Hello World (again)

Dear blog,

So, it’s been a while. I haven’t posted for a year I think. First there was the upheaval of getting the blog moved to Lancaster when I got my post there in September and since then I’ve been too busy and have gotten out of the habit of blogging. But, I’m going to give this thing a go again and see how it turns out.

It’s been a great year: Lancaster is great; the students are just brilliant and I’ve really enjoyed teaching them (even though I was teaching Theory and well out of my comfort zone!); my colleagues are just lovely and very clever indeed; the whole year has been exhilarating and exciting. It’s been hard work too, particularly all the teaching prep, and the admin role I have can be time consuming.

I had a great time at two conference last month: NASSR in Washington, which was brilliant. It was organised by Richard Sha who writes on science and medicine in the Romantic period and perhaps partly because of this there were loads of fantastic papers on these subjects. Then I went to the John Thelwall @ 250 conference in London and learned more about what an amazing man he was. He had a number of medical interests (he wrote an essay on vitality in the 1790s, decades before Abernethy and Lawrence’s spat), he was the friend of a number of important surgeons in London (including Henry Cline), and he spent a great part of his life as a speech therapist and using poetry to teach how to say words correctly. All of this was aligned with his radical politics (he was one of those tried and acquitted in the 1794 Treason Trials). He’s a fascinating figure and it was great to find out more about him.

So now I’m beginning to write a grant application to fund the next stage of the Davy Letters project, which needs to be submitted to OUP at the end of 2017. Monday is the deadline for the MHRA part-time research assistant post (http://hr-jobs.lancs.ac.uk/Vacancy.aspx?ref=A1039) and we’ll be interviewing for that on the 29th August for someone to start on 1st October. It’s all very exciting though still leaves little time for research, fingers cross for this grant application which might help with that…

It’s good to be back. More soon,



Papers and articles

Dear blog,

So as the sun shines I sit inside and try to write. I’m sure that everyone’s feeling resentful about the glorious weather outside and the fact that we still have to work… I’ve been trying to write my conference paper this week for the ICHSTM conference to be held here in Manchester (http://www.ichstm2013.com/). It’s the most enormous event, with about 1600 delegates, and a whole suite of sessions on science and literature. I had spent a few days in the Royal Institution archives recently, researching my paper about whether there is evidence of an interest in poetry during the early days of the RI, and I came up with loads of interesting stuff from the General Managers’ Minutes and the Annual Reports. I’ve established that there were significant numbers of lectures on ‘non-scientific’ subjects from very early on in the Royal Institution’s existence. I’ve got lots of data: what the lectures were on, who gave them, how much they got paid, how much money they brought into the RI etc etc. I looked into the people who gave the lectures and have found some reports of them. I just don’t have many conclusions to draw from this, other than, that 1) in some years there are even more lectures on non-scientific subjects than scientific subjects, and that 2) it seems as though Davy had a hand in the whole enterprise. Neither of these are going to set the world alight.

Oh well, I can’t spend longer on the paper because I have to get on with writing my article for the Routledge Critical Debates book on ‘Romantic Transformation’. My hunch is that transformation is used as a metaphor in a number of arenas, political, literary and scientific in the early nineteenth century. In fact, I’ve already found it being used in chemistry, geology and physiology. Transformation means that the essential thing itself remains intact but is changed in shape or form: this would fit the idea of a revolution. It’s not that there are new things involved, but that the old thing has changed its form or appearance. Some transformations are specifically monstrous too. I’m still formulating my ideas on this and now its time for some more reading…

All best,


Back to the Davy letters

Dear blog,

So, I’ve had a week in the British Library, checking and transcribing more Davy letters. It’s great to get back to this work, although I’m not going to manage to finish what’s here in this trip. The last letters I transcribed and checked here during a trip that was almost three years ago to the day. I’ve been here loads in between — how can I have left it three years to come back to these?

