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

Writing!

Dear Blog,

So, since my last post I have reduced the emails in my inbox from 105 to (currently) 18! This may seem daft but I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to me. I once again feel some semblance of control over my life and as if there’s a chance I may get back on top of things. I’m also up to date with the reading of draft essays that have been submitted for the Ashgate Research Companion to C19th Literature and Science and have even managed to find some time to look at my own essay.

I do worry that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew for my essay which is on ‘Chemistry’. I really only know about the first 20 years of the C19th and in a 7000 word essay it would be impossible to give any kind of comprehensive sense of chemistry during the entire century. I have read some excellent essays for this collection that have done just that though — really impressive surveys of both the primary and the secondary materials on their subject. Instead, I’ve had to build parameters into my attempt to do justice to this. I’ve decided to expand the essay to take in Alchemy too since many of the literary responses to chemistry are couched as novels about alchemists rather than chemists it seems. And I’ve selected three main texts, written across the century (though, interestingly, they are all historical novels that are set much earlier than their date of publication): Frankenstein (1818), Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), and Balzac’s The Alkahest. My argument is that the link between alchemy and modern chemistry in these novels is that both are interested in the transformation of matter and that these disciplines study (and can effect) such transformations. I have managed to get today and Friday to work on this so I’ve turned off my email and am going to get on with it. Wish me luck.

I should mention that I went to London yesterday to see Prof Frank James’s inaugural lecture at UCL, which was just wonderful. He spoke about Davy and there was lots of good new stuff in there. Frank is one of the advisory editors on the Davy Letters project and he’s been finding new letters all over the place. See the news section of our website for details (http://www.davy-letters.org.uk/) or follow us on Twitter (@davyletters), though, we have yet to send our first tweet!

More soon,

Sharon

Exeter and lots of research bids

Dear blog,

So, it’s been busy of late. We’ve been working with candidates for the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowships, which we haven’t been allowed to apply for before here at Lancaster. It is great news that we now can though of course it’s highly competitive. Applications came in early January and we’ve been through two sets of revisions so far. They are both great applications and I really would love it for one (or both!) to get funded. How brilliant would that be for all concerned.

In other news, I gave a research seminar paper at Exeter this week. There was an excellent — if quite scary — audience. I talked about the idea of transformation and Davy’s poetry. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and the essay I’m hoping to work on again this week and next (it’s reading week!) on literature and chemistry explores ideas of how chemical processes might be useful ways of thinking about the literary. The questions were stimulating and wide-ranging. I’m not sure that I answered them all very well but they certainly made me think. I’d really like my next book to be something on Romantic Transformations. It may be a while before I get there though!

We had our first ever Medical Humanities Research Group meeting today. There were four excellent ten minute talks from postdocs and colleagues in the department. There were lots of synergies and points of connection. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon and we’ve decided to meet once a term and use the time as we feel we want to, whether discussing an essay someone is writing, giving a short paper, that kind of thing.

I’ve just put a new letter into the Davy Letters database too. Prof Frank James found it in the National Archives. It’s from Davy to John Barrow at the Board of Admiralty. It’s great to enter another letter though there are some issues with a name and a word that I’m not sure of. My co-editor will be along soon and perhaps he can help.

More soon,

Sharon

Submission Imminent

Dear blog,

So, this is it. I’m going to submit this AHRC research grant bid this Thursday no matter what (come hell or high water… etc). I’ve managed to give myself three full days at home to do this and am trying not to look at my email and to get distracted. It is hard though (I do have other things to do: reading bits of five dissertations, PhD upgrade material, preparation for this week’s teaching). These other things will have to be done late at night when I’ve done my full day on this, which has to be done now. Quite apart from the fact that it’s sending me mad; I’d have to rewrite the entire thing if it goes into next year. Kill the beast. Always good words of advice.

I’ve found it really tricky adjusting to a new university (I’ve only been in Lancaster for a year) while working on this bid. There really is a different level of support offered by Research Services at Lancaster. I have been used — when I worked at Salford University — to having a research support officer who worked with you on the bid, someone who told you more about the scheme to which you were applying and helped you interpret the various headings under which you write (eg. what are the ‘objectives'; how do you describe your ‘methods’, what would be expected for this scheme, etc etc). It was all much more hands-on at Salford. I’ve also really struggled filling in the figures etc in the JeS form myself at Lancaster, something I’ve never done before.

Oh well, in any case, there are only two and a half more days of this hopefully and then it’s in and done. It’s the last week of term and then I’m off to the University of Padua to give a paper, which will be a nice place to spend my 42nd birthday. The REF results come out that day too…

Sx

How will the Davy Letters have an impact?

Dear blog,

So, I’m right in the midst of this Fellowship application and I’ve come to the bit where I have to say who the work will impact and how this impact will occur. I have lots of public engagement activities planned, eg. public talks, an exhibition, etc. But it’s really difficult to say exactly why it’s beneficial to know about Davy and his letters (and early C19th science) etc. It’s a difficult language for me, when I tend to think these things are self-explanatory, that of course they’re good for us, and haven’t really tried to put this into words. I guess it’s good to know more about Davy because he was an important figure in so many different ways (as a scientist, for the safe extraction of coal, as a chemist who wrote poetry). But how does it change you for the better to know about this? I suppose it means that we’re reflecting upon and preserving our national heritage, but we’re also thinking about what role the sciences play, and what the relationship of science might be with the arts. But why is this beneficial? I guess discussions of these kinds of topics encourages people to actively participate research and to shape the kinds of work that is done in this area in the future. Answers on a postcard please…

I’ve managed to get almost two whole days to work on this (today and yesterday), though I’ve also done a million other things in the early morning and late at night. It still won’t be finished before I go back into the office tomorrow though! We’ve got a conference in the department at Lancaster tomorrow, part of our jubilee celebrations (the university is 50!): https://anothersideof1964.wordpress.com/. And, on Thursday, for the same reason, there’s an event at the castle (which is now sold out) called ‘Beyond the Lancashire Witches’ which promises to be lots of fun (http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/steps/events/public-lecture-beyond-the-lancashire-witches–writing-and-freedom/).

