel with one. In Paris, Davy was awarded the Prix Napoléon by the Institut de France, which caused him to be denounced as unpatriotic, although "Davy carefully avoided an audience with Napoleon himself, and referred to him contemptuously as 'the Corsican robber.'" He was also lured by the Académie des Sciences into a competition with the eminent French chemist Joseph Gay-Lussac, to analyze a crystal substance that was a byproduct of gunpowder manufacture. Both Davy and Gay-Lussac identified the substance as a new element, iodine. But a dispute arose after Gay-Lussac's paper was presented on December 12 and Davy's on December 13. Davy backdated his paper to December 11 when it was published in the Journal de Physique, and claimed that he had shared his ideas with Gay-Lussac before the French chemist presented his conclusions. The French still insist that Gay-Lussac was the first to identify the element.

In the spring of 1814, the party moved south. In Florence, Davy used a magnifying lens to set a diamond on fire, demonstrating that the jewel was after all just carbon. They moved on to Rome and Naples, then northward to Venice and, for the summer, crossed the Alps into Switzerland, Bavaria, and Austria, then down into one of his favorite regions in the Balkans, then known as Illyria. They returned to Florence in October, where they heard about "some strange natural gases escaping from rock formations in the Apennines at Pietra Mala, near Lucca." They were fascinated by the gas, which could even be produced by stirring the mud with a stick and burned with a blue flame. The gas had almost no smell. They bottled some of it and took it back to Florence, where they identified it as methane -- the "fire-damp" that had caused the coalmine explosions.

Finally, in March 1815, news arrived that Napoleon had escaped from Elba. They hurriedly returned to London, where Davy saw to it that Faraday was promoted to assistant to the laboratory at the Royal Institution, and encouraged him to start giving his own lectures on chemistry and to publish his first papers. Davy himself became vice-president of the Institution, giving him access to the lab and the opportunity to continue to work with his protégé, Faraday.

Davy then wrote a poem called "The Massy Pillars of the Earth":
Nothing is lost; the ethereal fire,
Which from the farthest star descends,
Through the immensity of space
Its course by worlds attracted bends,

To reach the earth; the eternal laws
Preserve one glorious wise design;
Order amidst confusion flows
And all the system is divine.

If matter cannot be destroyed,
Then living mind can never die;
If e'en creative when alloy'd,
How sure is immortality! 
Holmes notes that the first stanza seems to anticipate Einstein's theory, a hundred years later, that light is bent by gravity, confirmed by Arthur Stanley Eddington's observations during a solar eclipse in 1819. But Davy was really just affirming "a more traditional belief: the sudden confidence that 'eternal laws' govern the universe in a benign and ordered way." His assertion that "all the system is divine" is "somewhere between Romantic pantheism and the old Enlightenment deism." He also continued to question the surety of immortality.
What is striking about this poem is its sudden tone of Evangelical self-confidence and its unusually hymn-like form. It could have been written by John Wesley or Isaac Watts, though Davy carefully avoids the words "God" or "soul." ... Perhaps he wanted to settle down theologically, as well as socially. But science would never quite allow him to do either.

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