I’ve been reading some great stuff. There is a commonly-held belief among recent scholars that Davy never patented his miner’s safety lamp because he didn’t want there to be a full-scale investigation into whether it was really him or George Stephenson who had invented it. He presented himself on the occasion as a benefactor to humankind, benevolently presenting his invention for the good of the nation and as being above such petty concerns as profit. It’s been interesting to read the letters to his friend John G. Children on the subject of a new gundpowder that Davy helped him to develop a few years before this around 1812-13. Even in this episode, Davy is adamant (if not a little hysterical) that the labels on the gunpowder cases make it clear that he has only helped by offering the results of his experiments and that he will make no profit by the sale of them. The idea that it might be called Davy’s gunpowder nearly sends him into paroxysms. There is something similar again in his explosions over the copper-sheeting of ships debacle in 1824. It is in regard to a critical essay in the press over this, that Davy utters these words:

The abusive article is in the Chronicle of Thursday. The Chemist & Mechanics magazine made overtures to me by sending me their first numbers &c; the Chemist being filed [sic] with exaggerating praises: but I never shake hands with chimney sweepers even when in their may day clothes & when they call me “your Honour” (letter to Children, late October 1824).

Doesn’t this shock you? It’s clear how far Davy has come from his humble origins in Penzance when we hear this kind of thing.

I had a tip-off that I want to share, which came from Frank James in the Royal Institution: the Spencer card catalogue, and the reserved photographic card catalogue (both in the manuscript room at the British Library) look as if they may turn up some stuff that I hadn’t found using the normal electronic catalogue. Perhaps everyone else already knew about these but I certainly didn’t.

Anyway, for those who haven’t already heard, I will be starting a new job on 1st September, Prof of Romanticism at Lancaster University. I’m hugely excited and I am aiming to continue this blog there.

All best,


Marking in Moscow

Dear blog,

So it’s been ages since I last wrote. I’ve been completely sideswiped by the amount of work that I’ve had to do this semester. Even by my standards, it’s been something else and writing the blog was one of the many things that I haven’t managed to do. (As was keeping my email inbox at below 100 messages.) I’m now on leave in Moscow and so have found the time to write this. I’ve also spent 13 hours working here so far, even though this is supposed to be a holiday.

It looks as though Salford University is about to announce more restructuring (a euphemism for more redundancies), at almost the same time as we went through this last year. It’s because of the redundancies last year that I had so much more teaching than usual this semester: I wrote nine new lectures in seven weeks this semester. They were written faster than I would have liked and were on a range of topics at varying distances away from my area of expertise. I have written lectures on Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, etc etc. All of the topics that I gave lectures on were of interest to me (generally I have lectured on poetry this semester and on some of the greatest poems in the English language), and I enjoyed doing the few hours of research that I was able to do for the lectures, but it would have been good to have more time to spend on them.

I’ve also given some research papers, firstly at the University of Sheffield and then at the Medical Matters conference in York, both in March. These were great events, which I enjoyed very much, though they added pressure to an otherwise already stressful term. The Medical Matters conference was excellent. I really enjoyed Mike Brown’s paper, which reassessed the idea that there was a move towards an unfeeling and desensitized surgeon in the early nineteenth century. He used sources such as Astley Cooper’s lectures to trainee surgeons in which he urges them to become men of feeling and to empathise with the patient. This work has really interesting implications for John Keats and the usual accounts of his reasons for leaving the medical profession that I’d like to think about some more. Corinna Wagner’s book, Pathological Bodies: Medicine and Political Culture, due out this September (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9781938169083), sounded excellent too and I’m looking forward to reading that. Clark Lawlor spoke about his Leverhulme funded project ‘Fashionable Diseases’ (http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/browse/ne/uninews/23907560), which builds on his earlier research interests in consumption and depression to take a wider view on a number of such diseases. Jo Wharton gave a very persuasive paper arguing that Anna Barbauld’s engagement with Joseph Priestley may have begun earlier than has been thought.

Moscow has been fun despite the fact that I’ve worked almost every day I’ve been here. I’m here because my partner’s book, Consuming History (http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415399456/), has been translated into Russian and is being published by the New Literary Observer’s book series (http://nlobooks.ru/sites/default/files/old/nlobooks.ru/eng/111/112/index.html). It’s amazing to see what an impact his work has had here; it’s a central text for a new MA programme in Public History, and it’s clear that the subject is a hugely important one for this country. Today we leave Moscow for St Petersburg where I’m hoping that the hotel we’re staying in won’t have wi-fi and I might have four days relaxation. On Wednesday we return to the UK and I go straight to Cardiff for the British Society for Literature and Science conference, which I’m sure will be great.