All best,

Sharon

November already?

Dear blog,

It’s half way through term: it’s reading week this week. And what a term it’s been so far. I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy except that probably that isn’t true. Maybe it’s always this busy… This week alone I attended the creative writing poetry reading by Zaffar Kunial (which was excellent) on Monday; on Tuesday, Prof Peter Hulme came to give a research seminar paper on the pan-American dinner attended by poets in New York in 1919 (which was brilliant); and on Thursday I interviewed Stella Rimington, the first female Director General of MI5 and now novelist of Liz Carlyle spy novels, at Manchester High School for Girls. The final event was obviously a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet someone who broke the glass ceiling so spectacularly and occupied such a critical position. Dame Stella was absolutely lovely; really modest and humble, very bright, and said all the right things about, say, how GCHQ shouldn’t be doing anything that breaks any laws. It was a very enjoyable event.

The Davy Letters project continues apace, not that I am getting any time to devote to it. The MHRA Research Associate, Andrew Lacey, is a wonder: he’s updated the website, copyedited Tim’s annotations of the first two tranches of letters, and has compiled a Calendar of Letters, which will be used in the edition. I’m still trying to write the AHRC Fellowship proposal which would enable me to spend some more time on the project. I started it in August and it’s taken ages for me to find any time to work on it this term. I’m hoping that I’ll get it in by December though. I’ve got lots of ideas…!

I’ve written a couple of new lectures this term so far, on Ovid and Dante; I really enjoyed doing them. Their for a new course for our first years called World Literature. It’s been hard but really fun to write these. But, right now, I’m just relieved to be back in Manchester for a couple of days and to work on this application. I’m going to Chawton House near Southampton on Thursday to give a talk about Wollstonecraft. I’ve never been there before so that’s exciting too.

Wish me luck with the proposal; I’m hoping to finally get it in this side of Christmas!

Sx

September Psychosis

Dear blog,

Well, not really psychosis, that definitely was an exaggeration for alliterative effect, but it is still crazy busy in my world and showing no signs of letting up. I did manage to get two days in the British Library last week, which was excellent, except that it was impossible to get everything done that I wanted to get done in two days. Still, I guess that’s better than nothing! I was trying to research the essay I’m writing for the Ashgate Research Companion to C19th Literature and Science. I’m writing the chapter on literature and chemistry. I read some absolutely fascinating stuff — lots about alchemy and its resurgence in the later C19th and early C20th. They called the discovery of radium ‘modern alchemy’ and then nuclear physics too. That’s all outside the reach of the essay but still brilliant. I also did read some things that were useful for the essay – lots of C19th textbooks that had some really interesting definitions of chemistry. I’m still preoccupied with the idea that the major discovery in chemistry in the early C19th was that there was a finite number of elements in the world that were organised and arranged in a multitude of ways. This is so suggestive for theories of creativity, such as Mary Shelley’s stated idea in the Preface to Frankenstein that her book was ‘invention’ rather than ‘creation’ because nothing can come from nothing. She writes that ‘Invention [is not created] out of the void, but out of chaos. The materials must first be there.’

I’ve left the essay again now to return to my application for the AHRC Fellowship, which I am really struggling with. It’s not really worth going into this since I’m boring myself with the ins and outs of the application, which is huge, and time-consuming (I’ll have spent at least a month full time on it), and to be completely honest I’m not sure how likely it is that I’ll get it. There’s about a 10% chance looking at the stats on the scheme.

Some nice news though, I wrote three articles for the Discovering Literature section of the British Library website (www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians) and the section is doing really well. Apparently they have had 150,009 unique visitors and 410,952 page views since launching in mid-May! How cool is that!

Anyway, I shall plough on. I am looking forward to a Exec Meeting of the British Society of Literature and Science in London this coming Monday and the start of term comes ever closer (though it’s not till 6th October in Lancaster!).

Best,

Sharon

August madness

Dear blog,

Even though it’s August, I’ve still been really busy. It’s funny because there are still people out there who think that we get three months holiday over the summer. Actually I get 25 days plus the university closure days and bank holidays and they seem to go pretty fast.

I’ve shortlisted for the Davy Letters MHRA research associate now: it was tough. There were lots of applicants many of whom were really very good. One easy way to get rid of a few applicants was to only interview people who had their PhDs since there were so many of them. We also looked at the historical period covered by PhDs in an attempt to get someone who knew as much as possible about Davy’s period. In the end we shortlisted four people and the interviews are next Friday.

I’m reading an MRes for Edge Hill University and the viva is next week. My last student at Salford, Jess Roberts, got her PhD nearly two weeks ago — that was absolutely brilliant. Mainly my time has been taken up with writing the Case for Support for the AHRC Leadership Fellow scheme. It’s incredibly time consuming and I feel quite despondent about my chances of success but nonetheless you have to put everything into it to have any chance at all. Add to all of this the usual admin related to being Research Director in the department. I took five days leave to see friends in the French Alps last week (only three were working days) but I had to spend a full day responding to emails on my return. It’s August! This is madness.

Enough moaning already. I need to get back to work…

Sharon

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,

Sharon