1820 done!

Dear blog,

Well, I say ‘1820 done’ but actually those letters and my notes have just gone off to my co-editor, Prof Tim Fulford, and will come back to me with things to check and change and add, but still I have now sent it off to him and it’s already been seen by Prof Frank James. It was a great year to annotate. There’s some really brilliant (and scurrilous) stuff in Davy’s 1820 letters. In May, Davy hears that Joseph Banks has resigned from the Presidency of the Royal Society, comes rushing back to Britain from his leisurely holidaying abroad and begins campaigning in earnest for himself. There are some great letters written by Davy where we don’t have the originals but only printed versions (printed much later) and all of the names have been replaced by asterisks. I’ve been trying to work out whether the number of asterisks used is significant (they do vary) and work out who Davy is referring to. He seems to be really very rude about Davies Gilbert (formerly Giddy) who was his first mentor and the primary reason that Davy managed to get out of his apprenticeship as an apothecary and begin his illustrious career in chemistry. There’s gratitude for you. I love this kind of work where to identify people you need to work out other allusions (eg. a ‘rotten borough’ in Cornwall) and piece together the bits of information you have on them (eg. he hasn’t even published in the Phil Trans!).

I’m into 1822 now and he’s firmly President of the RS; lots of the letters are written in the third person (even in his own handwriting) and they tend to be official, thanking people for the gift of their publications etc etc. As the year of the fellowship where I’m working on this for 100% of my time draws to a close I’ve done a tally of the work that I’ve done. I’ve written 51k words of notes so far and when you add in the letter texts themselves that comes to 132k. And there’s still a few more months to go.

I’m off to Sheffield for the ‘Summer of 1816’ conference on Friday which has an really strong programme. It’s going to be tough to decide which papers to go to actually. I’m putting on a panel on ‘Romantic Science’ though to be honest it’s really about Davy, and why not…?

Best,

Sharon

Getting on

Dear Blog,

I had a good trip to Dublin recently and confirmed that there was a letter in the National Library of Ireland that we didn’t have in the edition, though I don’t know how we missed it when we did our trawl (we had others from that library). Sometimes it’s because of the way that items have been catalogued. In any case, we have it now and it’s an interesting letter from Davy to Richard Lovell Edgeworth from 1810. The lovely people at the NLI allowed me to take pictures of this and the other letters they hold. Unlike Trinity College, Dublin, who did not. I was only checking transcripts of letters there but found we had a little bit of both addresses missing. I can’t get one of the words on two letters but it’s going to cost me 25 Euros to get an image made of these pages that I need. I know that this is a way for cash-strapped libraries to make money but this is also going against the grain of the open access that should be offered by publicly-funded institutions. In all other respects Dublin was lovely. I went to a really great Yeats exhibition in the NLI and an excellent exhibition about the 1916 Easter Rising in the GPO itself. All very emotive stuff.

I’m trying to charge ahead with 1820 letters while returning each evening to 1818 and the continuing difficulties there. I really don’t enjoy going back to a year once I think it’s done and especially since all you have to do is the difficult stuff that you weren’t able to do the first time round. For example, there’s a really tricky letter about a lease owned by the Davy family which seems to be being contested by the landowner’s tax man. This is well out of my comfort zone! I need help with this — maybe a local historian but I don’t know who to ask.

In cheerier news, we had interviews and presentations for a long-awaited post in Gothic Literature at Lancaster last week. By the time I return to teaching in October there will be no less than 5 new staff in our dept, which is just amazing. Right, back to it. I have 15 whole days at home now (whether in Manchester or Lancaster) and I need to make the most of them).

More soon,

Sx

What haven’t I done in the past few weeks?

Dear blog,

So much has happened over the last six weeks that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I was in Tokyo from 17-27 March, which was just amazing, and I gave a talk on the Shelleys and science at Waseida University. When I came back I went straight to Lancaster (the Easter break didn’t mean much this year and I worked really hard on the Easter weekend!) and the LitSciMed symposium took place from 30-31st March. This was just a lovely event; it was so excellent to see everyone again, many of them doing really well. We have a new website, thanks to Andrew Lacey (http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/litscimed/) and the resources from the training we did are already up there.