I’m hoping to keep the blog up now since there are only a few weeks of teaching left and no new lectures to write! Let’s see.


RI, the Lancet, and lots of work

Dear blog,

I haven’t written since Friday 8th December, which was my final day at the Royal Institution. Unfortunately the place has been in the press recently and not for good reasons. Due to continuing financial problems they are considering – as one among many options – to look into selling the Albermarle Street building (see the Chairman’s statement: http://www.rigb.org/contentControl?action=displayContent&id=00000006895). This would be such a loss. It was a wonderful place to work for three months, such a vibrant atmosphere with each day bringing new visitors to see the building, have tours of it and the museum downstairs, as well as lectures and schools events. The building was being used to its capacity and it is the building, its historical objects, and its heritage that really brings something special to the event taking place. I’m glad to see that the danger of this has brought out our best scientific writers and thinkers in support of the RI and I really hope that something can be done.

I’ve not written this blog since then because I had lots of lovely holiday, all owed to me because I’d been unable to take many of my 27 days earlier in the year, a week before Christmas, Christmas to New Year, and then a week off in January too. At the end of the first week of the new semester it’s incredible how far away these seem. My timetable this semester is really very hard, a new MA module (which is very exciting too), plus I’m teaching Victorian Literature and one of my special options Monstrous Bodies to second year undergrads. I have nine new lectures to write mainly due to one of our nineteenth-century team leaving when redundancies where threatened.

I have papers to give too, a staff research seminar on February 13th, a paper at Sheffield Uni’s research seminar on 4th March, a paper to give at the excellent-looking conference ‘Medical Matters’ being organised by Mary Fairclough and Joanna Wharton at the University of York (http://www.york.ac.uk/eighteenth-century-studies/events/conferencemedicalmatters2013/). This is on top of a number of research projects that are at various stages of completion, with some in the very early stages of being thought through.

Good news has come in the form of the copy editor also wanting me to respond within a matter of days with copy editing queries on my new book, Creating Romanticism, which should be out with Palgrave Macmillan in July. My Lancet article is out today I think, which is brilliant and I’m very proud of that.

Anyway, it’s going to be a tough few weeks and I’m already struggling. I shall do my best not to moan on this blog but I’d like folk to know just how much work academics are routinely doing and how impossible this is to fit into anything like 9-5 hours for five days of the week.



Final day in the Royal Institution archive

Dear blog,

My thee-month stint in the Royal Institution archive ended yesterday on Friday 7th December. I have had a wonderful time working there. Collections staff –Charlotte, Catherine and Jane – have all been brilliant, helping me with queries, fetching boxes of letters, making cups of tea, and generally being very welcoming. Frank James has put up with my endless questions, helped me with the transcription of difficult words and with many other issues raised by the letters. The Royal Institution is a great place to work and I encourage everyone to check out their holdings, and go to visit the museum, which has many iterations of Davy’s safety lamp among other treasures, a first edition of Frankenstein, and a reconstruction of an early nineteenth-century laboratory. They are gearing up for the Christmas Lectures here at the moment, which promise to be excellent too. Find out more about the RI here (http://www.rigb.org/).

It’s a strange characteristic of the work that I’m doing on the Davy Letters (http://www.davy-letters.org.uk/) that I look at the correspondence with a particular individual from its beginning to end. Davy has died on me twice in the course of this last fortnight. In the final letters to his wife, Jane, he was using an amanuensis (his friend Tobin’s son) and writes from Rome on 1st March 1829: ‘I am still alive tho’ expecting every hour to be released’. In the run up to this sad event, his letters had been quite funny at times. He despaired of his two companions: Tobin, who he calls the ‘Savage’ whose table manners he complains of, and George, who he did like well enough until he began treating himself for a venereal complaint with corrosive sublimate, which seems to have half-deranged him.

