The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes
I’ve finished it now, and my reaction is basically the same. It’s a good book, very engaging and mostly well-written. I just don’t think it’s the book that he thinks it is. The subtitle is “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” but, at least to me, it was much more about the web of scientists and protégés that Joseph Banks developed. So much more time was spent developing the history of the Royal Society and discussing some of the feuds and connections that the argument about the Romantic Generation just sort of faded away. There are still mentions of Coleridge and Byron and the war(s) with the French, but those are not even remotely the focus of the book in the same way that Joseph Banks and his relationships with the scientists discussed are. Again, it’s not a bad book – in fact, it’s a very good book. It’s just not a book about the Romantic Generation, except coincidentally.
I say mostly well-written above. There are a few rogue commas, and a couple of odd phrasing and structure things. There are a couple of passages I want to point out: two odd ones, and one other.
First, a footnote talking about comets: “In modern times the passage of Hale-Bopp (1997) inspired a mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate cult, though that was in California.” Um, exactly why does the location matter? Why does it matter enough to be put in an aside phrase? And why, exactly, does that phrase seem so dismissive? ‘Comets are interesting and mystical and have inspired odd behaviour. But only in the past, except in silly California.’ That’s how that sentence comes across to me: as though it’s somehow less relevant because it was in California.
Second, the first chapter about Humphrey Davy – and, actually, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy – is presented a bit oddly. I can’t remember exactly what confused me about the first chapter during the bulk of it, but the chapter ends with the sentence “At a glittering reception afterwards, Jane Apreece told Humphrey Davy that she loved fishing.” Um…..okay. I know he’s an angler and all, but quite a bit of the chapter has been about his (presumed) love affairs and the women chasing him, and …. it’s a really abrupt way to end a chapter, especially when Jane Apreece was only introduced in the preceding sentence. And then this isn’t resolved for another couple of chapters, past a chapter about the Vitality experiments and Frankenstein. Also, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy, chronologically after he and Jane Apreece have gotten married, keeps referring to future-to-them events (“Jane would remember it regretfully during a similar trip the next year” or things like that) with very little, if any, follow-up. Don’t tease us with emotional insight and then not actually provide any emotional insight!
Third, because it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, here is one of the sappiest love letters I’ve ever read. It’s from Humphrey Davy to his wife, when he’s on a fishing trip and she’s back in wherever they live: “I flirt with the water nymphs, but you are my constant goddess. I make you the personification of the spirit of the woods, and the waters, and the hills, and the clouds….this is the earliest form of religion. I breathe a sigh upon paper from the thought of being apart from you for only two days. My dear, dear Love creates a void which no interest or amusement can fill….The longer I live, the more I shall love you, my dearest Jane.”
Okay, it’s sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Happy Valentine’s Day.