The week after I went to Keele University on the Wednesday where I read John Davy’s manuscript memoir in the special collections, ‘Some Notices of my Life’. This was a real revelation. It clears some problems I’d had with notes to John’s movements but also revealed some interesting stuff about Humph too. John writes, for example, that he deliberately didn’t go to the coronation of King George IV. I bet this was because he had links with Queen Caroline and knew there would be a fuss (which there was!). The day after, the British Society for Literature and Science conference started and I was the first plenary speaker! It was such a huge honour to do this. I’ve been to every single conference and even hosted the third one at Keele. This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me.

The week after this I was in London: a mad, mad day on Weds 13th April that began with a Frankenstein breakfast at which Damien Lewis and Helen McCrory performed passages from the novel (amazing!). Then I hotfooted it to Hackney where I was interviewed by presenter George Lamb for Medium Brown podcast (you can download it for free from ITunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/medium-brow/id434929837?mt=2) on the science in Frankenstein. Then off to the Royal Festival Hall where the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association prizes were given out by Richard Holmes (I’m one of the essay prize judges).

More research in archives that turned up some marvellous stuff that week in the Royal Society and the UCL archives currently located at Kew. And then last week I was in Amsterdam mainly working but also doing a tiny bit of sightseeing too. This week I have three days at home before going to Dublin to Trinity College archive and the National Library of Ireland.

Phew! It’s been so great. I’m a bit exhausted and I could do with some time at home soon to eat more healthily and put in some properly long days of work but all is good.

Best,

Sharon

Less Davy, more papers

Dear Blog,

I have unfortunately not managed to do much to the 1818 letters since I last wrote my blog. Instead I’ve been working on my plenary for the British Society for Literature and Science conference, which is coming up in Birmingham (http://www.bsls.ac.uk/conference/) in April. It’s a huge honour for me to be asked to talk at this. I’ve attended every single annual conference of this society (this is the 11th!) and organised the third one myself at Keele University. I’ve decided to talk about the use of letters in literature and science studies and have been thinking hard about what, precisely, letters can bring to our subdiscipline. I have an essay club with two brilliant colleagues at work; we met yesterday and that was hugely helpful. I still have a fair bit of work to do on the paper though.
Last Wednesday, I did a public talk as part of the Wonder Women series (http://www.creativetourist.com/articles/festivals-and-events/manchester/wonder-women-2016-full-events-listings/) on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. It was sold out and the audience was great, some A-level students who are studying Frankenstein and then some Portico members too. I had great questions and really enjoyed the whole event.
Other than that I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite Davy letter moments. For example, in a letter dated April 1812 to Jane Apreece (who will become Lady Jane Davy, his wife) after she has been ill, Davy writes: ‘For the first time in my life I have wished to be a woman that I might watch by your bed side’ (!). I saw an 1818 letter where Davy for the first (and perhaps only) time abbreviated his name to ‘Sir Humpy’, which makes me want only to refer to him in this way from now on. There’s also an intriguing fragment in the Royal Institution that has been cut off for his signature – there are lots of letters that have had this done to them by people collecting the autographs of celebrities. We are left with only a tiny bit at the end of the letter but it is quite mysterious:

some false statement or absurd exaggeration
Do not send what I mentioned, I hope I may be able to escape without notice. –
yours very sincerely
H. Davy

This is tantalising enough but on the back of this fragment there is a postmark so that I can date the letter to 26 March 1818: ‘D | 26 MR 26 | 1818’. Unfortunately we have no letter dated on this date and so I can’t find out what he is referring to here. It’s probably something to do with the safety lamp controversy since this rumbled on through the beginning of 1818.
Anyway, more soon. I’m off to Tokyo (via Lancaster and London) tomorrow to give a paper. How exciting is that!

Best,

Sharon

Back again again

Dear Blog,

I really want to get back into writing this. Bizarrely, given that this is a public blog, I think I want to keep it more for myself than for anyone else. I would really like to keep a record of this extraordinary year (the AHRC fellowship year), which may well prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’d also like to record how to find things out.