I’ve found nothing about Davy’s fear of being buried alive, which Michael Neve discussed in his essay in Sophie Forgan’s Sons of Genius collection. Admittedly Neve says that he gets this from John Davy. I did find a quotation that I used in Shelley and Vitality some years ago now, that I found suggestive of an idea circulating at the time. Reflecting on his mortality, Davy writes to his wife on 18th December 1828: ‘I can <not> help thinking that a certain quantity of nervous or vital power is given to Man which when consumed can not be replaced & which limits the period of activity & of existence.’

After the reading the final letters regarding Davy’s death, including one written by his wife on the subject to a friend and one written by the doctor who attended him, I open a new folder in the box to find him alive and well, writing to his mother in the bloom of youth. There aren’t many letters here in the RI to his family (many are in the Science Museum) and most of them have had the signatures cut off by autograph hunters, which made me wonder whether the family sold these letters. As he ages, he becomes increasingly pompous with his mother, expresses his objection and dissatisfaction with his sister’s marriage, and did not particularly endear himself to me. There is an amusing bit on the subject of the failure of the copper-sheathing of ship’s bottoms; in a letter written to his mother on 2nd Jan 1824. Davy writes: ‘Do not mind any lies you may see in the newspapers copied from a Portsmouth paper about the failure of one of my expts. — All the experiments are successful more even than I could have hoped for: & this the world will know in good time.’ He sounds a little too defensive here I think.

There are some interesting tit-bits in letters to his brother John Davy. For example on 1 Dec 1811, he writes: ‘the chem part of the E. Review is vilely conducted’. On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, on 1 June 1815, Davy predicts the British victory: ‘For my own part I do not think that Bonaparte & his diabolical adherents can long oppose the allies & the French are too selfish to adhere to him for any other reason than the hope of plundering their neighbors.—‘  Sometime in the summer of 1815, Davy drafted and redrafted (I have found three drafts so far) a spluttering letter to Lord Liverpool, advising him to ‘destroy’ the French so as to achieve permanent peace. I’ve found no final version of this letter so far, so am not even sure whether he sent it, but certainly he spent much time putting his thoughts to paper.

In a much later letter to the Editors of the Philosophical Journal (dated 14th November 1856), John Davy noted that Davy ‘was little in the habit of keeping letters’. We’re dealing in the main with letters written by rather than to Davy and it is noticeable that in this collection at the RI there are nowhere near as many letters to Davy. There are some really amazing letters though, including letters written from Coleridge to Davy, and it was thrilling to see the real things themselves.

Thanks to those who contacted me with ideas to solve the questions I raised in my last blog posting. My blog will be offline for a month now because of the Christmas holidays. Happy Christmas everyone!



Questions about the Davy letters

Dear blog,

I had a wonderful few days in Valencia last week attending the Societat Catalana d’Història de la Ciència i de la Tècnica (SCHCT) conference. I gave the plenary lecture for the literature and science symposium, which ran for the first time at the conference. It was very enjoyable, lovely to make new friends working on similar topics in another country.

Since then I’ve been back in the Royal Institution, working on the Davy letters project. I’m still reading letters to Jane Davy though I think I will finish these today. There have been lots of gaps between letters in this correspondence after reading quite a few in the early days of their courtship and marriage. It makes me wonder what happened to the ones that we don’t have, unless Davy didn’t write to her much during that time, or was it that Jane selected those that have survived when she gave them to Davy’s brother John for use in his biography? I’ve had a number of difficult questions raised in these letters, which I’m putting out to anyone who actually reads this blog to see whether you can help…

In a letter dated 27th April 1813, Davy writes to his wife: ‘Geo Knox’s two communications fidgeted me — I have always quoted him as free from any taint of the American plant yet it certainly displays itself in both his letters. — It was unworthy of him to suppose of you & of me any want of confidence & to attribute to me the paltry feeling of fear of anticipation.’ I have no idea which ‘American plant’ it is that he refers to here. If anyone has any ideas, or even better, knows that the issue is with George Knox’s ‘two communications’, I’d be delighted to know.

