The Place of the Royal Society in Victorian Literary Culture

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: English Literature


For this project the world's premier scientific learned society, the Royal Society of London, will work with the University of Reading to reveal in detail the role and significance of the Royal Society in Victorian literary culture through research on its own archives, library and publications. The significance of the Royal Society within Enlightenment culture is well known. Recent work, notably Richard Holmes's 'The Age of Wonder', has extended that understanding into the Romantic period. But the place of the Royal Society within Victorian culture remains less well understood.
The Royal Society was an important social and cultural hub in the Victorian period. Prominent writers such as Lord Tennyson and Martin Tupper were Fellows, and others such as H. G. Wells struggled to be elected. A number of scientific Fellows were themselves significant authors, including T. H. Huxley, John Lubbock and George Stokes, while others such as John Herschel were keen poets. Foreign writers visited the Society, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the 'Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society' was the most respected scientific journal of the period. Productive work has been done by Bernard Lightman, Alice Jenkins, Ralph O'Connor and others on the dissemination and popularization of science in the Victorian period. But while the contribution of individual scientists such as John Tyndall and Michael Faraday and of institutions such as the Royal Institution are increasingly well known, the Royal Society has not received the attention it deserves. Likewise, while literary scholars including Gillian Beer, George Levine and David Amigoni have shed light on the rhetoric of science writing in this period, the focus has remained largely on the work on Charles Darwin, rather than on other leading scientists of the time, a great many of whom were Fellows of the Royal Society.
This project aims to explore and explain the different ways in which the Royal Society contributed to the literary culture of Victorian England in two distinct ways. Firstly, the project will afford a fuller understanding of the role of the Royal Society in the development of scientific prose in the Victorian period. How and how far did the 'Philosophical Transactions' and the 'Proceedings' determine the genre of the scientific paper? What part did their increasingly detailed obituaries play in establishing and shaping the genre of scientific biography? How far did its Fellows use the Royal Society and its publications as a means to introduce scientific ideas to a wider public, or as a forum for discussing the articulation of science, as well as science itself?
Secondly, it will enable a better understanding of the place of the Royal Society within the wider literary culture. To what extent and in what ways was it a site for the exchange of ideas between scientists and literary authors? Did it stimulate engagement with science by poets, novelists, essayists and dramatists? What tensions emerged between them? How did those non-scientific writers who were Fellows see their role within the Society, or the Society's relevance to their literary work? And how was the Society itself represented within the creative literature of the period?
The majority of these questions will be addressed primarily through research within the Royal Society's own archives, including manuscripts, correspondence, certificates of election, publications and bequests. Work will also be needed on accounts of the Society in the wider literature and the periodical press, and on the writings of Fellows, both literary and scientific.
This project will make a very significant contribution to our growing understanding of the relationship between literature and science in the Victorian period. It will help to open up a less well-known section of the Royal Society's archives, to researchers in all fields, b

Planned Impact

There is considerable public interest both in the history of science and in Victorian culture. This is reflected in numerous television documentaries, public exhibitions and popular books on these subjects. Indeed 2010 was designated the BBC's 'Year of Science' in part because of its interactions with the Royal Society during that year. The research for this project will contribute to these two interests. The findings of this research will be presented to the wider public through exhibitions and/or events at the Royal Society itself, and also through the Society's website. The doctoral student will describe his or her work on a Royal Society guest blog as it develops (the Society's history of science blogs were recently recommended by 'Scientific American') and will present a talk as part of the Society's public lecture programme on the history of science. The student will also be expected to engage with the Society's scientific Fellows, by producing reports for the history of science journal 'Notes & Records of the Royal Society'.
There is also considerable interest among the public, policy makers and scientists themselves in the question of the authority of science and its institutions, and in the relative places and roles of science and the arts within our culture. The way in which the Royal Society's role changed within the nineteenth century, from Sir Joseph Banks's club for gentleman naturalists to T H Huxley's professional funding and policy body is well-known, but how this played out in literary expressions and in the arts is not. The role of the Royal Society in the invention and dissemination of the new art of photography from 1839 is indicative of the colossal impact a single scientific idea could have on Victorian culture. By the end of the century, representatives of the the humanities were sufficiently impressed to have emulated the Society, cloning it as the British Academy (est 1902). A greater understanding of the role of prominent scientific institutions such as the Royal Society in the past will help to shed light on its role and that of comparable bodies today. The website and internal publications of the Royal Society will be used to ensure that this research is disseminated widely among working scientists and those involved in formulating science policy.


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