Google books really is the most amazing resource. You can see so many contemporary accounts online. In annotating the 1818 letters today I had to find out about an artic expedition that Davy asked John Dalton to go on. I was able to read the account of it by the captain (John Ross) and find out who had gone in Dalton’s stead (Edward Sabine) as well as read Dalton’s reply to Davy’s letter. Amazing. Every day I wonder how people did this work without the internet. I still have a long and ever-growing list of things that I can only read in particular libraries, eg. the British Library. For example, there’s one Davy letter published in a pamphlet so rare that it only seems (according to COPAC, which gives a record of large library holdings in Britain) to only be in the Bodleian. Luckily I already going there on Thursday 9th March so I can read it then.

If I only have a day, I can check which days were on which dates by using one of the many Day of the Week calendars online, such as this one http://www.searchforancestors.com/utility/dayofweek.html. I was able to date one letter to 1816 because it was dated 29th February (topical, given today’s date!) and so it had to be a leap year etc etc. There’s so much work that can go into this stuff.

Very quickly, some of my fave finds so far: Jane Davy spelling ‘Maison Boteux’ when it should have been ‘Botot’ (the name of the person who owned the place), perhaps she had never seen it written down but only heard it. And, I’ve finally – due to the help of a lovely person in Kendal Libraries – found the Bayliff and Bigge (it was actually Bayliff and Rigge, which is why I couldn’t find them!) who manufactured Davy’s new ‘twilled gauze’ in Kendal that was stronger than the stuff he tried before. These are exactly the kinds of people that it’s hard to find much about: working class men and all women (though, I guess you are more likely to find out information about women in the higher than lower classes).

More in a fortnight!

Sx

Back again!

Dear Blog,

I’ve been meaning to write again for weeks, months, but now am determined to continue again, if only with a few paragraphs, every fortnight. I’m now thoroughly into my AHRC Leaders Fellowship, editing and annotating the letters of Humphry Davy. It’s going to be difficult to do everything that I’ve promised but I’ve got a timetable and mini-goals to try to keep me on track. I’m especially trying to focus on the work itself so am trying to limit my emailing to an hour and a half early in the morning each day. This is quite hard and means that things just get left undone. But, if I’m not strict with myself, I won’t get done what needs to be done…
Which is, three letters per day every working day for this academic year. It took me five weeks to do the 25 letters for 1814 which is far too slow. I’m going to try to get the 74 1816 letters done in the next four weeks… Hmmm… I think I’m getting the hang of it. I absolutely love the work. I have to find out about such a variety of stuff! In 1814 it was all about Europe because Davy was travelling through France, Italy and Switzerland. I’ve had to find out about people, places, publications and lots of other things that don’t begin with ‘p’. I can’t tell you the pleasure I have when I work something out (if it hasn’t taken me far too long!). It’s difficult though. I spent a fair bit of time (probably too much) trying to find out who the French chemist de la Rive’s aunt was. (I think I did it though!) I’ve started to email experts more now and to use mailing lists to ask questions. All help will of course be gratefully received. I’m learning so much. And it’s a thrill when you read another editor’s ‘Untraced’ and know that you have managed to trace the person in question.
1816 will be all about the safety lamp and so it’s a new set of questions and topics and people being written to. Will let you know how I get on…

Best,

Sx

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

Dear Blog,

Lots has happened recently. We’ve finished the filming for our MOOC (a massive open, online course) on William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place. Filming took place at Dove Cottage with the full support of the Wordsworth Trust (https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html). The course is online and completely free. You can watch the trailer and sign up for it here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/william-wordsworth/details. The course will begin on Sept 7th and run for four weeks. My bit is in the second half of the fourth week and I’m talking about Dorothy Wordsworth. There’s some film from inside Dove Cottage, quizzes about Dorothy’s life and her journals, some lovely audio readings of the journal extracts from my colleague Jenn Ashworth (http://jennashworth.co.uk/) etc etc. I think it will be a lot of fun. In any case, it’s worth checking out the many courses offered by FutureLearn. I quite fancied a few of these myself and it’s pretty amazing that they are completely free.