Now one for the literary among you… In a letter dated 7th April 1827, Davy writes: ‘As I know the effect of civility, I wish you would send one to Jeffrey the Edinburgh “Index” Mag (the Man who would have done me justice is with the good & great of other times[)].’ Index is very difficult to read and I may have gotten this word wrong. Does it make sense to anyone reading this?

From 1827 onwards Davy begins signing his letters to Jane ‘God bless you’, which is a new thing that I haven’t noticed before. I wonder whether it’s a sign of a growing religious belief? He certainly, from 1827 onwards (he died in 1829) is preoccupied with his health and the letters I’ve read this week have been written on his travels abroad for his health. Does anyone know what the stamp ‘L. A.’ means for letters from abroad? In one letter he writes ‘this paper is stained by a leech which has fallen from my temples whilst I am writing’. He mentions Byron’s poem ‘Euthanasia’ in another, saying ‘it is the only case probably where my feelings perfectly coincide with what his were’.

There are new difficulties in reading the letters too; he has begun to use full stops instead of commas (but where, I think, he clearly means commas). Since we’re doing a diplomatic transcription, I’m following his usage but this doesn’t really convey the meaning well. Also, as he has always done, Davy uses the end of lines or the start of a new line as punctuation, often in lieu of a full stop. We can’t show this on the page since we’re not following the shape of his lines exactly, so this will be lost…

Anyway, I have two weeks left and still many, many more letters to check. I wrote a piece for The Lancet last week, which should be published in January 2013; I have a book to review by this Monday for the THES, and a PhD report to write by next Monday, along with a proposal for an article and another article to submit. Not quite sure how I’m going to get all of this done…

Since writing this I’ve received the long-awaited reader’s report on my book and it’s really good! I’m totally chuffed. Full steam ahead!



Davy, ethical issues, and Valencia

Dear Blog,

I’ve had a week away from the Royal Institution archive, travelling around for a PhD viva in Newcastle University (congratulations Leanne Stokoe!) and then giving a paper at the Literature and Science seminar in the University of Oxford. The week before that I made some fabulous finds in the archive though, some of which I’ll share with you here.

I’m still reading the letters from Davy to his wife-to-be Jane (then Mrs Apreece). The letters are lovely; they’re often written when he’s away from home and he very clearly misses her, which is not what most critics think of this relationship. Perhaps as I read on, I’ll find the cold formality that I had been led to expect, but for now, Davy’s letters are full of anxious solicitude and concern. There are some questions raised by the letters, which I can’t answer, such as in his letter of New Year’s Day 1812, when he writes: ‘Indeed I never in the whole course of our social converse ever intended to offend you or give you a moment of uneasiness & I do not think I should feel any thing long painful that I thought would promote your happiness, even though it should require from me the greatest of all sacrifices. You know what this is & I trust you will never oblige me to make it.’ I wonder what is referred to here; what would be considered ‘the greatest of all sacrifices’? It might be chemistry of course, that would make some sense. On questions like this I guess we will never know the truth for certain.

These are letters that are personal and intimate: they have never been published before. Jane gave them to John Davy but still most weren’t published in his Fragmentary Remain (1858) whether on her orders or due to his sensitivity, we’ll probably never know. Though this all happened such a long time ago, and ethical approval is not needed in such cases, it still remains a fact that these were real people with real lives. The subject of a note sent to Jane on their wedding day (2nd March 1812) remains obscure but it strongly suggests that they may have slept together the night before and this raises these issues. This is salacious stuff and I know that Davy and Jane wouldn’t have wanted such matters aired in public but also, they illuminate their relationship as well as giving us some sense perhaps of how such relationships developed between people of their class and position.

Davy’s penchant for self-experimentation is still present in 1812, well after the nitrous oxide experiments early in the century. On 1st November 1812, Davy writes to Jane, worried that she’ll hear this story from some other source: ‘Yesterday I began some new experiments to which a very interesting discovery & a slight accident put an end. I made one of those compounds more powerful than gunpowder destined perhaps at some time to change the nature of war & influence the state of Society, an explosion took place which has done me no other harm than that of preventing me from working this day & the effects of which will be gone tomorrow & which I should not mention at all, except that you may hear some foolish exaggerated account of it for it really is not worth mentioning’.