Since then it’s been pretty manic. Those people who think that academics get three months off in the summer are very much mistaken. We finished teaching before Easter at Lancaster and I’m not sure that it’s made any difference at all. In fact I’ve found myself wondering how I used to fit teaching in. I spent a week in Glasgow as external examiner, I’ve been doing REF2020 interviews with every member of staff in the dept, and I haven’t managed to revise my ‘Literature and Chemistry’ chapter for the Ashgate Companion. We have our own exam boards this week, a Davy Letters meeting arranged for 29th June and I’m hoping that after 3rd July I might be able to get back to some research. I’m attempting to do the revisions on that essay, work on the collection as a whole with my co-editor John Holmes, and write another essay for the Literature and Medicine journal over July, August and September. I’m going to the BARS conference in July and contributing to the Analogy symposium in Cambridge in September. I’ve booked a week in London at the end of July so that I can get lots of reading done in the British Library. So, well, research is being planned but not yet executed. Lots to do before then.

Best,

Sharon

Thinking about Interdisciplinarity

Dear blog,

Last Wednesday on 20th May we held an AHRC block grant-funded doctoral training day called ‘The Visual and the Verbal’ at Lancaster University: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/english/events/visual-verbal.htm. It was a brilliant day. We had 14 students participating from lots of different disciplines (English Lit, Creative Writing, Art, Art History, History, and Museum Studies) and lots of different universities (Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester Metropolitan, Lincoln, the Courtauld Institute, Keele, Manchester, etc etc). It really reminded me of the LitSciMed events that I ran between 2009 and 2011 (http://litscimed.org.uk/) and it made me remember which bits of my job I really do love and why. One of the best bits of the day for me was the five-minute presentations that the students gave about their projects, which were all so fascinating and exciting. We also spent the afternoon in the Ruskin Library (http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/users/ruskinlib/Pages/welcome.html) and it was a real thrill for the students to be able to handle Ruskin’s drawings and letters and see his notebooks.

We started off the day with a session run by me on interdisciplinarity. I used Joe Moran¹s book with this title (the New Critical Idiom one) which he revised in 2010 and which is still really great and even more up to date now. In this session we spoke about whether institutions (jobs, depts, funding bodies) encourage or discourage this kind of research.

I learned yesterday too, from Martin Willis, Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science (https://www.bsls.ac.uk/) that ‘the British Academy has invited contributions on issues of interdisciplinarity to inform a report they will shortly write. In order to receive evidence of interdisciplinary research they have tasked a Working Group with inviting
and organising submissions.’ You can read more about this here: http://www.britac.ac.uk/news/news.cfm/newsid/1272

After reading Moran’s updated conclusion to his book, I wonder whether there is a bit of a backlash coming now about interdisciplinarity or whether this British Academy report will continue to be positive? For my part, I always maintain that explicitly working with an interdisciplinary approach actually makes me far more aware and reflective
about my own (home) discipline. I think of English as a set of skills or approaches perhaps more than a canon of texts. Applying a literary critical approach to, say, early nineteenth-century scientific writings can reveal the rhetorical devices used to achieve political ends, which might not otherwise be very obvious. There are lots of other ways to work in an interdisciplinary way too though.

I guess, ultimately, I’m with Moran when he writes that interdisciplinarity shouldn¹t result in a big mess of stuff which is neither one thing nor the other but a carefully
defined, honed new way of thinking or working which is truly transformative.

More soon,

Sharon

Analogous Thinking

Dear Blog,

So today I have mainly been thinking about analogy. I’m giving a paper in a roundtable discussion at the British Society for Literature and Science conference in Liverpool (http://www.bsls.ac.uk/2015/03/bsls-2015-conference-programme/) later this week on this subject. My methodological approach to the literature-science subdiscipline has been largely based on analogy. Analogy has also be the subject of work that I’ve done in this area.

The 1814-19 debate on the nature of life in the Royal College of Surgeons (the focus of my PhD and then my first book) was fought partly on methodological grounds: John Abernethy argued that analogy had to be used because the senses would never be able to perceive the immaterial, superadded, something that was the vital principle. His colleague (and erstwhile student), William Lawrence, argued that empiricism was the only way for physiology to proceed: for his detractors though, this was tantamount to an admission of materialism. Abernethy argued that life worked in the same way that electricity worked; Lawrence said this was a nonsense. Using the words of Hamlet, Lawrence declaimed ‘’Tis like a camel, or like a whale, or like what you please’ (Introduction, pp. 169–70). He was unequivocal: ‘The truth is, there is no resemblance, no analogy between electricity and life: the two orders of phenomena are completely distinct; they are incommensurable. Electricity illustrates life no more than life illustrates electricity’ (Introduction, pp. 170–1). Abernethy was quite explicit in other analogies that he made: a separate, independent vital principle was necessary to control and regulate the body. Lawrence correctly identified the analogy Abernethy was making with such repressive state apparatuses as Bow Street and the Old Bailey, institutions that kept the poplace in check.

Analogy is such an interesting idea; it seems to mean finding a parallel or finding corresponding characteristics in two things. For the chemist Humphry Davy, the existence of analogous elements made him think that there was some essential, primary element(s) contained within all things which enabled the transformations witnessed in matter. By this point in time, chemists believed there was a finite amount of matter in the world but that it was continually changing and transforming into new forms. In my paper for the conference, I argue that Davy’s theory is analogous to the way that I use analogy: the reason that I find parallels between literature and science is because both are the cultural productions of politics and history. The both have within them the primary elements of a particular historical moment. In Davy’s chemistry, analogous elements have the potential to transform to become something new, while still retaining their identities. This in itself is a nice metaphor for our sub-discipline of literature and science.

It’s nice to be thinking big thoughts again, if only for a day, and I’m excited about the conference since that will hopefully get me thinking again. In other news, we’re deciding tomorrow on the participants for the AHRC NW Partnership doctoral training day to be held at Lancaster on Weds 20th May, ‘The Visual and the Verbal’, so I should be able to write to people to let them know that they are in. Now to get back to the marking: how can a four-week turnaround period be so difficult to manage??

Best,

Sharon

Post from an actual library

Dear blog,

I’m in Chetham’s Library in Manchester (http://www.chethams.org.uk/), which is bloody lovely, if a bit on the cold side, though I’m sure that’s about keeping the books here in a temperature controlled environment. It’s the only place that I could find a particular edition of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni, which I need for this essay I’m writing for the Ashgate Research Companion to C19th Literature and Science. I originally downloaded the novel for free from Amazon, which I thought was pretty cool (there are loads of these kinds of novels to be downloaded for free from Amazon) but you get no sense of the edition that you are reading, no publication details, no page numbers etc etc. Probably everyone out there already knows this but I didn’t. It’s been a right pain to find the edition that I need. Another contributor to the collection has used this novel (Bulwer-Lytton has never been so popular!) and the British Library didn’t have the right one. So, I used COPAC (http://copac.ac.uk/) to find out which libraries did have it and here I am at Chetham’s, a very beautiful library, and I’m sitting just by the very spot where Marx and Engels did their research for The Condition of the Working Class in England.

I’m very pleased to have been awarded the funding for an AHRC NW Partnership training day at the Ruskin Library in Lancaster University on Weds 20th May (http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/english/events/visual-verbal.htm). We’ll be using Ruskin’s manuscripts (in their many forms) plus paintings and photographs to think about interdisciplinarity, how to do manuscript and archival work, and the relationship between the visual and the textual. I hope we get some takers for this – both AHRC-funded and non-AHRC-funded PhD students can apply. We’ll give priority to those nearing the end of their degree. I’m hoping that we’ll offer something like this every year, with a slightly different emphasis, maybe literature and science next year? The Ruskin collection is so diverse and interesting that you can use it to discuss all kinds of things.

Right, on with my essay which I have to finish by 5pm when two of my lovely colleagues have offered to read it for me. We’ve formed an ‘essay club’ so that we can read and comment on each others’ work. How ace is that!

More soon,

Sx