I go this week coming to Valencia, to give a plenary lecture to the Literature and Science Symposium of the Societat Catalana d’Història de la Ciència i de la Tècnica (SCHCT) conference. Then I have three, final weeks in the Royal Institution to finish transcribing the letters there and then it’s back to Manchester.

More soon,


Humphry Davy’s Love Letters

Dear blog,

It’s been a funny few weeks. Last week was mainly good: I really enjoyed going to John Goodridge’s seminar on the Wednesday and hearing about his new book, John Clare and Community (out in January  http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item6933563/John%20Clare%20and%20Community/?site_locale=en_GB). I also enjoyed the Keats-Shelley Awards Ceremony on Thursday night, particularly finding out who had won the essay prizes that Prof Simon Bainbridge and I had judged: congratulations to Ruth Scobie, Adam White, and Catherine Redford. But, by then, I already had a sore throat and was properly ill from Friday through to Thursday of this week. I’ve only had two days in the archive this week, which makes me nervous of getting everything done in time; there are only six weeks left of my time here in London and lots of travelling to take me away from the archive over the next few weeks.

That said, the letters I have looked over the last two days have been a real pleasure. They are all love letters, from Humphry Davy to his soon-to-be wife Jane (then, the widowed Mrs Apreece). Much has been written about their relationship; they chose to live apart later in life and she did not accompany him on his later travels. It is generally thought that the marriage was a bad one and that they did not get along. Here though, in the first flush of their romance, they really do seem to be in love, and it is so odd to get a glimpse of Davy as a real person, with his anxieties, pettish annoyances, and full-throated passionate declarations. These letters, which I have now checked against the originals, can be read online on our website (http://www.davy-letters.org.uk/); just use the advanced search function, to search by recipient name and enter ‘Apreece’. These early letters, written when Davy goes to Dublin in 1811, are lovely. We get lengthy descriptions of Ireland’s landscape; often patronizing descriptions of Irish people and the society over there; descriptions of a visit to Edgeworthstown and of Maria Edgeworth (‘the perfect model of a Woman of great powers & literary habits’). Meanwhile, Jane is staying with the Ladies of Llangollen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladies_of_Llangollen), two upper-class women who eloped from Ireland to live together causing great scandal. Jane is apparently also learning chemistry, in an attempt to please Davy, no doubt. Davy uses a wonderful metaphor from Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia on sight to describe his feelings on her absence. Presumably, showing how much the Edinburgh Review periodical had entered public consciousness as a source of criticism, Davy writes in one letter dated 20 November 1811: ‘You have attacked me a little in the style of the Edinburgh School’. Anna Beddoes is still around at this date too, now no longer competing for Davy’s heart I assume; he escorts her from Ireland when he visits Llangollen himself.

There are some hilarious bits too, signing off one letter, dated 14th October, Davy writes ‘Adieu My charming friend my dear grandmama or by whatever tender or kind name you will permit me to call you’. This clearly doesn’t go down well (and I’m not surprised!), since the next letter opens with an apology: ‘Grandmama was a style & title applied by yourself, & not one that I was bold enough to invent; & notwithstanding all your dignity & all your indulgence, I do not think I could ever bring myself to consider you with any of the feelings of a grandchild’ (1 November 1811). After this letter, he doesn’t receive a letter for some time and writes in the utmost abjection (‘I am not conscious of having written any thing that ought to have offended you’) on 17th November. It all seems to turn out well, but I’m interested to find out how the relationship, as lived through these letters, continues and develops. In the letters of late November, Davy reports that he has a cold (‘I have a dreadful cold which makes me very stupid‘), which given my own dreadful cold, makes me feel that we have something in common.
Finally, I’m giving a lecture for the Manchester Science Festival  on the subject of Literature and Drugs: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater this coming Tuesday at the City Library on Deansgate. It’s now fully booked, so I hope that you were able to get a ticket if you wanted one.